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Sent in by Spirit Unbounded Companion, in India, Astrid Lobo Gajiwala. Part of this essay formed the homily preached on 10 March 2024 at the Jesuit parish, St. Anne’s Church, Mumbai, to celebrate International Women’s Day.

Many women however, are tired of fighting, of talking and talking, year after year, decade after decade, without any sustainable steps being taken. Here in India I know so many committed Christians who are walking out of Church structures (but not the Church) because their voice, their experience, and their expertise are simply not part of the discourse in the Catholic Church. As Nontando Hadebe, a well known theologian says, quoting women from South Africa, “There needs to be action and change, we can’t keep having the same conversation.”… The “success” of the synod ultimately will depend on how much of what comes out of the synod will be implemented. Canon law will have to be amended now that pastors have the smell of their sheep. Structures will need to change. Attitudes will need to change. Those used to wielding unquestioned authority will have to constantly remind themselves to be open, to listen and to be humble and accept that the Spirit blows where She wills.

By Astrid Lobo Gajiwala

Last year as part of a grass roots consultation for the Synod on Synodality I was invited to an international conference organised by Dharmaram Vidya Kshetram (Pontifical Athenaeum) Bangalore, and asked to speak on: “What can I do to make the Indian Church more Synodal?” My spontaneous response was one word: “Nothing!” There is nothing I can do to make the Indian Church more synodal, simply because the structures of the Church do not permit synodality.

Thanks to a hierarchy, which we are constantly reminded is divinely instituted, all decision-making and leadership in the Church is restricted to the clergy. As one who is non-ordained, and can never be ordained because of my gender, I therefore have no authority in the institutional Church. Like all of you, I can only function within parameters defined by a clergyman, be he a parish priest, a bishop, or a Pope, and that, to my mind, is contrary to the spirit of journeying together as “co-responsible collaborators.” Unless there is equality how can there be co-responsibility?

Even in the 21st century, when across the world special efforts are being made to include women at the table that sets the agenda, women are still excluded from key decisions in the Catholic Church. They may be in parish councils but they have little say in how the parish is run. Sacramental ordination is denied to them because of a humiliating trivialisation of their God-given vocations. Only in exceptional cases are women allowed to preach like I am doing today. The last time I stood here, some years ago, at the invitation of the parish priest, I had to speak after Communion because of possible objections to a woman preaching the homily. Thankfully with the fresh air of synodality the climate has changed.

In pastoral work however women continue to encounter resistance, and whatever authority they have is derived from the “permission” of the parish priest or bishop. They suffer abuse by men in the Church and are denied justice and even compassion. Nuns particularly, complain that they are made the butt of sexist jokes and are often treated as cheap labour.

And yet, I’m sure you’ll agree with me, women are the foundation of parish life. They make the coffee, they bring life to parish celebrations and they are at the forefront of every parish activity; they sing, they pray, they teach, they fill the pews; they rally in a crisis, reach out to the poor and the hurting, and are the backbone of the SCCs.

These stories were multiplied in the Synod on Synodality held in the Vatican last year. Participants heard of “women regularly holding Liturgies of the Word because priests cannot make it to each mountain town parish, women breaking open the Word in small groups because they speak the local language, women leading end of life and funeral services in places of war and famine, women feeding and clothing migrants and refugees, women ministering in jails and prisons, women maintaining parish life, women walking with one another, women again and again living in service of God’s people.” (https://cssjfed.org/2023/10/18/dispatch-from-rome-4-women-are-at-the-table/Dispatch From Rome #4: Women Are at the Table by Kascha Sanor 18 October 2023.)

Many women however, are tired of fighting, of talking and talking, year after year, decade after decade, without any sustainable steps being taken. Here in India I know so many committed Christians who are walking out of Church structures (but not the Church) because their voice, their experience, and their expertise are simply not part of the discourse in the Catholic Church. As Nontando Hadebe, a well known theologian says, quoting women from South Africa, “There needs to be action and change, we can’t keep having the same conversation.”

So what can women do?

The United Nations theme for this year’s International Women’s Day presents us with a vision: “Imagine a gender equal world. A world free of bias, stereotypes, and discrimination. A world that’s diverse, equitable, and inclusive. A world where difference is valued and celebrated.”2 All we need to do is substitute the word “world” with “Church”.

At Pentecost Peter quotes the prophet Joel: Your sons and daughters will see visions and dream dreams, and “I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below…” (Acts 2:17-19). It is for us to be these signs on the earth below, of a gender equal, inclusive world and Church.

Every time you observe that women aren’t present – in programmes, on stage, in decision-making bodies, in publications – ask: “Why not?”

Fight against the discrimination of women. Speak up about the subtle misogyny practiced in the Church through the persistent use of sexist God-language and the exclusion of passages from the lectionary that showcase women’s decisive roles in Christian tradition.

Call out clericalism, which is the misuse of priestly power to dominate the faithful, and reclaim the servanthood of priesthood. Stop kissing bishops’ rings and using titles like “Your Beatitude” “Your Excellency” and “Your Lordship,” that are neither Christian nor synodal.

Break the silence on domestic violence even when it involves so called “pillars of the Church.” Recognise sexual abuse in the Church and address it with honesty and justice, and compassion for the survivor. Form a women’s cell in your parish and inspire others to understand and value women’s inclusion, as well as inspire women themselves to feel relevant and empowered enough to demand inclusion.

Support each other and stand in solidarity with one another when fighting for women’s rights. Each time, every time we do this, we are being signs of the God
who dwells amongst us, and as the second reading tells us, these are not works of our own doing, but gifts of God, who prepared us beforehand for good works (Ephesians
2:10).

One of these good works in recent times has been the Synod on Synodality declared by Pope Francis in October 2021. Over the past three years the faithful were encouraged to journey together, to meet at diocesan, national and continental levels, to give voice to their experiences and concerns, to listen to each other and to discern together what the Holy Spirit is trying to tell us as a faith community. In Mumbai the archdiocesan Synod was held in June 2022. Pope Francis was particularly keen that the voices from the grassroots, especially the voices of the marginalised – people who have been alienated by the Church, or people who have been ignored by the Church – would be heard and recorded. The deliberations of all these synods served as a starting point for the Synod of Bishops held in Rome from 4-29 October last year (2023).

A burning topic that came up in most of the country reports and even grabbed centrestage at the October Synod, was the “women’s issue”. Pope Francis’ answer was to invite women to the synod – a first in the “his-story” of the Catholic Church. Since the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, synod events were exclusively attended by bishops and a few priests who acted as secretaries and writers. At the family synod in 2015 new ground was broken when a religious brother, an elected representative, was given voting rights. However, three religious women who were also present were not given the same right. Obviously it had nothing to do with ordination because religious brothers are not clerics. It was a blatant act of gender discrimination. By contrast, in the October 2023 synod on synodality, 54 of the 364 participants were women. Practically speaking this means that there was at least one woman at every small group table. Not only were women present, but they also participated in all the discussions and were allowed to vote.

Those of you who have seen pictures of the 2024 synod assembly will also see that discussions took places around circular tables with no “head”, and no distinction between man or woman, cleric or non-ordained. This was in contrast to the traditional auditorium setting where participants are in an audience. There were three women from India, although none of them was appointed by the Indian bishops. Superior General of the Apostolic Carmel, Sister Maria Nirmalini, represented the International Union of Superior Generals (UISG), Sister Lalitha Thomas, a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Tarbes represented the Asian Bishops’ assembly, and Sr. Tanya George attended as a member of the Asian Bishops’
Communication Team.

Another first was the appointment of Sister Nathalie Becquart as undersecretary of the synod office at the Vatican. She is thus closely involved in the preparation and implementation of the Synod Assemblies.

During the synod itself, Sr. Maria de los Dolores Valencia Gomez, a sister of St. Joseph of Lyon, and Momoko Nishimura, a consecrated woman from Japan, member of the Servants of the Gospel of God’s Mercy (SEMD), led the assembly as two of Pope Francis’ 10 president-delegates. This required them to sit next to Pope Francis in the presidential round table to facilitate the whole day’s work, along with the Synod General Secretary, Cardinal Mario Grech, and Synod Relator General, Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich.

Sr. Maria described the experience of sitting with the Pope as a “gift and a grace” and a symbol of placing all of us at the same level. Significantly, the Mexican sister’s presiding role (the first woman in this role) came as the synod assembly began its work on the topic of “co-responsibility in mission,” which includes a focus on the role of women in the Church.

Momoko had her own epiphany of equality. When she was introduced to Pope Francis she was carrying an Argentinian “bombilla” cup made of metal and wood, used for brewing a caffeine-rich infused drink called “yerba mate”. When the Pope saw the traditional Argentinian drink his eyes lit up and Momoko spontaneously offered him a sip, which he gamely took. It was an unplanned sign of the equality that pervaded the synod.

Synod discussions addressed the topics of women’s ordination to the priesthood, a female diaconate and the creation of alternative ministries that would allow women to
have an equal representation in the traditionally male-dominated institution.

In response Pope Francis has created a new commission with an equal number of men and women members, to study the possibility of a female diaconate which will allow
women to preach at Mass and perform marriages and baptisms. They will not however, be able to celebrate the Eucharist or hear confessions. On the question of women’s ordination too, the Pope opened the door to discussion, a door that had been closed by Pope John Paul II in 1994.
Pope Francis in response to questions put to him said that there is no “clear and authoritative doctrine” on the ordination of women, and it can be “a subject of study.” An earlier study in April 1976 by the Pontifical Biblical Commission had concluded that Scripture alone does not exclude the ordination of women, and that the church could ordain women to the priesthood without going against Christ’s original intentions. This recommendation was ignored by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and one can only hope that in the new environment of synodality the deliberations of this Commission will be revisited.

Women’s participation in decision-making processes and responsible roles for them in pastoral care and ministry with the necessary amendments in Canon Law, also got the
thumb’s up at the synod.

Pope Francis has already walked his talk. Thanks to him, the proportion of women in the Roman Curia has risen from 19.3 to 26.1 per cent over the past ten years. This
means that more than one in four employees at the Holy See is now a woman. At the executive level he has broken the stained glass ceiling by appointing five women as
undersecretaries and one as secretary of a Dicastery. Secretaries and undersecretaries are the second and third levels of management respectively and are part of the
management team.

At the synod the delegates felt heard. As one said, “we women, especially the Sisters, we ask(ed) very concrete questions like what will this mean for our ministries? What
does this say about the mission of the Church? …..This is our lives we’re talking about.”3 (3 https://cssjfed.org/2023/10/18/dispatch-from-rome-4-women-are-at-the-table/
Dispatch From Rome #4: Women Are at the Table by Kascha Sanor 18 October 2023.)

While all of this is good news we still have a long way to go. As one voting woman delegate said, “I think we will make changes. (But) it is hard. There are very many men and we who are older can get stuck in only seeing things one way, but I think we have to [make changes]. When you hear the stories from around the world and all the ways we as a Church depend on women — we have to recognize that.”4

The “success” of the synod ultimately will depend on how much of what comes out of the synod will be implemented. Canon law will have to be amended now that pastors
have the smell of their sheep. Structures will need to change. Attitudes will need to change. Those used to wielding unquestioned authority will have to constantly remind
themselves to be open, to listen and to be humble and accept that the Spirit blows where She wills.

Stephen Lowe, the Bishop of Auckland, has shown it is possible. In Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, and Wellington, its capital, on September 18, 2022, Catholic women participated in a provocative public art protest called “Pink Shoes into the Vatican,” demanding equality of women in the church. Hundreds of pairs of shoes donated by women around the country were lined up on the streets leading up to both cities’ cathedrals. Each pair of shoes had a label from its owner describing their contribution to, or aspirations for the church. They expressed the women’s pain, anger and/or pleas for change.

Instead of opposition, the women received a letter of support from Bishop Lowe. He called their creative pilgrimage a “journey with a purpose” and thanked them for a pair of women’s shoes they’d given him at an earlier meeting. “They remain in my office and are certainly a talking point,” he said. “They also remind me that I too need to be the change.”

He also referenced the New Testament’s account that Mary Magdalene was the first person to see the risen Jesus, and when she announced this to the disciples, they didn’t
believe her. “Perhaps this is a poignant reminder that the Twelve and their successors can get it very wrong,” he wrote. “May we have the courage not to get stuck in the
structures that are not necessarily of God.” (Kirkwood, “New Zealand Catholic Women Display ‘Pink Shoes’ to Call for Equality in the Church.”)

Without this courage and this vision, equality in the Church will remain merely a dream.

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