NEW YORK – From the perspective of several renowned Catholic women, Pope Francis’s decision to expand the Synod of Bishops membership to include lay people was crucial to fulfill his desire for a missionary church that listens to the marginalized and those on the peripheries.

“For the Holy Father to welcome [women’s] voice is truly crucial because we form part of a church today that needs to be inclusive, that needs to bring everyone together, that needs to voice what we see and where we are in the grass roots of reality,” said Sister Norma Pimentel, a leading advocate and care provider for migrants after they cross the U.S.-Mexico border.

Sister Carol Keehan noted the importance of lay people in general having a voice in the process, as well.

“Anytime you have a body of people as the church and you have a great deal of competence and intellect and wisdom and devotion you should use all of it and I think this is an opportunity to have it as the synod of the church,” said Keehan, the former CEO of the Catholic Health Association.

Pimentel and Keehan spoke with five other women at a news conference from Rome on April 27, hosted by Catholic Extension. They were all part of a delegation the organization brought to Rome this week to meet with Vatican officials, including Pope Francis and Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin.

The delegation was led by Father Jack Wall, the president of Catholic Extension, and Cardinal Blase Cupich, Chancellor of its board of governors. Founded in 1905, Catholic Extension is a U.S. based pontifical organization that works to support the pastoral care of marginalized communities across the country. It currently works out of 87 U.S. dioceses.

In the midst of their trip, the Vatican announced on April 26 that for the first time women and lay people will serve as full members of the Synod of Bishops with voting rights, as part of a broader series of rule changes to the participation in the papally convened summit.

The Synod of Bishops, the final phase of the 2021-2024 Synod on Synodality, will take place in Rome in two parts. The first session will be from Oct. 4-29, and the second session in October 2024, which will conclude the formal Synod on Synodality process.

At the news conference, other women spoke of why the decision to expand the Synod of Bishops was so important based on their personal experiences as missionaries.

Sister Fatima Santiago, a missionary who dedicated to the economic empowerment of women along the southern part of the U.S.-Mexico border, reminisced about what she witnessed after Mass during the pandemic, that is, women cleaning the church. And in the community women lead fundraising efforts, and the sacramental preparations for Mass.

“In the synod, when we had the meeting, many women and very few men because men in the immigrant community have to work and don’t come so women carry on the work of the church,” Santiago explained. I feel it is not only in our communities, but it is happening everywhere, so that is a crucial part.”

Sister Marie-Paule Willem, who has missioned in many countries and communities, most recently reviving a faith community as pastoral administrator of a small parish in Doña Ana County, New Mexico, said her experience in a small community showed her the need that people have to be listened to, and to feel like their needs, experiences and perspectives are considered.

“We are only 200 people, but [the synod] was so full of enthusiasm, and especially full of wisdom, because we had our priest participating in the meetings, and the answers people were giving he couldn’t believe his ears – the wisdom, the intelligence, and enthusiasm,” Willem said.

Jean Fedigan, founder of the Sister Jose’s Center in Tucson, Arizona, which serves women who have been trafficked, experience violence, homelessness and hunger, said simply that everyone should be included in the process because “we are all the body of Christ.”

“And as such we all bring our gifts to the table and therefore women, everyone, should be seated at the table and everyone’s voices and gifts are part of that body and should be heard,” she said.

On April 26, the Holy See published an address Pope Francis made to the Catholic Extension delegation, where he in part congratulated Pimentel on being the recipient of the 2023 Catholic Extension Spirit of Francis Award, for her with refugees and immigrants at the southern border.

The annual award recognizes an individual or group who has made a significant impact on the mission of the Catholic Church in America through service or philanthropy. Keehan was the 2022 recipient.

“I congratulate Sister Norma Pimentel, the recipient of the Spirit of Francis Award, for her service to the many men, women and children arriving at the southern border of the United States that border is really hot in search of a better future,” Pope Francis said.

The pontiff also thanked Catholic Extension for its work assisting missionary dioceses.

“Your presence gives me the opportunity to express my heartfelt gratitude for your efforts in providing assistance to missionary Dioceses, particularly in the United States, and in caring for the needs of the poor and most vulnerable,” Pope Francis said.

Follow John Lavenburg on Twitter: @johnlavenburg