ROME – A leading umbrella group of women religious has thanked Pope Francis for his recent decision allowing women to have voting rights in his upcoming Synod of Bishops on Synodality, saying the move is a step toward helping the church be more inclusive.

In a statement Wednesday, Sister Nadia Coppa, president of the International Union of Superiors General (UISG) said they welcomed the pope’s decision “with great joy and gratitude.”

“This decision, promulgated by Pope Francis, to enlarge participation in the Synodal Assembly, is the outcome of our ongoing rich reflection, as the People of God, and it is a concrete response to the discernment and desire for inclusiveness that is emerging at various levels,” Coppa said.

Her statement comes a week after the Vatican office of the Synod of Bishops announced a handful of changes to the rules governing the papally-convened summits, including the decision to allow laypeople and consecrated women to serve as full members with voting rights.

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Under the previous norms, a synod was composed largely of bishops appointed to attend either by their national bishops’ conference, their religious institutes, or the pope himself, and Vatican dicastery heads who held at least the rank of archbishop. The norms also foresaw the participation of 10 clerics belonging to Institutes of Consecrated Life who were tapped by their respective communities.

A selection of auditors was also invited to attend the synod gatherings, meaning they were able to listen and participate in group discussions, but were unable to vote on the synod’s final document. While women have traditionally taken part in synods as observers, advisers, auditors and experts, until now none have ever been full members with the right to vote.

This changed when last Wednesday the Synod of Bishops announced modifications to the rules, among other things omitting the membership of the 10 clerics appointed by their communities.

Under the new norms, those 10 clerics have been replaced by 10 consecrated persons belonging to Institutes of Consecrated Life, half of whom are required to be women, and all of whom will have the right to vote.

The new norms also nix synod auditors and allow for an additional 70 non-bishop members with voting rights to be appointed regardless of clerical status, meaning they can be priests, consecrated women or men, deacons, and laymen and laywomen.

These 70 members will be chosen by the pope from a list of 140 names provided to him, and of those 70 slots, half are required to be women.

In addition to these 70 people, the papally-appointed synod delegates are now no longer limited to bishops, and can also include laypeople, priests, or deacons.

In her statement, Coppa said that with the change in the rules, the tent of the church “is really enlarging, widening,” and is creating a new “enthusiasm and positivity because it renews the desire to grow as a dialoguing Church, capable of disseminating a way of being, of working together.”

Through listening and participation, the church is being oriented “towards pastoral choices that respond to our current reality and time,” she said.

“In addition, the presence of a substantial group of women with the right to vote is an unprecedented provision that enriches ecclesial dynamism, manifesting openness and readiness to welcome God’s newness in gradually renewing the Church by revealing its full richness,” she said.

Coppa voiced her belief that allowing women to vote in the synod is a produce of the two-year process the synod has undergone thus far, and is also “an expression of the circularity of the Church that with its diversity, is called to be a missionary witness of Christ’s centrality.”

Formally opened by Pope Francis in October 2021, the Synod of Bishops on Synodality is officially titled, “For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation, Mission,” and is a multi-stage process that began with a year of consultation at the diocesan level, continued with a year of discussion at the continental level, and will culminate in two Rome-based gatherings in October of this year and October 2024.

This year’s Rome-based gathering will last from Oct. 4-29, and will mark the first time that women, and laypeople generally, will have the right to vote.

“We believe that synodality, the essence of the Church and its constitutive reality, is first and foremost an experience of the Spirit. It is an open path that is woven through encounter, sincere dialogue, inner conversion and sharing that broadens the vision and opens up new horizons of communion,” Coppa said in her statement.

By broadening the participation of those allowed to vote, the church is “giving the opportunity to continue deepening this engaging movement of the Spirit in a process of ecclesial communion that makes us a prophetic presence in a world in constant transformation,” she said.,

“The new members, in fact, will be able to contribute by sharing experiences and insights gained in these years of listening within the synodal processes developed at various levels, and bringing other lights and other richness to the sapiential discernment of the Church and its pastors,” she said.

Calling synodality a “prophecy” for the modern world, Coppa insisted that, “only through unity in Christ does plurality among the body’s members become meaningful.”

“From this unity in plurality, with the power of the Spirit, the Church is called to serve the Gospel by witnessing a new style of relationship,” she said.

This new openness on the part of the church, she said, is a reminder that “we are all called to become an active part of a relational, inclusive and dialoguing Church, a Church that lets itself be transformed by the Spirit to be an expression of communion and fraternity, open to serve God and people, without leaving anyone behind.”

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