ROME – Seven women who recently turned in résumés at the Vatican embassy to France for ecclesial jobs open only to men were shocked not only when they got a response, but were offered one-on-one private meetings with Vatican’s nuncio to the country, Archbishop Celestino Migliore.
These meetings took place between Sept. 14 and Oct. 2.
Several of the women came out of their conversation describing it not only as “cordial” and pleasant, but praising Migliore – a longtime Vatican diplomat who from 2002-2010 served as the Vatican’s Permanent Observer to the United Nations – as kind, as an attentive listener, and as someone who is well-informed.
Claire Conan-Vrinat, who applied to be a deaconess and who met with Migliore Sept. 28, told Crux that she found in the nuncio “an open mind and a sincere listening to my observations and suggestions.”
Without going into details, she said the conversation “was active, interesting” and even “spiritual.”
Similarly, Hélène Pichon, who applied to be a Vatican ambassador herself and who met with Migliore Oct. 1, said he was “very courteous and kind” and was “definitely very, very open and very attentive.”
“He had done his research as well in terms of who we were individually,” she said, recalling how he knew who she was, was familiar with a book she had written and also knew about her work as director of institutional relations at the Center for Study and Strategic Prospective (CEPS).
Both Pichon and Conan-Vrinat said their conversations, while private, were only the beginning, and said Migliore indicated there could be more meetings in the future.
These meetings were the culmination of a process that started May 25 when a woman named Anne Soupa sent the Vatican embassy in Paris her application to be the next Archbishop of Lyon, a post which has been vacant since the resignation of Cardinal Philippe Barbarain in March amid an ongoing legal battle to clear himself of allegations that he covered up sexual abuse.
After Soupa sent in her request, several other women joined her cause, forming a coalition called, Toutes Apôtres!“ [All Apostles], which is dedicated to promoting equality in the Church for all baptized regardless of their gender, marital status, profession or sexual orientation.
On the July 22 feast of Saint Mary Magdalene, seven women, including Pichon and Conan-Vrinat, who are part of the coalition presented their “candidacy” to the nunciature for ministries currently open only to men, including the diaconate, the priesthood, the episcopacy, the status as a Vatican nuncio, and as preachers.
Some of the women in their meetings with Migliore, including Loan Rocher, a transgender woman, advocated for LGBT rights, insisting these people are forced to live “at the periphery” of Christianity. Others challenged the Catholic Church’s male-only priesthood, while still others merely wanted to open the conversation about creating more space for women in Church leadership.
Pichon, who said she felt a call to become a Vatican diplomat when she was 14, said it was important to her to take “a diplomatic approach” to their request for change. “Rather than being provocative and having confrontational steps, we had very small steps and very respectful,” she said, “and it worked.”
Growing up in a devout family, Pichon was deeply involved in her parish life as an altar server and daily Mass goer. Pichon said that from a young age she was fascinated by Europe’s history and wanted to be a diplomat, but “I didn’t want to serve a state, because I felt nations and states were very diminutive in comparison to the wider picture, which to me was the Prince of Peace, Jesus Christ.
When she discovered the existence of the Vatican’s own diplomatic corps during a trip to Rome at 14, Pichon said it felt like the stars aligned and she had found her calling, but was disappointed when her pastor told her she could not become a Vatican diplomat “because you’re a girl.”
“I looked at him and I said he has understood nothing of Jesus Christ’s message,” she said, explaining that in her conversation with Migliore, she recounted her story and felt an “in-depth” connection with him, as they have both had careers in diplomatic work.
She also voiced concerns over the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse crisis, arguing that much of it could have been prevented if women had been more involved in Church leadership.
“What has to be done is a gender balanced leadership, that is the road to eradicate clericalism,” she said, recalling how she told Migliore that when men and women share responsibility, “you definitely go beyond all kinds of sexual frustrations, sexual taboos.”
Conan-Vrinat said during her conversation she expressed concern over the “limits” placed on women who want to be priests or deacons but cannot be ordained. She emphasized that she is not asking for ordination as a “quest for power,” but as a question of vocation.
Insisting she has felt a deep call to become a deaconess, Conan-Vrinat spoke of the difficulty of being asked to give that up solely because of her gender, asking, “what is my choice? what shall I do?”
Their conversation on women’s ordination “led to classical comments on the fact that Jesus would have called only men,” she said, recalling how she challenged this claim by arguing that Jesus “did not choose to create a clergy, even less a clergy of men,” as there were numerous women among his followers.
“I do understand that opening ordination to women would be in conflict with the tradition of the Church,” she said, explaining that in her view, female ordination would also be “a first stone” in fighting clericalism.
Pichon also argued that change on women could help curb the trend of a “dying” Church, even in traditionally Catholic countries such as France, where churches are increasingly empty and some have been converted into restaurants or other facilities.
This, she said, is increasingly “going to become the norm. So, do we consider that, or do we consider that if this is happening it’s for a reason? We are the Church, so are we letting that happen?”
Her meeting with Migliore, she said, was a starting point to “either to bury this Church, or to give it a second breath, the kiss of life.”
Both Pichon and Conan-Vrinat said they believed Pope Francis is moving in the right direction on the issue of women but insisted that there is still a long way to go before the work is over.
“I do thing that Pope Francis is trying his best to walk in the direction of women’s equality and inclusivity in leadership roles in the Church,” Conan-Vrinat said, adding, “I keep the hope that my faith gives … even if sometimes I may lose hope.”
Pichon said she believes the Church is moving forward “because we are trying to move rather than doing nothing and hoping it will change by doing nothing.” However, she said this is being done according to a cultural mindset that still needs to change.
“Even the pope, he’s just a human being with his brain has been shaped and determined by the socio-economic circumstances which have framed his existence,” she said, adding, “I think now it’s about time that we open all the shackles, so to speak, and I think we as baptized people are trying.”
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen