ROME – Seven French women who recently “applied” for ecclesial jobs traditionally open only to men last have quickly become icons for the Catholic “feminist” movement, among other things illustrating there’s no single vision for how to achieve the more welcoming and inclusive Church they envision.
That diversity was on clear display during a recent online event featuring the French activists.
It all began May 25, when a woman by the name of Anne Soupa sent the Vatican embassy in Paris an unsolicited application to become the next Archbishop of Lyon, which has been without a leader ever since the March resignation of the previous archbishop, Cardinal Philippe Barbarain, amid an ongoing legal battle to clear his name of charges of abuse coverup.
After Soupa sent in her request, several other women joined forces to create the Toutes Apôtres! coalition, meaning, “All Apostles.” The group describes its aim as promoting equality in Catholicism for all baptized regardless of their gender, marital status, profession or sexual orientation, and the organization is composed of women throughout France and beyond.
On July 22, the feast of St. Mary Magdalene, seven more women submitted “applications” to the Vatican embassy in Paris for ministries currently open only to men, including the roles of bishop, priest, deacon, nuncio and preacher.
Four of those women are scheduled to have individual, sit-down meetings with the Vatican’s ambassador to France, Archbishop Celestino Migliore, after they got a call from his secretary’s office inviting them in for a conversation. The three who were not offered a meeting did not include phone numbers in their applications.
Each of the seven women – Hélène Pichon, Sylvaine Landrivon, Claire Conan-Vrinat, Christina Moreira, Marie-Automne Thépot, Laurence de Bourbon-Parme, and Loan Rocher, who is a transgendered – spoke alongside Soupa during an Aug. 29 online discussion hosted by the Voices of Faith organization.
Titled “Empowering Women to Unlock Their Vocation,” Saturday’s discussion had over 250 participants from all over the world. While speakers clearly crave greater acknowledgement by and equality within the Catholic Church, there was no one recipe for how to achieve it.
Some wanted women’s priestly ordination, others wanted women to have the right to preach, others want more inclusivity for the LGBT community, and others simply want women in leadership without necessarily changing the Catholic Church’s ban on female clergy.
During her brief introduction, Pichon, director of institutional relations at the Center for Study and Strategic Prospective (CEPS), said she submitted an application to be a Vatican ambassador because she felt the call to be one during a trip to Rome when she was 14, when her group met St. Pope John Paul II.
“As I grew up, I gradually saw the Church I loved lost all its respect because it refused to deal in a transparent manner” with a number of scandals, most prominently the global clerical abuse scandals, she said, calling the protection superiors provided for abusive clerics proof that the Church “uses pathological logic rather than spiritual one.”
Quoting scripture, she said the Church “exists to be a light in the world,” and that “Jesus never wanted to give birth to a hierarchal structure that would exclude women.” She pointed to the fact that Jesus after his resurrection first appeared to Mary Magdalene and charged her with telling the other apostles the good news.
“I think my actions, and that of all my sisters, is absolutely vital. We are up against the threat of the Church disappearing,” she said, adding, “I think a transformed church that would offer an inspired leadership of holy men and women can be a useful tool.”
Pichon also said that she has previously issued a call for a Third Vatican Council in order to address and bring about the reforms necessary for the Catholic Church.
Rocher, who applied to be a deaconess, said she did so because she wants the Catholic Church “to be a place that welcomes everybody, all genders and sexual orientations.”
Speaking of her personal experience, Rocher said that for the past 12 years she has been “a transgender female and believer,” and strives to help people through spiritual healing learn to love one another without judgement, “but they don’t find this absence of judgement in their Church.”
“I can keep my faith in Christ, but for many like me it’s not possible because they are not in the Church. I want to build bridges, ties, so that borders and walls might disappear,” she said.
“For 12 years I’ve been a transgender female and I want to tell the Church to open all doors and windows. The Church is universal. There are walls that divide people into categories,” she said, voicing her desire to help others “spread love around the world.”
Conan-Vrinat also said her “calling” was to be a deaconess. Throughout her life, she said she has “felt the presence of God in me, and it led me to spread this light, to speak up.”
Noting that she is a mother of two daughters, Conan-Vrinat said she submitted her application for them, “because I want an open, welcoming Church that is (open) to diversity.”
Being a deacon, she said, “will help give more meaning, more synergy, to my parish and work commitments. This is something very important to me.”
Pope Francis in 2016 instituted a commission to study the history and possible revival of the female diaconate. However, in 2019 Pope Francis said the group’s findings were inconclusive and that members were continuing to study the question on an individual basis.
Landrivon, a senior lecturer in course content at the Catholic University in Lyon, applied to be a bishop. Calling it a “symbolic act” more than a genuine desire to hold an episcopal position, she said she has written four books on women biblical figures, including Judith and Mary Magdalene, but felt that the work she was doing “wasn’t enough for women in the Church.”
By submitting an application, Landrivon said she believes she has made the issue of women “more visible,” something that until now she her work, in her view, has not been able to spotlight.
“I am convinced that men and women are equal, but different in how they approach the world,” she said, adding that there is need “to interpret the scriptures from a female vantage point.”
She also voiced her belief in the need to “reduce the grip that clerics have on the Church in order to restore the spirit of the early Christian Church,” making it a place “where men and women can both contribute without any subordination, or power games…a church where everyone feels welcome.”
De Bourbon, who identified herself as a spiritual teacher and who applied to be a lay preacher, said that for more than 15 years she has “found joy in sharing Jesus’s message,” and believes preaching is something women ought to have a right to in the Catholic Church, citing Jesus’s commission to Mary Magdalene to tell the disciples about his resurrection.
“This is our path, the path we must go down on this earth,” she said, adding, “What I want is for women to speak up in all different sectors and movements which heed the universal word of the Lord. We must listen to what women feel, to listen to women’s version of life. I myself became free as a woman living on this earth, and this freedom is what has given me a voice.”
Thépot, who also applied to be a deaconess, said it was an “audacious step,” but that she decided to do it because “if I am not enacting positive change, I have no right to be here. I want to be one of those people that shake things up.”
As a deacon, “I want to participate in bringing a Church that is joyful, that’s plural, and … make room for everyone to spread the Gospel in the world. I’m eager, enthusiastic, determined, and if I’m acting out of pride, that’s okay,” she said, adding that it’s better than doing nothing.
Some speakers defined themselves as feminists, while others did not. Some, including Moreira, advocated for the women’s priesthood. Others, such as Landrivon, called for respecting differences between men and women.
“Women have a different role,” she said, but insisted that “power must be organized differently.”
“We can play a role without women being priests, because the Church is about teaching, sharing and serving, and we can all take on those activities,” she said, adding, “you don’t need a skill set that wields power” to play these roles well.
She also called for theology faculties to open more broadly to women and men, insisting that “we’re different, but we stand on equal footing.”
Referring to the different opinions and perspectives shared during the discussion, Alix Bayle, a representative of the Toutes Apôtres! coalition, noted that “We don’t necessarily agree about what needs to be done,” but that this “shows the richness of the diversity of our candidates.”
In her own brief introduction, Soupa said that ever since submitting their applications, “we really have felt the support of the world. We hope this will be the start of something big.”
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen