ROME – Women attending this month’s Synod of Bishops have said that while they believe the process, and the Church as a whole, need to be more inclusive of their presence, they are optimistic about the future, believing progress has been made.
Sister Sally Hodgdon, superior general of the Sisters of St. John of Chambery, said that when she first arrived in Rome from the United States eight years ago, “I found it to be less women-friendly than it is now.”
Having worked with the International Union of Superiors General (UISG) and various Vatican offices, called dicasteries, during her tenure so far, Hodgdon said “there are more women in the diasteries and the congregations helping to make decisions.”
“Is there a woman cardinal? No. (A woman) who would be the prefect of a congregation? No, they’re all cardinals. But, are they the ones who are working the ideas and getting things done and bringing those to the cardinal-prefect and archbishop-secretary? Yes. And are they being replaced by more women? Yes. And are we UISG pushing for more women? Yes.”
She admitted that the process has been slow, jesting that “everything in Rome is slow. It’s a different culture. The Italian culture moves a bit more slowly than maybe in the United States.” Small steps have been taken, “but definitely there is a change.”
Hodgdon spoke at an Oct. 15 press conference alongside six other women religious attending the Oct. 3-28 Synod of Bishops on young people, faith and vocational discernment, who each shared their perspectives of what it is like wearing the only skirt in a room full of clerics.
Spanish Sister Maria Luisa Berzosa, a member of the Daughters of Jesus congregation, said that on the women’s issue, “I am an optimist and I will continue to be, but I live with a nervousness that things are moving so slowly.”
“I want this to go faster, that it isn’t so slow, and that we can have a more inclusive Church,” she said, voicing hope that at some point the Church will have a synod “of the People of God,” and not just the bishops.
French Sister Nathalie Becquart, a member of the Congregation of Xavières, and was the first woman to serve as the Director of the National Service for Youth Evangelization and Vocations, said the question of women fits into the larger umbrella of the need for a greater participation of laity in the Church in general.
However, pointing to a list of recent appointments to the Vatican office for Laity, Family and Life, she noted how the names on the roster are “very diverse from each continent, and there are many laymen.”
The real question, she said, is one “of just being a Church with all the components in this synodal way…that is our experience (in the synod), and we are grateful for that,” she said, adding that “synodality is really going on.”
Pressed on the question of why no women religious can cast votes in the synod, though exceptions were made for two non-ordained religious men, Hodgdon admitted that she was puzzled by the decision, saying that since the two religious men were superior generals, a position she holds in her own community, “you would think I would have the right to vote.”
She said the UISG intends to raise that point during the synod, and voiced hope that while it might not happen by the next synod, which will take place in October 2019 on the Amazon region, future synods would see a change in the voting rules.
Yet despite the exclusion of women from voting, Hodgdon said women are making their voices heard in the brief speeches they give, and in the small group discussions, which is where they have the most influence.
“In my group, we do speak about women,” she said, explaining that when they read the paragraphs of the text being prepared, “if we sense that it’s too masculine-oriented, we say something. If we sense that they should have said men and women, we say that.”
Becquart said that in her experience, women still have a strong voice in the discussion, and that many people “speak about going out from clericalism,” including many of the young delegates.
“That is one of the many points about this synod,” she said, adding that every time the topic of spiritual guides and mentors for young people comes up, it is stressed that these people “must not just be priests, but also women, consecrated,” and even laypeople.
Speaking of clericalism, Italian Sister Alessandra Smerilli, a member of the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians (FMA) order and a professor of economics, said men and women must each give their own contributions, and both perspectives have to be respected.
While discrimination does still take place, Smerilli said getting into decision-making roles also depends on women, because “at times we are a bit timid, even in proposing (ideas). There is need to go out more.”
“It’s not to occupy spaces,” but to create a balance, she said, because “when more plural, things function better.” Decision-making positions should not be seen solely as “places to acquire power,” she said, but they must rather be viewed as places to “put ourselves at the service of the people, the poor, the youth.”
According to Becquart, the Church depends on this plurality and collaboration between men and women, but at the moment, “it is not so easy to find this way of being together in a real partnership,” in the Church, where there is a tendency for one side to dominate the other.
Calling the push for a greater inclusion of women “a sign of the times,” she voiced belief that it will be better with the next generation, because young people now “grow up in a plural world, so that’s their way of life, to be in diversity, not just men and women, but cultural diversity,” she said, adding that youth will eventually “help us to discover how to collaborate more.”