ROME — Halfway through this month’s Synod of Bishops on young people, faith and vocational discernment, youth taking part say they’re concerned the Church’s credibility it at risk not only because of global clerical sex abuse scandals, but also its treatment of women.
Silvia Teresa Retamales Morales, 29, said that when it comes to the role of women in the Church, “we always need more. For me, it’s a very important idea, and I always try to speak about that.”
A delegate from Chile, Retamales Morales said she believes the Church needs a structure that will allow women to have “more representation and more space to think and to speak.”
Several bishops have already brought up the issue of creating more space for women, especially when it comes to decision-making.
Though she didn’t advocate for women’s ordination to the priesthood, Retamales Morales said it’s important to include women “in the institution as a whole, with a principal role in the institution in the same position as men.”
Similarly, Auimatagi Joseph Sapati Moeono-Kolio, 31, representing Caritas Oceania at the Oct. 3-28 synod as a delegate from Samoa, told Crux that although the topic of women has surfaced in some of the four-minute speeches, “it needs to come up more.”
Bishops can talk about the role of women, he said, but stressed that he and other participants are looking to young women in the room, religious and lay, to push the topic forward. One of these women, Korean Sister Mina Kwon, used her speech to advocate for “equality” for women religious in Korea, and urged greater inclusion of women in decision-making roles.
Moeono-Kolio noted that when talking about women, specifically their roles in the Church, there are some who “try to conflate the language of empowering women in the Church with, ‘we want women priests.’”
At least one youth delegate from Germany also brought up women on the synod floor, calling on the Church to change its stance barring women from the priesthood. Pope Francis opposes women’s ordination.
Women inside the synod, Moeono-Kolio said, “will bring a lot more clarity and nuance to what they want in terms of what women’s roles are in the Church, and I think it’s good for our men here to stand in solidarity with them and to enable that conversation here as well, especially because the ones making the decisions are guys.”
“I think the boys here need to step up a bit and go to bat for the sisters,” Moeono-Kolio said.
Other prominent themes continue to be the clerical sexual abuse crisis, and, increasingly, Christian persecution, with a young delegate from Iraq – the only youth representative from the Middle East – drawing a lengthy standing ovation for his testimony of watching the nation’s Christian community dwindle due to terrorism and immigration.
So far in his English language working group, Moeono-Kolio said the topic of clerical sexual abuse “has been the big one.”
Bishops in his 22-member group include heavy-hitters such as Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila and Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron of Los Angeles. “Bishops have been very frank with us on that, that the huge harm that the sexual abuse crisis has caused,” Moeono-Kolio said.
“They’ve been very frank with us on admitting that a lot of harm has been caused because of sexual abuse, but also that it’s not something we’re going to shy away from” in discussions.
However, while he’s glad that prelates didn’t hesitate to address “the elephants in the room,” Moeono-Kolio said he believes the Church’s ability to engage the world on social justice issues “has been undermined by its inability in some quarters to address injustice within its own walls. That’s something all the bishops here have acknowledged, and something all the young people have been frank about.”
Until the Church can properly address the abuse issue, “any good work the Church does will always be undermined,” he said.
In her comments to Crux, Retamales Morales said the abuse crisis, which hits close to home given the drama continuing to unravel in the Chilean Church, said this is another major topic.
“It’s a difficult situation in Chile, because the abuses affected the people’s trust in the Church, because a lot of people don’t trust in the Church now,” she said.
Generally, there have been two different reactions to the crisis, she said. Some view the scandals as an opportunity “to develop a better, more open Church,” while others have simply lost all faith in the institution.
“We have to look for the abuse cases and be sensitive to that, but we have to prevent them, we have to think about a new structure in which nobody can abuse another,” she said, explaining that in her view, prevention of abuse is equally as important as pursuing justice when cases are brought to light.
Retamales Morales said she believes the Church in Chile will survive the crisis because ultimately, “we believe in Jesus, we believe in the action of the Holy Spirit in our Church.”
“I know a lot of people in Chile who want to build a better Church, who are working in the Church, who everyday develop a more effective, creative Church, so they inspire me to participate and to try to repair, but inside, not outside.”
Sebastian Duhau, 22 and from Australia, said he has been struck by the honesty the bishops and cardinals have shown, particularly in their ability to admit that “we don’t completely know what to do, but we want to figure out what to do and we need to work with young people to do that.”
Inside the hall, “there was a sense of just being a bit more vulnerable and honest in putting themselves on the line in that process,” he said, pointing to speeches given by Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney and Bishop Mark Edwards, an auxiliary for Melbourne.
“That’s appreciated, just being honest and vulnerable,” Duhau said.
Duhau noted how Australian prelates, including Fisher and Bishop Peter Comensoli, have emerged as rising stars in the synod hall, beginning with an emotive speech from Fisher apologizing for Church failures from the abuse crisis, to education and more.
“We’re just fortunate to have good representatives and people who want to see some change,” he said, noting how all three prelates, but Fisher and Edwards in particular, have experience working with youth, and have been actively engaging with them during the synod sessions.
In his view, Moeono-Kolio said he’s been struck by how frankly the bishops and cardinals have been speaking, saying the experience “feels more like a parish meeting than a high-level Vatican summit.”
In addition to the occasional joke, there has been “a lot of admission of error, of guilt and of mistakes, and a couple of bishops have actually asked the young people for forgiveness,” he said, adding that the prelates he’s spoken with “are pastors” and “normal guys,” regardless of the cassock.
Inside the synod hall, Moeono-Kolio said “things are going so well, it’s almost boring.”
Similarly, Duhau said he has felt “very encouraged” by the engagement of bishops, adding that in his experience, the majority of synod fathers have been “really supportive of the cause… (they) are giving us the opportunity to speak and they’re more keen to hear from us than from each other.”
Duhau said there’s “a good buzz in the room,” and he is looking forward to the rest of the discussions.
Yet despite the overall positive vibe, Moeono-Kolio said there are some “detractors” who are more critical.
“There are some people here who, Jesus could turn up to the synod and say, ‘Pope Francis you’re right,’ and people could still hate Pope Francis. So there are some people who will just not be convinced.”
Synod attendees are “trying our best” to help the Church improve, he said, but there are some “tweaks” the critics are trying to iron out.
“We need their criticisms,” he said, “but we need prayers.”