ROME – One of the Catholic Church’s most prominent nuns has said the push for women’s priestly ordination in the Catholic Church points to a deeper question that needs to be asked and stressed the need to separate ordained ministry from decision-making.
“I think there’s a bigger question, which is really the discernment of the ministries that are needed in the Church and in the world today,” said Sister Patricia Murray, a member of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary and secretary general of the International Union of Superiors General (UISG).
Murray, who spoke during a Feb. 1 online webinar organized by the Irish Embassy to the Holy See titled, “Women of Strength; Yesterday and Today,” stressed the importance of discernment when it comes to major topics of discussion in the Church.
Noting that her order’s spiritual tradition stems from St. Ignatius, whose teachings are also the foundation of the Jesuit order, to which Pope Francis belonged, Murray said discernment itself “requires examination at a profound level of what is required by the Holy Spirit in the service of the Church in the world.”
“That’s not a process that can be rushed, and it’s also a process that has to be tested,” she said. “It’s not a quick response to pressure groups about x, y, or z, but taking a deep concern that people express, and examining it against the needs of the world, the needs of the Church in a particular place…and then a response by testing something and taking small steps forward.”
She then pointed to the lives of Irish women Venerable Nano Nagle (the 18th century foundress of Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary) and the Venerable Catherine McAuley (who founded the Sisters of Mercy in 1831), who were the focus of Monday’s webinar, held in honor of St. Brigid’s Day.
Both of these women, Murray said, started out with much different plans than what they ended up doing, and that was because “They got insights as they moved along.”
“One of the things Pope Francis is saying to us is that yes, on one hand, voices are raised about ordination for women, but maybe there’s a much deeper question about changing ministry and how we look at ministry in general.”
All ministries in the Church, whether it be teaching catechesis, caring for the sick or dying, or serving the poor, need to be “raised up,” she said, adding, “there are different ways of serving God in the world.”
“There are different ministries, and I think over time certain ministries got raised up,” such as ordained ministry. These ordained ministries are “extremely valuable, but other ministries that are equally important” are not given the weight they deserve, Murray said, adding that in her view, the question of a woman’s role in the Church is one that can’t be reduced to ordination alone.
Murray spoke alongside other panelists, including Sister Anne Lyons, the postulator for the canonization cause for Nano Nagle, and Sister Brenda Dolphin, who is the postulator for Catherine McCauley’s cause.
In her own remarks, which reflected on “Women of Strength and Faith in the Contemporary World,” she focused on women in the institutional Church, and women serving across the board as members of the People of God, religious and lay.
She noted that while there are many women who live and serve in the global north, which tends to be more developed, the vast majority of Catholic women live in the global south and east, where poverty, conflict, war, and discrimination are more rampant.
Even in the global north, there is an increasing gap between the rich and the poor, she said, which adds complexity to the contexts in which women work and serve.
Murray praised the millions of women who serve as members of parish councils, who are readers at Mass, who distribute communion, who teach, or who work in clinics, prisons, homeless shelters and refugee camps.
She gave special mention to women who are missionaries in remote or dangerous areas of the world, such as the Amazon or South Sudan, as well as those who assist victims of human trafficking and those impacted by the current coronavirus pandemic.
All over the world, women, regardless of whether they are consecrated or lay, “feel called to solidarity and compassion” because of their faith, she said, adding, “all these women make the mission of Jesus visible in a practical and tangible way.”
In terms of the Church at the institutional level, Murray said that in recent decades women have become increasingly vocal about their desire to participate at decision-making levels so their perspective and insight can help shape the Church today.
“When I look at women in Church today, I note changes since Vatican II,” she said, noting that women have found more space in the institutional Church.
Offering examples, Murray noted that women are increasingly studying various theological disciplines and are teaching and writing at the highest levels, and there is an increasing number of Catholic laywomen who are experts in Canon Law. Numerous women have been appointed to significant positions within the Roman Curia, which is the governing body of the Holy See, and more women have been invited to attend Synods of Bishops.
“I believe myself that the focus on the de-clericalization of the Church and the process of breaking the link between ordained and decision-making has begun to and will need significant change,” she said.
Noting that Catholics “share equally in the mission and ministry of the Church” through their baptism, Murray pointed to a line from Pope Francis’s 2013 exhortation Evangelii Gaudium in which he said that “when we speak of sacramental power, we are in the role of function, and not of dignity or holiness.”
When it comes to the various ministries inside of the Catholic Church, this mindset ought to be applied, she said, adding, “I think both the role and function of women within the institutional Church is evolving.”
“I’ve certainly in my time in Rome seen many changes, an increased presence of women in reflection, discernment, and decision-making at various levels,” she said, noting that in her experience, one the greatest challenges for women in the Church today is still the desire for “our voices would be heard and that space is made for participation at every level in the Church.”
“I think Pope Francis is modeling that,” she said. “It’s not easy, not without difficulty, but I think space is being created, and I see that happening at the parish and diocesan level too. There’s a change afoot.”
This change is “uneven, and in different parts of the world it’s at different stages than others, but once progress starts in that direction,” it’s only a matter of time, she said, adding, “We must speak our truth and claim our space with dignity and courage.”
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