I wasn’t imagining that an apostolic exhortation would instantly permit women to be ordained deacons in the Roman Catholic Church. I trust the diaconate for women will unfold in millimeters, but the remote possibility of it in fact happening in my lifetime is a source fueling my own stubborn persistence.
So when Querida Amazonia hit the press this week, I was only looking for a characteristically Pope-Francis-style wink or a nod to keep little embers of hope alive. Some sliver of light bending beyond blocked doorways to give encouragement that the Roman Church might one day see and hear the women who have always been here, have always been called, but are mostly not believed.
This dreamy document is dotted with poetry and language of prophetic imagining, longing and lament for the colonial wronging and the legacies of baptized violence. It’s brimming with calls for conversion and repentance and solidarity so that this precious region with its diverse peoples not be decimated. There is a call for inculturated ministries, a plea for integral ecology, and a subtle condemnation of those who cannot see the sacred in those who are not of European descent.
An urgency pulses through the whole exhortation: imploring the world to wake up and hear the cries of the people and of the earth as they fight attacks from industries and political forces that would turn the Amazon to dust and palm trees for profit.
I think now, about all the people behind these words in Querido Amazonia. The tens of thousands (over 87,000) who participated in the pre-synod process of dialogue and listening and priority-setting. All the meetings. Thousands of hours. Such energy, such precious encounters poured out in the hope that it would midwife a change, inspire meaningful action, bear witness to life on the ground, on the margins. I think of all the work it took, to meet and listen and synthesize and meet again and revise.
I think of these thousands of people whom I do not know. Whose lives are so very different from mine. Yet, who share a hunger for communion, who share a faith in a risen God who saves and who have some sense that the Church has something to do with God’s project here in the midst of the world. Who turned up, who brought their hopes all the way to Rome and endured racist remarks about headdresses and statues, because they trusted a much more powerful spirit that governs the cosmos, sensed it moving in the synod hall itself.
I feel the admonition, put so powerfully by Mauricio López Oropeza (executive secretary of the Pan-Amazon Church Network REPAM) in his own reaction and reflection to Querido Amazonia. He warns me not to displace the central (urgent, life threatening) concerns of the synod and the peoples of the Amazon, by seeing it only with my western eyes and comfortable lenses.
I think particularly about Leah Casimero. Her face is in a lot of this week’s news coverage. Often, she is pictured without attribution. At 26, she was the youngest participant at the synod. She sat for an interview with America Magazine in the third week of the synod where she shared her experience.
She talked about feeling intimidated at first by all the cardinals in her small group (eight!) but went on to feel she was meaningfully heard, that she got just as long in the synod hall to speak as the voting members of the hierarchy. She expressed her support for the proposal to ordain women as permanent deacons, saying:
I think that’s very possible….Why not? We are already doing so much.
Leah wisely wondered about action, knew that this synod-talk was only as good as where it led. Knew that the women in her community speak the language of action: “They are very committed,” she said of the female catechists in her region. “The amount of work they put in, voluntarily, is amazing.”
So this week marked a sort of litmus test: How would the Pope, with his power of the pen, choose to act? How would he choose to continue the conversation that Leah and tens of thousands of others have bravely inched forward?
Before jumping to the Pope’s words themselves. Let’s remember here how the particular dialogue around women’s roles was emerging. How the door was being kept open, letting in a touch more light. A brief recap is offered for reference sake, and so you know I’m not just making this up.
From the pre-synod document (the first fruit of all the meetings):
Along these lines, it is necessary to identify the type of official ministry that can be conferred on women, taking into account the central role which women play today in the Amazonian Church.Amazonia: New Paths for the the Church
Then, the official wording in the final document included a call to reconvene the Study Commission on the Diaconate in light of the persistent request made within the synod (a request which still stands).
It is urgent for the Church in the Amazon to promote and confer ministries for men and women in an equitable manner.Final Document for the Amazon Synod of Bishops. Paragraph 95. See also paragraphs 101-102
The October news coverage was brimming with testimony from women and men open (even energized) about how the permanent diaconate for women could help pave a way for the pastoral needs of the church in the Amazon.
In light of this context and backdrop I turn to Querido Amazonia…
Quiero enamorarme…Que dice?
I want to know whether and how the Pope will continue offering a way forward for women to be fully seen in the Church.
There is a promising beginning in Paragraph 99, but then we take a sharp turn down the spousal metaphor lane. It’s reproduced in full at the end of this post (with emphasis added) but here’s my summary of “The Strength and Gift of Women” (Paragraphs 99-103)
They (women) kept the church alive (for decades, for centuries).
They were called by the Holy Spirit (undoubtedly).
They moved us with their testimony (at the synod).
But we will not heed their cry, will not honor their request, will not follow through on their specific demand.
Nope. Not today. Not Holy Orders. That’s not for you. We’ll make up another thing, so we can pile on more for you to be able to do but not actually share power or authority.
Francis’ dream stops short of including the women. He basically says they cannot image Christ (a persistent heresy that would deny women the full participation in Christ’s salvation).
He reinscribes Holy Orders in a realm that would only sully and corrupt women who would receive the sacrament. (He is concerned about “clericalizing” women but not men.) Women need to remember their vocation as tender and strong mothers, with “simple and straightforward gifts.” They need not get confused about how to have “a real and effective impact on the organization” (with governing authority, perhaps)– but should stay in the realm of soft-power, won through baking and hospitality and nudging with that womanly persistence.
We want a vote, not another volunteer opportunity.
The Church doesn’t actually have the power to stop the timber companies. The Church is not a multinational corporate superpower.
The Church – specifically, the Pope – does have the power to meet this request of its own members.
Many women asked to be ordained as deacons. Many men supported them. 155 Bishops voted to at least continue the conversation in light of what was shared at the Synod.
He could propose to modify Canon 1024 to read: Validly baptized men and women can be ordained into the diaconate.
There is abundant historic evidence to offer support from within the tradition. There is the pressing need: women often doing the hardest work, with little resources, with so many forces against them. They could have a bit of recognition in their own church to help encourage and enliven their vocation, to enhance their ministry.
Perhaps the Holy Father was all too aware of the pushback he would receive were he to gesture towards tinkering with Holy Orders. I trust he is concerned about schism, about the fracturing within the Catholic Church, and aimed to reconcile us while inspiring us towards prophetic action. I trust he really does see (and know all too well) the pitfalls of an insular, corrosive clericalism that turns the church inward on itself instead of out into the world, where it must be a repairer of the breach. I trust he wanted the cries of the Amazon to not be lost in internal Church politics or division. But this, I fear, misses the ways these struggles are connected.
I didn’t have high hopes. Don’t think it would be healthy for the Church to make unilateral decisions to change its polity.
And yet… paragraphs 99-103 still feel like a punch to the gut. For me, they undermine some of the prophetic power from the rest of the Pope’s exhortation.
How can he not see the relationship between an imbalance of power rooted in denying women a place at the altar, and the exploitative exercise of power over vulnerable communities across the Amazon? If women are the primary leaders of their communities but aren’t fully recognized within their ecclesial institutions, how seriously do we expect others to take their leadership elsewhere in the public arena?
Some Catholics object that Holy Orders is not a personal right; it is a call from God that is confirmed by the church. But if the church categorically denied Holy Orders to black men, or brown men, the violation of their rights would be laid bare. The categorical exclusion of women is no different.
I wonder how these paragraphs land for Leah Casimero. Or for Sister Birgit Weiler, a missionary and synod participant who shared that women are needed in positions of leadership “not as a power struggle but to share gifts, insights, talents and charisms”.
Women are not hankering for power to serve their own status in the world, but would love to not have to ask for special exemptions and unusual permissions to do the daily work of ministry as we preside at baptisms, weddings, funerals. We would love to not spend another drop of energy over our place in the church when there is indeed, so much work to do to seek to be repairers of the breach. We would like the full blessing and ordination of the church to recognize our calling as preachers, but we will continue to labor as co-workers in the vineyard and proclaim the Gospel throughout the earth, except for at Mass on Sunday.
I’m reminded of a poem by Jane Kenyon. Her lament is my lament, her depression is my depression but the treatable kind, the kind the pope could lift with the power of his pen.
… a mote. A little world. Dusty. Dusty. The universe is dust. Who can bear it? Christ comes. The women feed him, bathe his feet with tears, bring spices, find the empty tomb, burst out to tell the men, are not believed…
OF THE HOLY FATHER
TO THE PEOPLE OF GOD
AND TO ALL PERSONS OF GOOD WILL
“The Strength and Gift of Women“ (emphasis added)
99. In the Amazon region, there are communities that have long preserved and handed on the faith even though no priest has come their way, even for decades. This could happen because of the presence of strong and generous women who, undoubtedly called and prompted by the Holy Spirit, baptized, catechized, prayed and acted as missionaries. For centuries, women have kept the Church alive in those places through their remarkable devotion and deep faith. Some of them, speaking at the Synod, moved us profoundly by their testimony.
100. This summons us to broaden our vision, lest we restrict our understanding of the Church to her functional structures. Such a reductionism would lead us to believe that women would be granted a greater status and participation in the Church only if they were admitted to Holy Orders. But that approach would in fact narrow our vision; it would lead us to clericalize women, diminish the great value of what they have already accomplished, and subtly make their indispensable contribution less effective.
101. Jesus Christ appears as the Spouse of the community that celebrates the Eucharist through the figure of a man who presides as a sign of the one Priest. This dialogue between the Spouse and his Bride, which arises in adoration and sanctifies the community, should not trap us in partial conceptions of power in the Church. The Lord chose to reveal his power and his love through two human faces: the face of his divine Son made man and the face of a creature, a woman, Mary. Women make their contribution to the Church in a way that is properly theirs, by making present the tender strength of Mary, the Mother. As a result, we do not limit ourselves to a functional approach, but enter instead into the inmost structure of the Church. In this way, we will fundamentally realize why, without women, the Church breaks down, and how many communities in the Amazon would have collapsed, had women not been there to sustain them, keep them together and care for them. This shows the kind of power that is typically theirs.
102. We must keep encouraging those simple and straightforward gifts that enabled women in the Amazon region to play so active a role in society, even though communities now face many new and unprecedented threats. The present situation requires us to encourage the emergence of other forms of service and charisms that are proper to women and responsive to the specific needs of the peoples of the Amazon region at this moment in history.
103. In a synodal Church, those women who in fact have a central part to play in Amazonian communities should have access to positions, including ecclesial services, that do not entail Holy Orders and that can better signify the role that is theirs. Here it should be noted that these services entail stability, public recognition and a commission from the bishop. This would also allow women to have a real and effective impact on the organization, the most important decisions and the direction of communities, while continuing to do so in a way that reflects their womanhood.