Many women are 'the driving force of synodality,' says religious sister
NEWARK, N.J. (OSV News) • Some say that doors opened for women when Pope Francis appointed Sister Nathalie Becquart as an undersecretary of the Synod of Bishops in 2021, the first woman to hold the position. A French religious sister of the Congregation of Xavières, she is part of a team advising the pope on matters important to the Church, coordinating the Synod on Synodality and has voting rights at the synod.
Prior to her appointment as undersecretary, she was a consultor to the Synod of Bishops. She worked with youth from 2008 to 2018, overseeing the national service for the evangelization of young people and for vocations within the French bishops' conference.
Sister Becquart sat down with Jersey Catholic, the news website of the Archdiocese of Newark, during her visit with Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin, Dominican Sister Donna L. Ciangio, chancellor of the archdiocese, and Melissa Else at the archdiocesan center in March to discuss women's roles, and the role of the laity in general in the Catholic Church and how that has changed with Pope Francis. A recent Vatican News survey showed that currently 1,165 female employees are working for the Pope, compared to only 846 in the year Francis took office in 2013.
Jersey Catholic: What do you think are the current challenges for the promotion of women in the Church?
Sister Becquart: Well, you know, it's really about the promotion of the laity first, and understanding that we are called to be a synodal Church. That means a Church in which everybody -- all the baptized -- protagonists (laypeople) are missionary disciples. What I see is that many women are the driving force of synodality. So, it's really about our vision of the Church. And the challenge is to move from a pattern of a clerical Church to move forward to a synodal Church. So, there is an urgent call coming from all over the world for more women in leadership. And, it is important to note that this was a goal in recent synods, such as the synods on the Family, Youth, and the Amazon. When women are involved, it helps to foster teamwork and the development of pastoral teams. And when you work together, men and women, priests, laypeople, and religious, you are always better.
Jersey Catholic: In the last 10 years, since Pope Francis was elected pontiff in March 2013, how do you think things have changed for women in the Church?
Sister Becquart: We can see that Pope Francis has emphasized the importance of having participation and leadership of women in the Church. He is trying to carry on the vision of a synodal Church, in which the pastor is working together with all the community to carry out the mission of Christ and the Church. When Pope Francis began, 19% of the people working at the Roman Curia were women. Now it is 23.4%, which is a big change. And, he also has appointed more and more women in communications. He also thinks that is very important. He has opened ministries for women, such as lectors and acolytes, and instituted the ministry of catechists, with a rite of installation. In the Synod on Synodality, we have a team of men and women, clergy, laity, and religious. We also have women in all the commissions of the synod. In many countries, often there might only be a priest in a parish doing pastoral ministry, and today there are parish and diocesan teams that include women. So, changes are happening, not only at the Vatican, but also in local churches all over the world.
Jersey Catholic: Is it important to start at the parish level?
Sister Becquart: Changes taking place at the Vatican are extremely important, but it is not enough. Change takes place at the grassroots level and often causes change in other areas. To me, change in parishes and in the diocese, it is the most important. It is there that collaboration in practice makes a huge difference. Today, we see more and more women who are well-educated -- they are studying theology and being formed in many areas of the faith. It's really about lay empowerment and key to that is formation so that the laity are better informed and can walk together to serve the mission of the Church.
Jersey Catholic: As for women's ordination, do you think there's another alternative to that? Or a step before?
Sister Becquart: I would just highlight what Pope Francis is doing, which is to disconnect leadership from ordination. In other words, leadership does not depend on ordination. So, where it's a possibility he has appointed women to leadership in the Roman Curia. And now with the new constitution for the Roman Curia, "Praedicate Evangelium" ("Preach the Gospel"), it's rather clear that a woman can be also a prefect of the dicastery. For example, there is a layman for prefect for the Dicastery for Communication. The new constitution fosters and embraces women's participation in order to have more women in the decision-making process and leadership.
It is not easy to do that at all levels and in all parts of the world. There is not one way that is unanimous for everybody in the world, so we have to be aware that the aim is to reach a consensus. And for the moment, there is a quasi-unanimity about code and the need to rethink women's participation, to foster women's participation in leadership. The conversation needs to be ongoing in order to reach understanding and consensus. The ordination of women is a topic, but it's not coming from all, even all Catholic women.
Jersey Catholic: What can women do now to have a bigger voice within the Church?
Sister Becquart: The most important is not just to have some women at the Vatican but at all levels of the Church and realize how, as a synodal Church, we are called to journey together to carry on the mission of Christ. So how we foster a way to listen to each other, discern together, and do pastoral ministry together is such an important way forward. If we really work together and build pastoral teams, my experience shows that we will be better.
Jaimie Julia Winters is the editor of Jersey Catholic, the news website of the Archdiocese of Newark.