Synod looks at Catholics’ shared mission, but also exclusion of women

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Pope Francis and leaders of the assembly of the Synod of Bishops listen to a speaker in the Vatican's Paul VI Audience Hall Oct. 13, 2023. Seated next to the pope is the day's president-delegate, Mexican Sister María de los Dolores Palencia Gómez, superior general of the Congregation of St. Joseph of Lyon. (CNS photo/Lola Gomez)

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — The life of women in the Catholic Church “is full of scars” and alternating experiences of being encouraged or rejected, the president of Latin America’s religious superiors told members of the assembly of the Synod of Bishops.

But the most obvious and defining experience, “has been the love of God, a love that remains even beyond the efforts of some to make invisible the presence and contribution of women in the church,” said Sister Liliana Franco Echeverri, a member of the Company of Mary and president of the Confederation of Latin American and Caribbean Religious, or CLAR.

Sister Liliana Franco Echeverri, a member of the Company of Mary and president of the Latin American Confederation of Religious, is seen on a video screen as she speaks during a working session of the assembly of the Synod of Bishops in the Vatican’s Paul VI Audience Hall Oct. 13, 2023. (CNS photo/Lola Gomez)

Sister Echeverri spoke to the synod assembly Oct. 13 as participants began work on the third section, or module, of the working document: “Co-responsibility in mission.”

The working document asked synod members to reflect on: ways to increase a sense of responsibility for mission among all Catholics; the relationship between liturgy and mission; the relationship between ordained ministry and the dignity of all the baptized; recognizing and promoting the dignity and gifts of women in the Church; and involving them in leadership and decision-making, including investigating the possibility of women deacons.

Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, relator general of the synod, introduced the work by emphasizing how the mission of the Church to proclaim the Gospel is at the heart of the life of the Church and, therefore, of the synod’s concern.

“All the baptized are called and have the right to participate in the mission of the church, all have an irreplaceable contribution to make,” he said.

In approaching the discussions, Cardinal Hollerich asked participants to recognize that “each of us is the bearer of a point of view that is essential, but to address the themes effectively, we are also called to realize our own partiality.”

For example, he said, “most of us are men. But men and women receive the same baptism and the same Spirit. The baptism of women is not inferior to the baptism of men. How can we ensure that women feel they are an integral part of this missionary church?”

Benedictine Mother Maria Ignazia Angelini, a theologian, offers a biblical reflection at the working session of the assembly of the Synod of Bishops in the Vatican’s Paul VI Audience Hall, Oct. 13, 2023. (CNS photo/Lola Gomez)

Women in the early Church

Benedictine Mother Maria Ignazia Angelini, a theologian and spiritual assistant to the assembly participants, reflected on Jesus’ interaction with women, his inclusion of them among the disciples and his reliance on them to tell the apostles that he had risen from the dead.

“Jesus’ style seems to comprehend that women are dynamic elements of mission, like a presence that in critical, disruptive, unsettling passages senses the movement of life, weaves new, improbable relationships, patiently brings and dissolves conflicts,” she said. “It is not a question of rights but of gifts received.”

Sister Franco told the assembly that “when thinking about the mission of women in the Church, it is important to look to Jesus, to learn from him. The Gospel gives an account of Jesus’ readiness to see and hear women, to raise them up, to dignify them, to send them out.”

For the synod and the Church, she said, “true reform comes from an encounter with Jesus, in the echo of his Word, in learning of attitudes and criteria and in assimilating his style.”

In most parishes and dioceses around the world, Sister Franco said, “the church has a woman’s face,” at least when looking at those gathered for Mass, joining parish groups, teaching religion and helping the poor.”

“The church, which is mother and teacher, is also sister and disciple; it is feminine, but this does not exclude men,” she said, before listing the grammatically feminine qualities the Church must have: “wisdom, kindness, tenderness, strength, creativity, boldness and the ability to give life and face situations courageously.”

Cardinal Giorgio Marengo, apostolic prefect of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, and Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet, retired prefect of the Dicastery for Bishops, pray at the beginning of the afternoon session of the assembly of the Synod of Bishops in the Paul VI Audience Hall at the Vatican Oct. 13, 2023. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

Welcoming people into mission

“At the heart of the desire and the imperative for a greater presence and participation of women in the church,” Sister Franco said, “there is not an ambition for power or a feeling of inferiority nor egocentric quest for recognition.”

Instead, she said, “there is a clamor to live in fidelity to the plan of God, who desires that within the people with whom he has made a covenant, all would be recognized as brothers and sisters.”

Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin of Newark, New Jersey, told Catholic News Service after the session that the focus on mission and the previous days’ focus on communion are inextricably tied.

“I sense in the hall there is great hope, and I think it is because people recognize the abundance of gifts that are present, as well as the mutual respect and the freedom that is being afforded to every delegate to speak on the topics before us,” the cardinal said.

After days spent discussing what it means to be “a synodal church,” Cardinal Tobin said, participants moved on “to the experience and the reality of communion — communion with Christ, crucified and risen, but also communion with our brothers and sisters who share the great grace of baptism,” which gives “a fundamental dignity and a fundamental responsibility to everyone in the church.”

As the focus shifts to mission, he said, the Church knows it can and must rely on “the gifts of everyone.”

When discussing communion, the cardinal said, members asked, “Who doesn’t experience communion, who doesn’t feel welcome?”

And as they move to looking at mission, he said, they need to ask, “Who doesn’t feel like the gifts they’ve been given can be laid at the feet of Christ in the church because they’re not wanted? Whose gifts have not yet been recognized?”

“We’re trying to look with humble and clear eyes at the gifts that have been given to the church, because the mission that we have to witness to Christ today is so important,” Cardinal Tobin said.

Cindy Wooden

Cindy Wooden is a journalist with Catholic News Service.