By: Lisa Cathelyn
During morning prayer, we were invited to pray with and name our guardian angels — past and present, family members, saints, mentors — who have accompanied us. In those few moments of reflection, I was struck by how quickly I managed to fill up the back of my bookmark with over 20 names of people who have loved me and accompanied me in this faith journey.
I think of a CSJ in St. Paul, Joan Mitchell, who encouraged me to study theology; of my deceased loved ones; of other women who are also called to minister and live out the Gospel. There was a profound cloud of witnesses that accompanied our delegation!
In other ways, I have felt the accompaniment of women from Scripture and saints across time on this pilgrimage: Priscilla, St. Phoebe, St. Clare. On Sunday, several pilgrims went on a fascinating tour of the Catacombs of Priscilla. Priscilla (and her spouse, Aquila) were some of the earliest known converts in Rome and missionaries laboring alongside St. Paul in the first century. Priscilla was a noblewoman, referred to as a tentmaker (Acts 18: 2-3) and a key figure in building up early house churches in Rome and beyond, “co-workers in the ministry of Christ Jesus” (Romans 16:3).
Seeing weathered yet intact frescoes underground reminded me of how ancient this church is. There were three frescoes that were especially moving. One is believed to be one of the oldest Marian depictions, with Jesus as a baby in her arms. Another fresco depicts a woman standing with hands outstretched, as if leading prayer. The third appears to be women at some sort of feast – perhaps a funeral banquet. The catacombs, of course, housed the dead (at its peak, more than 40,000 people entombed) and served as a ritual place for people to honor their beloved dead. What a mix of death and life, joy and sorrow!
We spent some of our time on Monday, October 2 with two staff members of the World Union of Women’s Catholic Organisations (WUCWO). We learned about their work at the United Nations and their strategic commitments to care for the planet, listening to women globally, and walking synodally. There was certainly deep resonance with some of the ways the global family of the Sisters of St. Joseph engages to promote human development and care of creation! Dr. María Lía Zervino serves as the Institutional director of WUCWO’s World Women’s Observatory, offering her wisdom in a spirit of great humility and prayerfulness. Last year, Dr. Maria Lia Zervino was appointed as the first lay woman to the Dicastery for Bishops. She mentioned that typically they participate in the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women; perhaps WUCWO can cross paths with CSSJ folks; this time in New York!
Tuesday, October 3 was a retreat day and a welcome respite from the chaos of Rome. Pilgrims traveled by train to Assisi for the day. Katie Dorner (Associate, Congregation of St. Joseph) holds a special devotion to Francis and Clare, and shared the following:
“Being in the tranquil countryside, in the places where Francis and Clare lived and prayed, was a gift of sacred peace. Especially incredible for me was praying where St. Francis spoke his Canticle of Creation and going to Carceri, where he would retreat in the woods” — Katie Dorner, Congregation of St. Joseph associate
I loved spending time in prayer in front of the San Damiano cross, where God asked Francis to go and rebuild the church that was in ruins. In a time of ongoing mistrust and harm in institutional church spaces — where the wounds of the sexual abuse crisis, Indian boarding schools, and clericalism remain raw — I asked for Francis and Clare’s guidance and my own emerging call to heal and restore in the church. The grounds around San Damiano — and really, any view in Assisi! — were magnificent. It is no wonder that St. Francis found God in the creation and creatures all around him.
Beyond seeing ancient catacombs and other remnants of the early church, we have also had the honor of meeting several Synod delegates. More than anything, I have been truly amazed at what we are bearing witness to: a watershed moment in the church. I can sense an openness that feels disarming as the delegates walk by. I remember that each of these cardinals, sisters, bishops, brothers, and laity have contexts and spiritual communities to which they belong. These delegates hail from across the world and carry the voices of the today’s church — and the future church — into this monthlong meeting, known formally as the XVI General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops. The Holy Spirit is the protagonist of the Synod (reiterated by Pope Francis during his Opening Mass homily), and the emphasis is on the process of listening, discerning, being together. We have learned that at each small group table at least one woman will be present. Let us pray, particularly, for these women — religious and lay, scholars and ministers, students and synod animators — who physically have a seat at these tables. You can see a list of all the sisters involved in the Synod here.
While more will be written about our encounters with delegates, I wish to spend a few moments sharing about someone within the CSSJ family, Sr. Dolores Palencia (Lyon-Mexico), who serves as President Delegate for the Synod. After corresponding via email and WhatsApp, it gave me great joy to embrace Sr. Dolores in the flesh.
The conversation felt so rooted in the Ignatian spirituality we are called to embody, to be contemplatives in action, contemplativos en acción. Sr. Dolores brings her work with migrants, la realidad del migrante, to the Synod table and holds a spirit of generosity and compassion. She asks for the prayers of the global sisterhood, of all who live into our Charism, especially that all synodal delegates have a posture of openness and engage in a deep way to truly listen.
This gives me, a millennial lay woman in the church, great hope. May Sr. Dolores be fortified by all our prayers!
Stay tuned for more updates and further reflections on the hope and joy we have encountered in Rome, the Opening Mass of the Synod, and the abundant graces in a global church. Our time with the Discerning Deacons young adult delegation has formally concluded, but Kascha Sanor will remain in Rome until October 14. We look forward to bringing you another dispatch!
[Lisa Cathelyn is the Justice, Peace, and Integrity of Creation Coordinator for the U.S. Federation of the Sisters of St. Joseph]