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SynodWatch RoundUP for October 17: Pope Francis gets to meet Sr. Jeannine; Women Deacons, I’d Welcome That: Women Priests as Niche; My Favorite Prophet

National Catholic Reporter is doing a bang up job at the synod.  They are pumping out reports and podcasts that really help us understand what is happening within the synod.  Coleen Dulle and America Magazine has also been offering some exciting inside reports.

Pope Francis Gets to Meet Sr. Jeannine

Today, we learned that Pope Francis got to meet one of my favorite sheroes, minsters, and prophets in all the world — Sr. Jeannine Gramick.  Pope Francis is a lucky man!

The Vatican this year barred Sister Jeannine Gramick and Father Robert Nugent from ministry involving homosexuals. (CNS photo by Nancy Wiechec) (Dec. 10, 1999)

After decades of being dissed and dismissed by Vatican officials who tried to shut down her ministry to LGBTQ+ people, Jeannine Grammick razed a mammoth barrier for those who have long been excluded and labeled as “disordered” by a fearful institution.  While many reformers keep a distance from Pope Francis because they are ready for greater reforms, Jeannine has never been shy about her admiration.  She admits, “The meeting was emotional.”

The meeting was very emotional for me. From the day he was elected, I have loved and admired Pope Francis because of his humility, his love for the poor and for those shunned by society. He is the human face of Jesus in our era. Pope Francis looks into your heart and his eyes say that God loves you.

Here is the text of New Ways beautiful press release today.

In a moment once unimaginable, Sister Jeannine Gramick, SL, met with Pope Francis today at the Vatican.

The 50-minute meeting took place the afternoon of Tuesday, October 17, 2023, at Casa Santa Marta, the pope’s residence in the Vatican. Three New Ways Ministry staff members were also present at the meeting.

Sister Jeannine, a co-founder of New Ways Ministry, brought greetings to Pope Francis from LGBTQ+ Catholics in the U.S. church. She thanked him for his openness to blessing same-sex unions, as well as for his opposition to the criminalization of LGBTQ+ people in civil society.

This meeting is remarkable because it reflects the steady acceptance of Catholic officials to LGBTQ+ issues and ministry. Previous popes and church leaders have opposed Sister Jeannine and New Ways Ministry. This meeting now represents a new openness to the pastorally-motivated, justice-seeking approach which Sister Jeannine and her organization have long practiced.

Sister Jeannine remarked about the experience of the papal meeting:

“The meeting was very emotional for me. From the day he was elected, I have loved and admired Pope Francis because of his humility, his love for the poor and for those shunned by society. He is the human face of Jesus in our era. Pope Francis looks into your heart and his eyes say that God loves you.”

The meeting was the latest interaction between Pope Francis, Sister Jeannine, and New Ways Ministry, which began over two years ago. Sister Jeannine has developed a friendly correspondence with him. In one letter Pope Francis called her a “valiant woman,” and later sent her a handwritten note congratulating her on her 50 years of LGBTQ+ ministry.

Having heard from friends that Pope Francis was eager to meet Sister Jeannine, she wrote to ask if she could visit him and bring Francis DeBernardo, Executive Director, and Robert Shine, Associate Director, who were in Rome to cover the Synod on Synodality’s General Assembly, and Matthew Myers, New Ways Ministry’s Staff Associate. Pope Francis eagerly welcomed her and the group.

Communication between the pontiff, Sister Jeannine, and New Ways Ministry began in April 2021 when DeBernardo wrote to the pope to explain the organization’s mission and work. The letter also noted New Ways Ministry’s occasional confrontations with the Vatican and some U.S. Catholic officials in the course of its 46-year history, particularly focusing on the pioneering LGBTQ+ ministry of Sister Jeannine and Father Robert Nugent, SDS, the other co-founder of New Ways Ministry.

The pope responded quickly to this first letter, explaining that the Vatican sometimes receives partial information about people and organizations. He wrote that New Ways Ministry’s letter narrated the history objectively and helped him to better understand the situation. The Pope’s letter, written on official Vatican letterhead, offered pastoral encouragement. In closing Pope Francis wrote, “I remain at your disposal,” thus inviting further correspondence.

Since that time, Sister Jeannine and DeBernardo have written further letters to the pontiff, always receiving cordial and affirming handwritten notes in return.

DeBernardo commented on the latest encounter with the pope:

“This meeting was an affirmation not only of Sister Jeannine and New Ways Ministry but of the thousands upon thousands of LGBTQ+ people, parishes, schools, pastoral ministers, and religious communities who have been tirelessly working for equality, and who often experienced the great disapproval and ostracization that New Ways Ministry had experienced.

“Meeting with Pope Francis is a great encouragement for Sister Jeannine and New Ways Ministry to continue our work in the Catholic Church.”

—Robert Shine (he/him), New Ways Ministry, October 17, 2023

This momentous meeting between Sr. Jeannine and Pope Francis is an indicator of how far the church has come on this issue.  But the issue of inclusion at the synod has been one fraught with emotion.  As Coleen Dulles noted, “We know that there have been some rather emotional moments. We’ve heard that off record from a number of people, enough people that I feel comfortable saying it as fact, that there have been emotional moments in these discussions about inclusion and, and what that looks like…. A lot of the press is focused especially on the LGBT question, which we know was discussed in the context of this question of truth versus love. And that was an interesting question because it kind of introduced this polarity between truth and love that made for a dynamic discussion, rather than some of the other questions are about concrete practices.”

Women Deacons: I’d Welcome That

Bishop Shane Mackinlay of Sandhurst, Australia, left, an elected member of the Commission for the Synthesis Report of the assembly of the Synod of Bishops, CNS photo/Vatican Media

In an interview with Joshua McElwee and Christopher White, we also learned that one of the bishops on the writing commission favors opening the diaconate to women.

Australian Bishop Shane Mackinlay, elected by his peers to be part of the Synod of Bishops’ Commission for the Synthesis Report, expresses openness to ordaining women as Catholic deacons. “In an exclusive interview with National Catholic Reporter, Australian Bishop Shane Mackinlay, elected to the committee role by his peers at the Oct. 4-29 Synod of Bishops, said of discussions about women’s ordination: “I’m glad that it is being addressed.”

Noting that the possibility of ordaining women as Catholic deacons is mentioned in the synod’s working document, Mackinlay said the issue was included “because there was such a wide representation” of people who brought it up during the two-year consultative process ahead of the Vatican assembly.

“I’m glad it’s here. I’m glad it’s going to be discussed,” said the bishop. “And if it were to be that the outcome was for ordination to the diaconate to be open to women, I’d certainly welcome that.”

Press Briefing

The Vatican press briefing included Archbishop of Rabat, Cristobal Cardinal Lopéz Romero; Bishop Anthony Randazzo, Bishop of Broken Bay, Australia, and President of the Federation of Catholic Bishops’ Conferences of Oceania; and Professor Renée Köhler-Ryan and the young Nigerian Jesuit Agbonkhianmeghe Emmanuel Orobator, among the best-known theologians at the international level. All four are attending their ‘first Synod’; all said they were happy and enriched by this ‘experience’ of listening and learning.

According to Ruffini, participants discussed the possibility of opening the diaconate to women, first clarifying “the very nature of the diaconate”. Concerning the role of women in the Church, Dr Ruffini said that “it was recalled that Jesus associated women with His retinue” and “the question was raised whether it might not be possible to envisage that women, who gave the first proclamation of the Resurrection, might not also give homilies”. “It was also said that when women are present in the pastoral councils, decisions are more practical and communities more creative”, Ruffini continued, quoting a proverb cited in the hall: “When you want something to be talked about, have an assembly of men, but if you want to do something, have an assembly of women”.

Sheila talked about B2.5 which focused on bishops.

We continued with module B 2 of the working document, but I’m going to look more at, B 2.5, which had to do with the bishops. A lot was shared as part of the personal interventions. A lot was shared about the bishop’s role in the church and the fact that the bishop is the one who should promote ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue…Another topic was the  appointment of bishops, which is seen to be delicate.  Still there should be more consultation regarding the appointments of bishops. Another point  highlighted was that the bishop should adopt a synodal style. ..

It was advised that bishops should seek expertise from professionals. We also looked at the ongoing formation of bishops, the relationship between bishops and the clergy, and also with new bishops, what is termed baby bishops — the shepherding of new bishops and priests as well. We also looked at the bishop as a father, the father figure, the one who leads and the one who speaks the truth, but at the same time expresses love, caring, concern, and that bishops shouldn’t shun away from listening to abuse victims. It’s very important that they make room and spaces for this. We also looked at the bishop, the need to pray for our bishops, not just the bishops praying for themselves — but the laity, the faithful, all the baptized. We should always remember to pray for our bishops as well. 

Women Priests as Niche

Professor Renée Köhler-Ryan spoke at length today about women in the church, motherhood, etc.  Most of what she said was pretty

Professor Renée Köhler-Ryan CNS photo

standard fare, but it caught my attention when she called the issue of the ordination of women a “niche” issue.  Her most interesting answers came in response to questions by journalists.

Elise Allen with the Crux News had an interesting question.

In following on the topic of discussion on, on women in the female diaconate, but also different ministries in the church, you know, prior to the Synod a lot of attention was paid to what the Synod might decide or what sort of reflections might come out of it when it comes to the inclusion of women and members of the LGBTQ community.  Specifically when it comes to the women’s diaconate,  women’s ordination or even blessings for same-sex couples. Now Pope Francis did give some specific indications on some of those issues prior to the Synod in his responses to the Dubia that came out. He said more or less on, on women priests, “no,” but that it can be studied and on same sex blessings, “yes,” but with some caveats. So my question to you guys is, since this happened right before the synod began,  and he gave those clear indications, are you glad that he gave those indications beforehand? Or do you wish he would’ve left them open as the discussion unfolded?

Professor Köhler-Ryan responded.

We are glad, I mean, of course, it’s always good to know what, it’s always gonna good to get a bit of a lead on, what the Holy Father would like to guide us in as our spiritual leader. What I have to say mainly is about all of these questions about women. So what I find as a woman working in the church, working alongside, bishops, archbishops, other theologians, priests, my wonderful husband, laymen, you know, everyone in the church, religious, both men and women alike, is that we are not so focused in our everyday life as a woman, I’m not focused at all on the fact that I’m not a priest. I think that there’s too much emphasis placed on this question.

And what happens when we place too much emphasis on this question is that we forget about what women, for the most part need throughout the world. So what does a woman really, you know, what do I as a professional woman want for my, my husband and family and kids? I’ve got a bunch of kids. What do I really want? I want them to be educated, and I want them to be educated in the faith. I want them to have a house, you know, we need to live somewhere. We need to have food on the table. They need to be clothed. I want them to have a future and a future where they are welcomed into the church and everyone they know and love is welcomed into the church. So I want all of these things that isn’t possible for every woman across the world.

So some people are very focused on this idea that only if women become ordained will they have any kind of equality, but we’re not looking at equality as a one for one thing in the church. We’ve spent so much time in the last week looking at how we have unity with diversity. Well, part of that diversity is that there are realities of motherhood and fatherhood that are both spiritual and biological, and that those are really important for understanding what’s going on across the whole church. So I think we can become too distracted from by this particular issue. And what that does is that it detracts from all of the other things that we could be doing. We could be making sure that professional women are not forced to choose between having families and being out there in the workforce. For instance, we could be doing more to make sure that families are supported in all kinds of ways, including with the different economic pressures that are going on as well. So I think that’s a far more interesting conversation for most women. I tend to think of as a fairly niche kind of issue. 

I honestly hate it when women or men do this – draw false dichotomies – as if we can’t think about how to better support working mothers and parents AND think of how to better achieve a system of full equality in the institutional church.  Further, the issue of women’s ordination came up over and over again in the listening sessions – from local to continental. If an issue is important to women and to other Catholics, it is not niche.

My Favorite Prophet

Reverend Agbonkhianemeghe E. Orobator

There is no theologian that I admire more than Nigerian Jesuit Agbonkhianmeghe Emmanuel Orobator who joined the press briefing today.  In 2015, he spoke at one of the first Voices of Faith conferences inside the Vatican.  At the time, he took the floor and told the story of the 276 Chibok girls who had been kidnapped by Boko Haram in 2014.  As he spoke, you could hear a pin drop and there weren’t many dry eyes.  When it comes to understanding the second class place of girls and women, he is truly a prophet within our Church. If you have the time, listen to what he had to say. His words would be a rich nutrient at this synod.  Everytime, he speaks, I am transported to the moment in 2014 when I was forever changed.

Today he shared these words about the synod experience:

I would add that this is my first experience of a synod. So we’re all novices, as you can see. But I also want to emphasize the fact that I have been involved in the process for the last two and a half years through the African Synodality initiative, working with the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar to prepare the stages and the phases leading to this particular moment. I would make two, three points, in terms of my own experience of this synod so far. The first is that I’m a theologian, the dean of the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University. And as a theologian, this is a privileged moment. This is what a theologian lives for.  Because we are part of an experience of a process of the church making and remaking itself in a way. This is a once in a lifetime experience that really calls on theologians to dig deeper into the resources that they bring to enrich this process and to deepen this process and to make sure that this process brings out something new in terms of how we see and experience and live as a community called church. So I feel very privileged to be part of this experience.

The second thing I want to mention is about process. I remain convinced that the process is probably going to be more important than the outcome. And the process for me has been, again, truly enriching, focusing on elements or the mechanisms of frameworks of listening, of dialoguing and discerning. I believe that this is the kind of framework and mechanism that would lead us as a community called church to experiencing new way of being, where people, no matter who they are, no matter their status or station or situation in the church, are able to be part of a process where they’re not only heard, but they’re also able to contribute to a process of discernment. And I’m very grateful for the process that has been adopted.

And the third thing I would say is, I think my colleagues have mentioned this, is just to witness the, the diversity of the church and to draw from the wisdom that is so embedded in this diversity; to draw from the insights and the unique gifts that this diversity offers.

The church, I’m sitting on a group of 12 people right now in on my table, and all of us are from different countries, 12 people sitting at the same table, each person from a different country. And the wisdom that each one brings, the insights that each one reveals, and the gift that each one brings is matter for enriching a universal church. And for me, this experience is certainly one to live for and definitely to work for. And I will close by saying that as well as I’m concerned. Really, the work of the Synod will begin when the gatherings here actually conclude, because synodality, as we have been told, is about how we live and work and journey and boat and swim together, and that is going to be tested in the years to come.

But I believe that the robust process and the mechanisms and framework that’s been trialed and tested and experimented will certainly provide the resources for this synodal journey to continue and to succeed.