By: Kascha Sanor
Women are at the table. This 16th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops – the Synod on Synodality – is unlike any of those that we have witnessed before.
Women in full participation
As I return to Chicago and the Synod on Synodality continues into the second half of this session, I continue to reflect on what I have witnessed with great excitement. I cannot help but share with others just how groundbreaking this moment is for our tradition.
This is the first Synod with lay folks — including religious sisters and women — at the table as full participating and voting delegate members. Out of 364 voting delegates, over 50 of them are women. Practically speaking, this means there is at least one woman at every small group table.
During my first week in Rome with the young adult delegation with Discerning Deacons, we were able to meet and pray with some of the voting delegates. The women we encountered include college student Julia Oseka, Sr. Maria Dolores Palencia, CSJ, Helena Jeppesen-Spuhler, and Sr. Lalitha Thomas, Ph.D. I know that representation is only one small step towards equity in the Catholic Church. Yet, after meeting, speaking, and praying with these women, they have instilled in me a deep hope that their presence is not only welcomed, but rather a leading force.
On October 14, Sr. Maria Dolores served in her appointed role as a president delegate and became the first woman to ever preside over a Synod of Bishops. In a press conference later that day, she described the experience as a “gift and a grace.”
One day prior, I had met with Sr. Maria Dolores outside the meeting hall on her way to lunch. This was a common practice, every few days since the Synod formally began, to be available for brief 3-5 minute conversations with delegate members during their midday break. I asked her again how she was feeling and if there was any way I could continue to support her as I head back to the United States. Sr. Dolores held my forearm tight, saying with great focus, “be patient and be prepared. We are a Church on the journey!” We made eye contact. I took a deep breath and thanked her for sharing her incredible faith and strength with me the past few weeks.
Moments later, I spoke with another voting delegate, asking how she was holding up after three weeks into this process: “we are starting to get a bit tired, so keep your prayers coming.” I assured her we would, and then she added:
“I think we will make changes. 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.”
I took a deep breath recalling all the stories we heard over these past two weeks: 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.
I asked this voting delegate if she felt heard in the conversations. “Oh yes,” she said, “we women, especially the Sisters, we ask very concrete questions like what will this mean for our ministries? What does this say about the mission of the Church?” I clarified, “so the women are very practical in these conversations?” The delegate was quick to reply, “yes of course, this is our lives we’re talking about.”
Tables in small group formation
One of the additional ways we know women are being heard during the Synod on Synodality is the unprecedented process itself.
This is the first Synod of Bishops where voting delegates are meeting in round tables rather than as an audience in an auditorium. Additionally, the working document itself, Instrumentum Laboris, is full of discernment questions.
Rather than arriving to the assembly ready to amend, ratify, and approve a prewritten text, this Synod calls for personal contemplation, small group discussion, general assembly conversation, and collective discernment. The process itself, Conversations in the Spirit, ensures that each voting member is able to speak for an uninterrupted set number of minutes, followed by silence for the delegates to feel where the Holy Spirit is moving. This format also inherently holds a consultative relationship between small group tables and the full general assembly.
Though somewhat complicated to grasp at first, the process feels familiar to the shared leadership and communal discernment of women’s religious communities. Conversations in the Spirit resembles what I have also witnessed in general chapter meetings and in faith-based small groups. It is another way women’s wisdom is leading in this monumental moment.
Perhaps that is why witnessing the process itself has given me such great hope; it reminds me of our own State of the Heart. We know that the women are speaking, and that there is space for the Holy Spirit in and among them.
At this halfway point, I cannot help but share the incredible hope simply in the newness, the process, and most importantly in the people who have shared their sacred “yes” to walking together in synodality.
Of course, the temptation to expect certain outcomes comes from a place of true longing. Yet, I am holding hope the greatest success of the Synod on Synodality will come first in our full openness and participation in the process itself. The wisdom of this moment is to encounter one another, something our Church and our communities greatly need. In doing so, may our sacred stories inform — and prayerfully transform — how we are called to embody “communion, mission, and participation.”
As we look ahead into the following weeks and upcoming year, let us hold special attention to the works of the Holy Spirit, openness to transformation, and a hope in a process unfolding.
[Kascha Sanor is the Director of Social and Environmental Justice for the Congregation of St. Joseph]