Hot Potatoes Everywhere


By Deborah Rose-Milavec, reporting from Rome on the Synod on Youth

Last week I expressed astonishment that so few journalists were asking questions about the role of women in the church today. 

I love being proven wrong. 

Today, three journalists, Iacopo Scaramuzzi, who writes for Vatican Insider, a female Italian journalist whose name and organization I could not decipher no matter how hard I tried, and Cindy Wooden from Catholic News Service pressed questions about women voting at the synod. 

I felt gratitude for all three as the continuous line of questioning raised an interesting display of responses from the three superiors general on stage -- everything from a kind of dancing around the indefensible and stammering phrases from an institution in need of change -- to the hopeful.

In front at the press briefing were four synod participants; Silvia Teresa Retamales Morales, an attorney from Chile; P. Bruno Cadore, O.P., the Superior General of the Dominicans; Arturo Sosa Abascal, S.I., Superior General of the Jesuits; Marco Tasca, O.F.M., Superior General of the Conventual Fransciscan Friars.

Jockeying for position

Prefect Paolo Ruffini started by clarifying some of the questions posed about synod processes. Although, of interest to all, these questions often come from those who believe the synod is rigged by Pope Francis and company -- the perceived less-than-faithful who are rebranding Catholicism in some demonic light.

What rules have been established for the voting procedures?When will the fathers receive the final documents?Will the document be translated?And how will they vote?
The prefect answered that the commission is working on determining some of the processes now. He also stated that the drafting commission is working on sections one and two of the original Instrumentum Laboris, "upgrading" it to reflect small group input and floor interventions as part of the mix. The drafting of part three will be on the table soon.
Ruffini stated that the synod fathers will have every opportunity to understand what is being stated in the final draft, although he did not know at this time whether the texts will be translated into other languages.
Finally he said the voters will vote paragraph by paragraph with a two-thirds majority needed for passage of the entire final document.
"Then it will be up to Francis to decide how the document is published," said Ruffini.


Hot potatoes everywhere
During the question and answer period, Iacopo Scaramuzzi asked the first of what would be a 3-part exploration on women voting by reporters,
"If I am not mistaken, men religious have a right to vote. Women cannot vote. Can this be changed?"
There was a tellingly long pause by the panelists who seemed afraid to pick up this hot potato. Greg Burke intervened by making a joke and after some nervous laughter, the priests started cautiously moving toward visions that were more hopeful.
The superior general of the Domincans, P. Bruno Cadore, O.P, began.
This is a synod of bishops, in its law and regulations, have stated that in addition to bishops, there are [male] representatives of consecrated life. Of course there are women also, but we have this rule, and because the church is marked by its culture, it has always been men.
The synod is mostly bishops, and men - and so it is a synod of bishops -- but there should be greater cooperation with women. We are well aware that 80% of consecrated life is women. Since this activity is a synod, hopefully there will be a synod in the future that will ask the views of all, including women.
Who knows when this might happen. I believe women should be represented and should be able to speak. Wome religious worldwide are directly involved in the lives of youth and the first vocational promoters are the sisters. I believe it is the same in other orders as well.


A sign that something is not right
An Italian journalist posed the next question.
She asked, "There is a petition that has collected thousands of signatures that is being shared online. They have also published the comments by Cardinal Marx, that including women in governance is necessary."
Pointedly, she wondered, "Is this malaise and discomfort necessary?"
In other words, why are you persecuting my people?
In response, Fr. Sosa danced a bit, then got down to offering signs of hope.
I would like to stick to the words of Fr. Bruno. It is a synod of bishops. This one is a synod of bishops. In local synods, the entire People of God take part -- with equality. But the synod of bishops is different. Still, I believe Francis would like to deepen the synodality of the church and perhaps changes are coming in the way we look at the synod.
This malaise is helpful. It is a sign that something is not right. This malaise must be felt in order to change things.
Cindy Wooden then asked if the USG had intentionally elected two brothers to show that ordination and leadership are not necessarily connected and that, in fact, leadership can be exercised by lay men and women.
Fr. Tasca responded that within the Franciscans, the objective is that any friar could become a leader. That is rooted in their history. Equality between ordained and those not ordained is at their core. 

He stated
Franciscans are working to loosen up the connection between ordination and leadership. It is a sign that is being sent out to the entire church -- ordination is not automatically attached to leadership.
In the last synod [2015], this theme had already surfaced. A brother who was not ordained obtained the right to vote.In our community non-ordained as well as ordained can take up leadership, but  in order to do so, we need permission from the Holy See. We have asked that this be changed because our history is very clear. We want to go back to our roots . We want every friar to have the opportunity to become a local superior.  In March, we had a meeting with Pope Francis and we asked him what to do. So, now, we will prepare a proposal to bypass this need for permission.
This is our dream and we are working hard to make sure this dream can come true.
I loved this testimony because it parallels the work of women and their allies who seek true equality in the Church. We want to go back to our roots where Mary of Magdala and Peter, Phoebe and Paul, women and men were co-partners in the work of salvation.

Fr. Sosa added,
Personally I believe Vatican II introduced a model that is not a reality yet. At times, we have taken a step back. But the model of church proposed at Vatican II has not yet come to life. This model is looking for an opportunity to move into fullness. So while it seems long, I realize from another standpoint, 50 years in not that long. Still, the Vatican II model holds as its center, Church as the People of God.
Moving from the philosophical to the concrete, Fr. Cadore suggested
From the standpoint of young people, the important thing is the place where young people can feel welcomed -- where they are important and relevant. If the church is more like a family, a family will hold family gatherings. Some will turn out well and some will not. We are a church and we are a family. Bishops are heads, but they will involve everyone.
Still, if a synod is to reflect the People of God, there will be more lay people than priests and more priests than bishops. I hope that this will happen by welcoming the testimony from religious life because it  has a particular meaning and role in the church.
We see friars as brothers.

Fr. Tasco added that he is "wary of mandated things from above." He said would like "change to come from the grassroots." He believes it would better if these changes to the way the synod functions would first begin within local bishops' conferences.
"This path is already there but it should be encouraged at the grassroots level. The things imposed from above are kind of scary," he said.

Cindy Wooden conducted an interview with Fr. Tasca after the press briefing and ascertained more important and hopeful information on voting for women religious at the synod.
Below, I have included new information in her report about the joint work of the USG and the UISG to expand voting to women religious..

Although bishops should make up the majority of voting members at a Synod of Bishops, the fact that the body is only consultative means women should be included as full members just as priests and religious brothers are, said three priests who are voting members.
The superiors general of the Dominicans, the Jesuits and the Conventual Franciscans -- all priests who are voting members of the synod -- spoke to reporters at a Vatican briefing Oct. 15.
When the men's Union of Superiors General chose two religious brothers to be among their 10 voting delegates at the Synod of Bishops, they consciously made the choice to emphasize that men's religious orders include both priests and laymen, the minister general of the Conventual

Franciscans said.
"Obviously it wasn't an accident" that two brothers were elected, Father Marco Tasca, the minister general, told Catholic News Service after the briefing. "Consecrated life is made up of priests and laypeople, so it is only right that there also be lay superiors general at the synod."
When the superiors elected a brother to the 2015 synod, he said, "there were some doubts about whether or not the synod office would accept him, but the pope intervened and said, 'Let him come.' Case closed.
"This time we didn't ask," Father Tasca said.
Now, he said, that choice "should raise the question of the presence of the sisters, the women.That is the great challenge."
The men's USG and the women's International Union of Superiors General are now asking that question together, Father Tasca said. "We had a meeting last week -- a small group of superiors from both -- and we asked, 'How can we move on this together?'"
The two organizations of superiors, which hold a joint meeting each November, will get together again, he said, to try to move the question forward. "I think the correct path is to present this together, not 'we men' or 'we women' like children, but together."

The effect of clergy sex abuse on Chileans
When asked about the effect of clergy sex abuse on the Chilean youth, Sylvia Morales responded that there are two reactions. First, there is "A crisis of trust has emerged and youth have trouble trusting in the church and its representatives." But she also what she believes a majority are more proactive. "Young Catholics will not turn a blind eye to the crisis, but they also believe the church can rethink how it is organized so these crimes can be ended and what kind of structures can be introduced so these can be avoided," she stated.
"Pope Francis’ work has inspired a lot of trust for most Chileans and many share this view," according to Morales.

Discussions related to LGBT people at the Synod
Frank DeBernardo also asked her about the experienceof LBGT Catholics in Chile and if this issue was being discussed in the synod.
Silvia Morales responded
They are people who have the same rights we have. They too live their faith within the church. They should feel as children of God not as problems. And this is important. Sometimes I see this discrimination happening, People do not open their arms wide. This happens in my country. They hold their arms close to the chest instead of strweatching them out. The church must recognize these sisters and brothers. The church has to be more inclusive. We must help our sisters and brothers who want to be a part of the church and this was discussed in the synod for sure.

The "yes" that sparked glee
In the evening, I attended a press conference sponsored by the International Union of Superior Generals with panelists of women religious who are participants at the synod.
Sally Hodgdon, CSJ, the vice-president of the International Union of Superiors General moderated. As part of the executive team for UISG she is working with the executive members of the USG (Union of Superiors General) to open up the synod so that women superiors general can vote along side their co-equals.

She was accompanied by other sisters participating at the synod including Sr Nathalie Becquart of France, Sr. Mina Kwon of S. Korea, Sr. Lucy Muthoni Nderi of Kenya, Sr. María Luisa Berzosa of Spain, and Sr. Alessandra Smerilli of Italy.
Sr. Sally began by describing her experience at the synod. She used terms like, "wonderful", "filled with great hope", and "good energy."
Lest you imagine those words betray a push over, you would be wrong.
She prefaced those descriptors by giving us a shorthand map for understanding her doubts going in.
"When I was asked to represent UISG, I wondered what I would do in a room with all those men," said Hodgdon. 
"But within the first three days, I could see the cardinals, bishops, and youth, came with the sense of wanting to do something new."

She offered a bit of an insider's view.
Each one of us that participates, has 4 minutes to speak. In my intervention, I spoke about the first part of the 'Instrumentum Laboris' on listening differently. I suggested how important it is for our church to listen different to those who will create our future. I asked if we could we let go of our ideas and stereotypes about youth, that they are not ready, they are not mature, etc..
And, I have to say, I have experienced that in the synod room and in our small groups. You can tell who is connecting by the response of all of us to a given intervention. When some people speak, they might get a little longer applause, but when young people speak they get an even longer applause. Also the some of the bishops get a longer applause.
Many are speaking of the role of women in the church, as well as the youth. There is a spirit of real openness. 
Some bishops have used the term “call to conversion," but in fact, that after two weeks, I have seen people in my small group converted to a new way of thinking.The youth have offered great insights and told us about their context. Unfortunately the church and even religious congregations make decisions for others even when they don’t know the context. They have shown us how important it is to be transparent and honest.One of the youth spoke about how coming together with youth is 'holy ground'. In the small groups, we have dialogue time. In our small groups, great moments of dialogue, theological reflections, banter. The youth are heard at the same level of bishops, cardinals, sisters.
I had my doubts about the experience, because if you read the paper (the rules) you would wonder. But, instead, what I have experienced is the freedom of dialogue. And when the youth offer ideas, they are accepted as amendments of the documents.

Sr. Lucy, Sr. Nathalie, and the other sisters also gave a positive accounting of their experience.
When it came time for questions, Nicole Winfield, of Associated Press asked, "We know there has been a lot of discussion about greater participation and the question about the two brothers who are voting has come up time and time again. Do you think women religious will finally have the vote?"

Get ready for the glee.
In a voice that betrayed no doubt, Sr. Sally simply said, "Yes."
I think my chair must have lifted a few inches off the ground as my heart jumped in recognition of her certitude.
She went on.
I believe in future synods, we will probably see a change as to who votes. A synod is a synod of bishops. Now that the synods have been opened and expanded, we believe the church will look at that in the future. The two brothers from USG, they will be voting.  In theory, you think I would have the vote too.
But, what we really want is greater participation of the church in synods, in places of decision making in the church.  
It is a church of the people.
The other point that is important is that voting is just one moment in time.  It is what happens in the small groups, how we talk in the small groups, the conversations we have during coffee breaks, etc. that is important because those influences ultimately shape the document.
In my group, we do speak about women. We have looked at the 'Instrumentum Laboris' paragraph by paragraph. If we sense it is too male centered, we ask for changes.  
Ultimately the focus is on youth.

There was a questions about women deacons from journalist, Dario Menor Torres. I could not understand the exact question, but certainly understood what had been asked by Sr. Sally's response.
Sr. Sally responded to Dario by saying
The UISG was instrumental in moving forward the question of women deacons, but as far as any discussion about it in the synod, it came up only once in my small group.
In the large aula, it may have come up three or four times, but not 300 times.I think the tone in the aula is greater participation in general, but as far as women deacons, it has not been so specific.
As Sr. Sally looked to others on the panel, it seemed as if no others had spoken about it.
Another question came up about the abuse of women religious around the world and what the UISG did in response.
Sr. Sally said that when the UISG receives reports about sisters being abuse, they "refer that abuse to the appropriate congregation or dicastery."
Elise Harris of Crux asked if they were optimistic about the way things are going?

Sr Sally responded
I am very optimistic about youth and about a greater participation of our youth in the church. As far as the women’s issue, this is not the focus. Since I come from a country where women’s issues are at front, when I first came, I felt Rome was less women friendly. But that is changing. 
Is there a woman cardinal? No. 
Is UISG pushing for more women. Yes. 
But it is slow. Small steps. But definitely there is a change.

Swiss Nuns sign on
Priorous Irene Gassmann and her Benedictine nuns from their monastery in Switzerland have signed on in support of our campaign #votesforcatholicwomen

More essential reading:
Bishops asked to explain why women can't vote at youth synod by Nicole Winfield.
Thomas Reese's comments on the basis for women voting. 
Gundrun Sailer at Radio Vatican Germany on the Swiss sisters.
Sinodo: petizione on line per il voto alle donne


If you have not signed our petition, please do so. We are building a movement to open the vote to women at the synod. It will only happen because you make your voice known.