On February 7, the Women in the Church Working Group of the Association of US Catholic Priests (AUSCP) presented “What Happened at the Synod: The Call to Dialogue on Co-responsibility and Women’s Participation in Our Church.” The event was conducted over Zoom and featured insights from Synod delegates, church leaders, and others who have participated in the public activities of the Synod.
Dr. Sarah Probst Miller and Rev. Michael Hickin, a member of the AUSCP Leadership Team and co-chair of the Women in the Church Working Group, served as co-facilitators. Probst Miller and Hickin cited the 2023 “Women of the Church” conference held at St. John’s School of Theology and Seminary in Collegeville, Minnesota, as providing inspiration for the afternoon’s event.
“My prayer for everyone who is able to attend here is that you would have your own propitious moment, a Spirit moment,” Hickin said. He added that the event was a welcome opportunity for “priests and women to come together in conversation and listen to each other.”
Called to Co-creation
Speaking on some of the key implications of the first General Assembly of the Synod held this past October in Rome, Dr. Maureen O’Connell of LaSalle University said that “co-responsibility for mission in the church emerged as a common thread from the people of God.”
O’Connell is a professor of Christian ethics and Director of Synod and Higher Education for Discerning Deacons. She characterized co-responsibility as “an incredibly empowering way of thinking about Christian discipleship” that views individual members of the church “as moral agents” with “our own inherent freedom to discern the promptings of the Holy Spirit.”
Co-responsibility is “a posture of ongoing discovery,” she continued, an “invitational way or form of discipleship” whereby “God calls us to be co-creators in this very messy world.”
Co-responsibility also fosters a sense of solidarity, she said, and confirms that “We truly do belong to each other.”
O’Connell highlighted four important takeaways from the Synod’s Synthesis Report, including the rediscovery of the link between baptism and mission; ways that spiritual conversation “across ranks and status” is remaking the “relational conditions” of the church and forming it for mission; how synodality is giving the church courage to wade into areas of potential tension and conflict, such as the role of women and the exercise of co-responsibility within a hierarchical structure; and the emerging pathways around issues of women in the life and mission of the church.
Synodal practices help to develop “concrete steps that we can take together to better serve the liberating message of the gospel,” she said.
Dr. Cynthia Bailey Manns, Director of Adult Learning at St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church in Minneapolis, shared her experience of being one of the 10 non-bishop voting delegates chosen to represent North America at the Synod’s General Assembly.
Manns described how Synod delegates learned and practiced the “Conversation in the Spirit” method, a multistep process that fosters intentional listening, speaking, and group discernment. Using the method led to “welcoming, inclusive, and affirming sacred encounters” among the delegates, she said.
Delegates began by gathering around assigned tables and introducing themselves. Manns related that everyone at her table wished to be called by first name instead of by title, a gesture that “reduced potential power differentials.”
After a pause for silence, prayer, and reflection, delegates opened by sharing what God was saying to them about the topic at hand.
Delegates then had another moment of silence and prayer to consider what resonated with them during the initial round of sharing. Their reflection was guided by the question: “What was the Holy Spirit saying to me?”
In a second round of sharing, delegates reflected on what they heard during the first round. Each person spoke without interruption and with “mutual respect,” Manns said.
A third moment of silence and prayer allowed groups to reflect on “convergences and divergences” discerned in their initial rounds of conversation.
Manns described the final round of sharing as a “free-flowing conversation” to identify the fruits of the discussion and to “clarify what we heard individually and collectively.” Manns said that she felt her group “began moving from ‘I’ to ‘we’ as our sense of community deepened” during this stage of the process.
The “Conversation in the Spirit” method is “not merely a generic exchange of ideas” but a “Spirit-led” process that enables participants to draw closer together, Manns said. She emphasized that it is “a slow exercise” designed to “avoid artificial and shallow and prepackaged responses.” It is also a means to “honestly acknowledge the challenges and gifts of today’s church,” she said.
“Through this practice I experienced new insights, listenings, and learnings,” she added.
Bishop John Stowe of the Diocese of Lexington, Kentucky, said that he was “delighted to see the women’s issue come to the forefront” during the Synodal process.
Praising the contributions of the women on the panel, Stowe said, “I want to work with them on a regular basis and share in that co-responsibility.”
“I love the phrase ‘co-responsibility,’” he continued, saying that co-responsibility helps to “overcome the clergy-laity divide.”
“In a co-responsible church, there shouldn’t be any remnants of clericalism,” he said.
Stowe acknowledged that the church is “behind the times in how we interact with women.” He said that he has been impressed by the “scope of vision” of younger Catholics, but saddened to hear of young women who have left the church because they have not found a place in the system as it currently exists.
The Synodal conversations around women’s issues provide an opportunity to “be open to the gospel approach” that can overcome the church’s patriarchal heritage, he said.
“I’m glad that women sat around those round tables [at the Synod] and had face-to-face conversations with cardinals and bishops,” he added.
Stowe expressed admiration for women who “don’t focus on the doors that are closed to them” but remain in the church to share their gifts “when they are not always recognized” or celebrated as they should be.
“I have come to know women as experts in so many areas,” he said. He praised the “gospel leadership” of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) and the ways they have exemplified “how people have conversations in the Spirit.”
Drawing a parallel between Pope Francis and his predecessor Pope John XXIII as two leaders who are “brave enough to take us in new directions,” Stowe said, “I pray that the Synod is the great legacy that Pope Francis leaves to the church.”
“A whole rethinking of the permanent diaconate is being called for,” he said, one that calls for a “diaconal ministry of outreach.”
Ministries of Service
Ellie Hidalgo, Co-director of Discerning Deacons, focused on a specific proposal from the “Women in the Life and Mission of the Church” section of the Synthesis Report which states:
Theological and pastoral research on the access of women to the diaconate should be continued, benefiting from consideration of the results of the commissions specially established by the Holy Father, and from the theological, historical and exegetical research already undertaken. If possible, the results of this research should be presented to the next Session of the Assembly (9.n).
Acknowledging that “women’s ministry is often unstable,” Hidalgo spoke of how the issue of women in the diaconate is being discerned on a global level. The guiding question in this discernment, she said, is “What is the will of the Holy Spirit for women’s participation in a co-responsible church?”
Hidalgo named four key points of “pastoral witness and discernment,” including women’s access to the diaconate as a permanent order; a renewed diaconate to animate the church’s social mission, i.e., its diakonia or ministry of service; a renewed diaconate that includes both men and women in a stable, ordained ministry; and a focus on 2024 as a “year to bear witness” and to question whether this is the time to renew the permanent diaconate.
Bernadette Rudolph of the Cranaleith Retreat Center in Philadelphia concluded with a brief presentation on how the “Conversation in the Spirit” method of Synodal conversation is taking root in local parishes. Rudolph has assisted with training of parish leaders in Synodal practices. She noted “how much hope [Synodal conversation] inspires in people.”
“People say, ‘This is making me feel good about church again,’” she said.
Rudolph described the “deep listening” of the Synodal method as “an ancient practice reclaimed.” Deep listening “amplifies co-responsibility,” she said, while fostering intentional silence and purposeful speech.
As an added benefit, priests “get to step out of constant triage management mode” as the parish learns to share in co-responsibility.
Because it is “non-competitive [and] non-combative,” the “Conversation in the Spirit” method cultivates a feeling of “enthusiastic encouragement,” she said.
Rudolph’s remarks helped prepare attendees to participate in a 10-minute small-group Synodal conversation. Attendees were encouraged to speak from their personal stories and listen for the Holy Spirit’s promptings on the themes that emerged throughout the event.
Conclusion: Calls to Action
After returning from the Synodal breakout rooms, attendees were provided with ways to continue developing Synodal skills and participating in the Synodal process. These include a three-part online course on “Becoming a Synodal Parish” provided by Cranaleith Retreat Center (an informational form is available here, and description and registration for the first workshop to be held February 24 and 25 is available here).
Discerning Deacons is hosting their “Walking with St. Phoebe in 2024” kickoff call on February 13 at 1:00 p.m. ET. The group will roll out its roadmap for action between now and the October 2024 Synodal Assembly in Rome, with a special focus on witness during the Lent and Easter Seasons.
Rev. Hickin invited attendees to join the AUSCP as a priest or friend. He also shared news of the upcoming AUSCP annual assembly to be held June 24–27 in Lexington, Kentucky. The theme for this year’s assembly is “Eucharist: Sacrament of Encounter.” The Women in the Church Working Group will be hosting a special colloquium. Information and registration for the assembly is available here.
The event’s engaging perspectives and calls to action confirmed O’Connell’s observation that “the synodal process is indeed working. We are becoming a pilgrim people of God.”
“We are being co-responsible in mission by engaging in this discernment,” she said. “What better time to be a disciple in our church?” ♦
Michael Centore is the editor of Today’s American Catholic.