03 February 2022, The Tablet

Synod process must recognise the marginalised say religious

Parishes needed to ask themselves who are the voiceless in their community.

Synod process must recognise the marginalised say religious

Pope Francis dedicated his prayer intention for the month of February to religious and consecrated women.
CNS photo/Paul Haring

The director of a centre supporting women in prostitution, some of whom are homeless or have been trafficked and have addiction issues, has questioned how the synodal process will “filter” the voices of those perceived to be on the margins of the Church.

At The Tablet webinar, Synod wisdom from the Religious, Sr Lynda Dearlove RSM, director of Women at the Well, a drop-in centre in Kings Cross, London said the synodal journey is about “how we encounter and enable each other to be heard and feel listened to”. 

Listen to the full webinar at The Tablet podcasts.

The Mercy Sister said parishes needed to ask themselves who are the voiceless in their community. “And how do we create a safe space that actually includes them?” 

She said it was about “a change in heart and mind that would give them a real voice and enable them to feel included.” 

Sr Lynda said the Synodal journey was about real encounter, being alongside people and engaging them “in meaningful ways so that they understand that we really do care and that their lives matter. That is what happened to the woman at the well, of no name, but whose story still touches all of us.”

Answering a survey or a few questions is “not remotely” what the Synodal journey is about, warned theologian Dr Gemma Simmonds CJ.

The senior research fellow and director of the Religious Life Institute at the Margaret Beaufort Institute of Theology in Cambridge urged priests and people to come together, listen to each other and learn from each other. 

She said the synodal journey should not be something that ended in a few months. “This has got to be the beginning. The process itself is the product.”

The Congregation of Jesus Sister said there was “a certain level of anxiety” in some parishes and dioceses that the synod might end up as “a gathering of protest groups, or a gathering of influencers vying for power”.

However, the Pope and those organising the synod had made it very clear that they want a diversity of voices to be heard. 

Among those wishing to be heard was “a very authentic movement of people” within the LGBTQ community. Sr Gemma had met and listened to members of Quest’s experiences. 

“It was just so moving. I felt really humbled, as a theologian, as a sister, as a woman in the Church, to hear the extraordinarily honest, and sometimes very painful expressions of these people who are people of great faith, wanting to participate, wanting to serve within the Church and feeling so rejected and so marginalised.” 

Some had credited the Religious with offering them space to feel accepted within the Church. 

Asked if she thought the synod is already including LGBTQ people in a way that hasn't happened before, the theologian replied, “Yes, I absolutely do.” 

She said she was aware that many Religious working in pastoral areas “are walking alongside people whose deep thirst for God and whose deep spiritual hunger is simply not being fed by the awful liturgies that they are being subjected to week after week in parishes. And many of these people no longer go to church, or no longer go to the Catholic Church, simply because that there is such a huge disconnect between their spiritual hunger and what they are being fed.” 

“I think in many ways, the voice of the religious in the Synod is hopefully a voice of encouragement to such people to be honest about how they have experienced Church as community or as a non-community of inclusion and encourage them to let their voices be heard.”

Sr Jane Bertelsen FMDM, congregational leader of the Franciscan Missionaries of the Divine Motherhood, who has worked in safeguarding with survivors of abuse, said that in thinking about the synod’s inclusion of those on the margins, particularly those who have been abused, “we are presuming that we are the heart and they are on the edge; that is not how Jesus saw it. Every part of the body is equal and important.”

She explained that for many who have suffered abuse in the Church, “they want to do what Pope Francis is asking us to do, which is journey together, encounter, be listened to, and have a sense of mission.” 

She suggested that the abuse scandals had “taken down some defences”. The call to be Church differently had “generated an energy and released the Spirit.”

However, she also regretted that there is “a huge fear that blocks the Church from sitting at the table with survivors of abuse.

“I’ve worked alongside some amazing Church people – priests and bishops - who found it a privilege to sit at the table of the abused and to listen and learn and have their hearts changed. To allow themselves to be accompanied by the abused, who have already been crucified and have risen. But they are few.”

One of the roles of the Religious in the synod is “bringing people who are perhaps on what we define as the edge, into the heart. Accompanying those who are in fear, who feel fearful. And maybe then collectively, we can grow into a synodal Church. At the heart of what Pope Francis has said is that nobody is on the edge”. 

Sr Jane said she “quite passionately” believed that the Spirit is in charge of the Synod and the question religious women and men needed to keep asking was who is on the edge and who is at the heart.

“Surely this whole process of synodality is not going to finish in a couple of months. I feel we have stepped one step out of Egypt and we have got the whole of the desert to go before we get to the Promised Land.” 

Fr Nick Austin SJ, Master of Campion Hall, Oxford and Senior Fellow in Theological Ethics, acknowledged that there was “significant anxiety” among some in the Church that the Synod was “unleashing a sort of chaos”. 

However, he stressed that “we already experience voices in the Church that are sometimes seemingly diametrically opposed. There are different voices. That is a fact.”

He further highlighted that there are some whose voices who haven’t been heard yet. “And so we have to listen, we have to discern.”

“There is a sort of false peace we think we can achieve if we batten down the hatches and prevent people from speaking.” But he warned that trying to keep a lid on differing views would result in the polarisations and conflicts turning increasingly sour.

While the synod was “a bit of a risk” and probably will be “a bit of a messy process”, Fr Nick said, “If we believe that the Church ultimately is the Church of the Holy Spirit, then I think we have to take that risk.”

But he stressed that if people go into the process with their own agenda, “then we are not really handing the agenda over to God and that would be a travesty of what the synodal process is ultimately about at its core.”

Fr Laurence Freeman, Director of the World Community for Christian Meditation (WCCM), a global, inclusive contemplative community, said the Religious’ contribution might be to reach out to young people who have a very powerful spiritual hunger but the Church is not connected to it. 

“That energy of their hunger has a tremendous revolutionary potential for society. And it is our responsibility to do the best we can to, to bring it into the feast.” 

He said young people are looking for a community, connection, and for friendship in a lonely world. But they are also looking for spiritual depth and for interiority. “When we teach meditation from the desert tradition, they click into that immediately because they know that it is transformative.” 

He underlined that if we want to transform an institution, then we are wasting our time, unless we focus upon personal transformation. That applied to the Church too.

Sr Jolanta Kafka, President of the International Union of Superiors General (UISG) based in Rome, in response to the question as to whether she believed other religious sisters to Sr Nathalie Becquart would be involved in the meeting of bishops in 2023 and whether Sr Nathalie would get to vote, noted that at the synod of Amazonia, 20 religious sisters participated in the process. “It was a moment of joy and taking part actively,” she said. 

But she also cautioned, “We respect the dynamic of the Church and certain processes. We cannot make them go faster.”

“Yes, Natalie will vote. What will happen in the celebration of the synod in 2023 - we don't know yet. But we hope and we take for granted that if the synod is an expression of the people of God participating in the discernment, then not only sisters will be there, but many other members of the people of God.”  

The webinar was sponsored by Conference of Religious and Jesuits in Britain.



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