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Is it really about gender? A presbyter’s experience

To have a woman leader
(in the Curia)

  Avere un capo donna (in Curia)   DCM-003
02 March 2024

I have been a priest for twenty-two years, and I was fortunate enough to begin working early on in secular settings as well. This includes state schools, for example, and simultaneously within educational and civic networks where mine was one among many perspectives. I became more aware of the specificity of the contribution expected from the Church, where I experienced methodologies to which the Seminary had not trained me, and met women in positions of greater responsibility than my own. Progressively, I realized, not without restlessness and suffering, those clergy meetings, the Church assemblies; the ordinary life of Catholic communities could be poorer in communion and less trained in the diversity of so many professional and civic realities. This makes one unmotivated and tired, whatever our vocation.

I have been working for almost three years in a dicastery of the Roman Curia, the one at the service of integral human development. The conciliar intuition of a development of the whole human and all humans is translated into a daily routine that must be transformative and liberating for us as well. We serve the pope and the local churches for some years of our lives. For example, many have observed and written that the new profile of the curia outlined by the constitution Praedicate Evangelium (2022) has one of its first results in our having a woman, Sister Alessandra Smerilli, as secretary. This is a high point, as it is traditionally an archiepiscopal role, and which involves leading the entire team. In our case, this involves dozens of men and women, among whom consecrated men are a minority. This means that, having come to Rome after nearly two decades of ministry in the diocese of Milan, what used to enrich me predominantly outside the Church is now a habitat at the heart of catholicity. There is very little known about this, and I believe we need a new narrative of how baptized men and women of different backgrounds and origins can participate in the governance of the Church, while engaging alongside the bishop with their own skills and sensibilities.

It occurs quite often that I am asked what it is like to have a woman for a boss. There are many of us, I think, who have to search for an answer; after all, an answer does not come spontaneously, it is not as easy question to answer. This struggle questions the meaningfulness of the question itself. Is it really a gender issue? In the dicastery, we appreciate Sister Alessandra’s leadership skills, of course. Should we necessarily say that her qualities express a particular feminine genius? Perhaps. Yet, the more we make people a category, the more we slip into the generic. Of course, if someone is prejudiced against women in general, or a particular person, negativity can also express itself in gender stereotypes. There is no denying that it is exhausting for some clerics to agree to be accountable for their work to those who are not clerics. This would also probably apply with a layperson, but with a woman, it is rather new and doubly difficult for some. Of course, a good leader knows that in criticism there is always something to be caught in time, an insight or a hunch that can be turned to good use. Are the qualities of being able to listen, the willingness to start over, the ability to patch up, and the ability not to take everything at face value or principle then feminine traits? Yes and no. As a ‘man’, it seems to me that I can become a man by developing dimensions that are not alien to me, but which by culture and training I did not recognize as elements of strength. Of course, they mature in the exposure to the other, that is, by letting ways of being other than my own interact with what I already am.

Each person brings a unique perspective and, if they cultivate it without separating themselves from others, a deep and singular understanding of many issues, including matters of faith will be the result. In a dicastery like ours, what a priest experiences is that if you exclude women from conversations and decisions, from responsibilities and theological reflection, first you deprive yourself of half of humanity and the majority of those in God’s people who pray, believe, hear the Word, celebrate the sacraments, and live charity every day. That seems to me to be the point. A Church who deprives herself of women in key roles in her life impoverishes half, or perhaps more, of those she has generated to faith and have from God a prophetic word to share. The bishop of Rome - and consequently every bishop, every parish priest - cannot afford this impoverishment of ecclesial life.  Therefore, sincere obedience to the Spirit intensifies the communion of differences, even to the point of calling for a theological rethink and reform. We know this, but we still translate it far too rarely in most ecclesial venues. The new consciousness that women have of themselves in the public and professional spheres takes nothing away from their characteristics that have been already appreciated in the past, but as a true sign of how times change our experience of reality, and enrich it. These are no longer separate spheres of life and commitment between men and women, but a common ‘taking charge’, each with their own specificities, of family and social life, educational tasks and economy, spirituality and politics.

It is a journey that has only just begun. To add, even in the civil sphere it is more difficult than it appears. In it, the Church is urged to rethink herself, understand what the Gospels already contain and today becomes clearer: around Jesus men and women stood together as never before. The Church obeys the Word of God: this is the criterion. Historical circumstances commit us to hear and interpret it, that is, to receive it as a living Word. It is the heart of a synodical process that reflects the approach to decision-making described in the Acts of the Apostles. Jesus warned the leaders of the people against making their tradition a law that nullifies the Word of God. It is necessary, therefore, to call things by its name and to fight false solidarity, especially if it is clothed in the sacred and suffered in the form of a power that takes away the Word. Good is always in the light, it does not humiliate, it does not pay. This applies internally to the female world as well, but it calls for specific vigilance where by culture or tradition men tend to assert a right over women, or the great over the small, generally in the name of God.

We are living through a crisis of authority that has disrupted Churches in much of the world. We will increasingly need to be helped by the multidisciplinary skills of many baptized people and to compare ourselves on the subject of effectiveness of good practices that are already underway or being tested. The whole society is making significant progress on people’s rights. Today, where basic human rights are being denied-and in how many ways and in how many places they still are-this is recognized as an untenable scandal. The evolution of this process will be dramatic to the extent that it overwhelms the interests of the few in whose hands wealth and power are concentrated today. However, we need to trust in the God’s surprises, for He knows how to touch our hearts and minds, how to bring forth the new where least expected, and how to change pain into joy.

Presbyter of the Diocese of Milan, theologian at the Dicastery for the Service of Integral Human Development