The first step was taken in 2018 when, at the Synod on Young People, a religious brother was allowed to vote, but nuns were not permitted. A petition promoted by certain organisations committed to equality in the Church called for “Women religious superiors to work and vote, equally”. The petition received thousands of signatures, including those of various superiors general. The issue came up again in 2019, at the Synod on the Amazon.
Therefore, it seemed a giant step forward for Sister Nathalie Becquart to be appointed undersecretary to the Synod of Bishops in February 2021. This position allowed her to be the first to exercise a right that until her appointment was only a male prerogative. Well, at the next Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, to be held in the Vatican from October 4 to 29 on the theme For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation and Mission, there is going to be 85 women present, 54 of whom have the right to vote. Two of these women, the Mexican Sister María de los Dolores Palencia Gómez, Superior General of the Congregation of St. Joseph of Lyon and the Japanese Sister Momoko Nishimura, S.e.m.d - Missionary Community of the Servants of the Gospel of the Mercy of God, are among the nine president delegates, that is, those who lead the Assembly when the Pope is not present.
Nevertheless, the provenance is wide, and significant with consecrated religious and laywomen from all over the world, and of all ages. Five of those present are representatives of the International Union of Superiors General (UISG), which is associated with two thousand superiors.
Cardinals Mario Grech and Jean-Claude Hollerich, respectively Secretary General of the Synod and General Rapporteur, were keen to specify that this is “not a revolution”.
From a visual point of view, however, the presidential table is no longer a male monopoly. In addition, behind the impact of the image, there is the recognition of a profound truth: the feminine can and must be significant in the areas of responsibility in the Church, which represents a structural shift. The “tent” has been enlarged; in fact, this enlargement began during the local and continental assemblies that preceded and prepared the Synod Assembly.
The “women’s role” in the Church, although not on the agenda as an issue in itself, came up - and not incidentally - in all the assemblies.
Thus, the Instrumentum Laboris gives voice to the demand for “greater recognition and promotion of the baptismal dignity of women”, so that “equal dignity” may “find ever more concrete realisation in the life of the Church also through relationships of mutuality, reciprocity and complementarity between men and women”, combating “all forms of discrimination and exclusion” and guaranteeing women “positions of responsibility and governance”.
Following a decision made by Pope Francis, the figure of the auditors, provided for in the old regulations, was replaced by 70 “non-bishops”, all of whom have voting rights. The Pope had asked that at least 50 per cent be women, and that among the ten superiors general of religious, half should be from the UISG, the International Union that associates about 2000 superiors general. “It is a prophecy that is being fulfilled,” says Sister Nadia Coppa of the Adorers of the Blood of Christ who, called to the Synod as president of the UISG, will bring the expectations of her sisters. To overcome forms of clericalisation, even within ourselves; to recognise the participation of women in the Church more, especially those, precious ones, who live on the margins; and to have a space in which we can humbly ask each other for forgiveness, to make the synod also a place of healing”.
The process began October 10, 2021 with Francis’ convocation, and then the Synod continued with the consultation of the local Churches called to confront a crucial question, the leitmotif of the entire process. The Synodal Church is the one that proclaims the Gospel by walking together. How, however, is this “walking together” realised in each Church and particular community? In addition, what steps does the Spirit invite us to take to grow in this “walking together”?
The syntheses that arrived in Rome produced the Working Document for the stage of the seven continental assemblies. All of the collated materials - including those of the innovative digital Synod - formed the basis of the Instrumentum Laboris presented on June 20, which, in some fifty pages, brings together the length and breadth of the process that had been experienced. The questions are manifold, from the accompaniment of the poor and disabled to the formation of priests, even the ministries of women in the Church and the welcoming of LGBT+ people.
Cardinal Grech warns, “This is an assembly about synodality. We are on a journey, the Synod is not an event but a process, and we must strive to learn to do it together”.
The trump card i.e. that which is capable of unravelling incandescent situations at continental assemblies and which, for this reason, is being proposed again at the Synod - is “conversation in the Spirit”. It is not a generic exchange of ideas but a dynamic,’ explains Father Giacomo Costa, one of the two special secretaries of the Synod, “that allows us to move from the ‘I’ to the ‘we’, without erasing the individuals but placing them in a community dimension”.
To allow for listening, prayer and common discernment, the assembly is held not in the Synod hall, as per tradition, but in the audience hall, the Paul VI. In groups of 10-12, people sat around tables, to attempt to build together another stage of the journey that will take place. From here, it is on to the second assembly in October 2024.
“The tables may seem to be a matter of image; but that is not the case. The method is fundamental for tackling problems and moving away from polarizations and impasses,” stresses Father Costa. In this, the issue of women becomes the litmus test of possible synodality. “The group work where men and women work concretely together and have to find spaces of understanding is a laboratory of synodality. Not least because it starts from listening to concrete stories. The stories of individual women, on the many issues, including thorny ones, will make it possible to move away ideologies,’ Costa says. The women’s role does not stand alone. There are not many ‘mini-synods’, for example, one on women, one on authority, one on priests. “The focus is one: to grow as a synodal Church in order to bring the Good News of the Gospel to the world,” explains Anna Rowlands, a professor at the University of Durham, who participated in the drafting of the document for the continental stage (one of the seven continental assemblies was the European one, held in Prague). “Wherever there has been reflection on how to do it and how to decline in a synodal key mission, communion and participation, however, the issue of women’s participation has emerged. It has happened every time, in the most diverse contexts. This means that it is an important test of our ability to walk together as a Church”.
The term - women -, as the participants in the process expressly requested, should be used in the plural. “The richness of their voices and experiences cannot be reduced to a stereotyped prototype, to a generic albeit romantic idea of the feminine. There are real women, from real communities, trying to follow Jesus as disciples, in a complex world. Their lives, which are all different, must be taken seriously,” adds the British expert. Those who participated in the process - from national groups to continental assemblies -, moreover, “did not just talk about themselves and their participation. They spoke out on all the big issues: the liturgy, the accompaniment of families and young people, transparency, welcoming... These are also women’s issues because they are part of the dreams and hopes of concrete women who seek to be disciples,” Anna Rowlands continues. This does not mean that, despite the variety of positions, there is not a burning desire for their gifts and charisms to be valued and their demands heard. This is confirmed by the survey carried out last March by the Women’s Observatory of the World Union of Catholic Women’s Organisations (UMOFC/WUCWO). “The responses received,” reads the document, “express the widespread aspiration to participate equally in the Church and call for urgent changes in structures so that they are more equitable, inclusive and close to the most fragile”. In this sense, for most of the respondents - 76 per cent - the synod experience has opened up important spaces.
The desire for greater equality for Catholics, however, is not limited to the ecclesial sphere. The participants in the process have asked and are asking the entire People of God and its pastors to be their allies in defending women’s rights that are still trampled on in many parts of the world. In addition, to stand up, to press together, to break through that glass ceiling that, even in the West, precludes women from roles of responsibility and leadership, denying, in practice, their dignity as daughters of God.
In short, in society as in the ecclesial community, women demand full recognition of their baptismal dignity as persons. From which springs the dream of authentic co-responsibility.
After all, “this is the great theological innovation of the current Synod,” says Don Riccardo Battocchio, rector of the Almo Collegio Capranica and special secretary of the Synod together with Costa, “it is the taking up of Vatican Council II. How can truth, which is never a possession, and which needs to be protected, be combined with the theme of mercy, of attention to the interlocutor, without one being at the expense of the other? Behind this is the whole issue of the participation of the people of God, the laity, those with responsibility for governance and the exercise of authority, women and ministries in the Church. The Synod will have to figure out who is called to give answers to these questions and through what process”.
Battocchio’s words are echoed by the experience recounted by Helena Jeppesen-Spuhle from Switzerland, who participated in the Synod of her Church, and was a delegate to the continental one held in Prague. “Many elements that are spoken about in this Synod, we have already developed after the Council”. In Switzerland, she explains, “It is not unlikely, entering a Catholic church, to find a woman at the altar giving the homily, or receiving the faithful in the parish office. Furthermore, in the financial-administrative sphere, in many areas of the Church, everyone has a say and is involved in decisions. Just as in the councils elected by the people of God, pastoral priorities, especially at parish level, are chosen together”.
Women have been much discussed around the world, even outside the assemblies. An international survey conducted in 104 countries, in eight languages and with more than 17,000 responses from women around the world, entitled Synodality according to women, co-responsible for the synodal process, was also handed over to the Synod secretariat. This survey was carried out for the Catholic Women’s Council, designed and managed by researchers Tracy McEwan and Kathleen McPhillips of Newcastle University, and theologian Tina Beattie of Roehampton University in London. “The high number of responses clearly indicates women’s desire to share their hopes, aspirations and frustrations and make their vision known to Church leaders,” said Tracy McEwan presenting the research during a meeting in Rome March 8 with Catholic women and women of other religions. “In reading and examining these responses, the research team was struck by the passion with which the women wrote them. Some simply stated, “I love the Church”. However, overall, the women expressed high levels of frustration and dissatisfaction with their participation in parish and church communities”.
Therefore, it will not be a revolution in the literal and ‘political’ sense of the term. Nevertheless, this Synod represents more than an opportunity. It is a building site, and it marks a turning point.
It is the Synod of Bishops, but this time, within the non-episcopal component, the number of women is decidedly more significant than in the past; moreover, for the first time, with voting rights.
by Lucia Capuzzi* and Vittoria Prisciandaro**
*A journalist with the Italian national daily, Avvenire
**A journalist at San Paolo’s Magazines Credere and Jesus