ROME – Over the eight-plus years of the Francis papacy, perhaps no single term has captured the essence of this maverick pope’s vision better than “synodality.” The only thing about the word more striking than the frequency of its use, perhaps, is the near-impossibility of specifying exactly what it means.
A Vatican official, and a woman much-cited recently as proof of Pope Francis’s commitment to hearing the voices of women, now says whatever the precise definition of “synodality,” in practice it implies an almost Copernican shift in perspective and operating style.
Speaking during a March 26 webinar organized by the International Union of Superiors General (UISG), Sister Nathalie Becquart, undersecretary of the Synod of Bishops, called synodality “a process of empowerment” that offers the Church “a new vision.”
For consecrated women specifically, it allows “all sisters to empower women…it allows each of us as women to affirm and assert ourselves in this new vision.”
“Synodality is not easy to be implemented,” she said, noting that it “implies a change in approach, but also a new way of understanding leadership.”
Citing the 2018 Synod of Bishops on young people as an example, during which photos of youth breakdancing in the Vatican’s synod hall with priests and bishops applauding in the background went viral, Becquart said the process of adopting and implementing this new approach is a double-edged sword.
While it can bring “joy, communion, and life,” as it did during the synod on young people, she said it can also bring lead to fear, anxiety, and “resistance to change.”
What the Church is pushing for is for men and women of every age and status “to dance together in synodality, in their own way, but together,” she said, referring to the youth synod, adding, “the goal of this dance is to identify truth.”
Friday’s webinar, titled, “The Voices of Women in the Synodal Path,” was the first of a series of webinars titled “Sisters Empowering Women – a place at the table in the spirit of Fratelli Tutti” – touching on the topics of synodality, education, peace, the economy, health, care, and advocacy.
On the same day, the UISG launched a social media campaign using the hashtag, “#SistersEmpoweringWomen,” inviting women religious to share images and videos of projects that empower women on a daily basis.
The webinar series was launched to prepare for the 2022 Synod of Bishops, with the theme of, “For a synodal Church: communion, participation, and mission.”
As the recently-appointed undersecretary for the Synod of Bishops, the first woman to hold the position, Becquart will have a key role in organizing the gathering and will have a vote on the final document.
Speaking during the webinar, Claretian Sister Jolanta Kafka, a native Pole and President of the UISG, said synodality – loosely meaning a broad collaboration at all levels of the Church, including clergy, hierarchy, religious and lay people – is “one of the most important processes in the life of the Church.”
The Church is “called to set it in motion as a sign of the times. We are entering into its novelty and content,” she said, calling synodality “the path and vocation of the church” which has a twofold dimension.
It is “linear,” she said, in the sense that there is a path to follow, but it is also “circular,” because it involves the whole community.
“As consecrated women, we are on the synodal journey and we want to strengthen it,” she said.
Sister Carmen Ros, undersecretary of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, said she believes synodality and the enhancement of women in the Church “are connected.”
“A chauvinist mentality still exists that ignores Christianity,” she said, but insisted that over the past 30 years, the Catholic Church has made enormous progress.
From John Paul II’s 1988 letter to women, Mulieris dignitatem, to Benedict XVI’s 2007 Good Friday Way of the Cross – described as a “hymn to women” for highlighting the ways women are often abused – to Pope Francis’s push for a more “incisive” presence of women in leadership roles, the Church is moving forward, she said.
Ros noted that there are 16 women in her dicastery, two of whom hold leadership roles, which, until a few years ago, would have been unthinkable.
“I am witness of the formation path that we religious have followed over these years to become aware of our identity and to refer to the feminine consensus,” she said.
While clericalism is still strong in many aspects of Church life, Ros also stressed that the tendency to “devalue the contribution of priests” must also be avoided.
“Sometimes clericalism is interpreted as power, so the best service we can provide is to favor, encourage and enhance a broader formation, an all-around formation that effects superiors and sisters, so that daughters and sons of God share the same dignity and at the same time recognize diversity.”
The challenge of synodality, she said, is not just to understand this point but to put it into practice, and to listen to everyone, even those who hold different views.
When it comes to the interaction of men and women in the Church, Becquart said it must be complementary.
“Some forms of exclusion and domination can arise, (of which we) must free ourselves,” she said noting that there is still “a tendency to dominate, but we are equal partners before God.”
Truly putting synodality into practice means reflecting on the role of women, their place in the Church, and in society, she said, asking, “to what extent is this a cultural pastoral conversion that implies change in daily pastoral activity?”
In the Vatican, this means having women present in all departments, including and especially at decision-making levels, she said, calling the argument that if women have too much power men will lose their role false.
“This is not the case,” she said, insisting that there must be a “dynamic of reciprocity, of cooperation instead of competition,” between men and women. “This synodal church of the pope, of men and women throughout the world, I think this is something that comes from the grassroots,” Becquart said.
“It’s when we are together, among all of us, youth, elderly, men, women, lay, consecrated, baptized, that we want to change. It shows a certain interdependence and the urgency of synodality,” she said, adding, “the Church must take stock and become aware of this relational dynamic. We can’t think of men without women or women without men.”
The upcoming synod on synodality, Becquart said, highlights a new episcopalis communio, or “episcopal communion,” and brings with it “a new phase of listening to the people of God in a consultative way.”
This consultation will take place in a variety of ways, she said, saying the church’s hope is that “lay and religious women together should be involved to bring dynamism to the synodal process, well aware that we have to listen, involve women, young people, victims, the poor, and those on the peripheries.”
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