By Svea Fraser, a founding member and former Trustee of Voice of the Faithful, delivered during VOTF’s 2020 Conference: Visions of a Just Church on Oct. 3, 2020. Use this link to watch Svea Fraser’s presentation.
I have been invited to speak on women’s roles in the Church.
It is my pleasure to take this opportunity to tell you of some initiatives that have engaged us in Voice of the Faithful, and the resources available on our website (www.votf.org).
I will begin by putting our work in the context of the wider Church and efforts on behalf of women over the past decades.
I hope that after this brief overview, each of you is more aware of the possibilities for authentic lay ministry, and that you will add your voice, your actions, and your prayers for renewing the face of the Church, a Church that as our former VOTF President Jim Post said, “would make Jesus smile!”
With that, I have titled this presentation, “NOT COUNTING WOMEN …”
The title is based on the conclusion of the miracle of the loaves and fishes in Matthew’s Gospel. It reads:
“Taking the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, he (Jesus) said the blessing, broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, who in turn gave them to the crowds. They all ate and were satisfied, and they picked up the fragments left over—twelve wicker baskets full. Those who ate were about five thousand men, NOT COUNTING WOMEN and children.”
Two thousand years later, the time has come to take account of women, half the members of the Catholic Church!Tweet
VOTF has counted on women since the inception of our movement:
Falling well within our mission to actively participate in the governance and guidance of the Church, and meeting our goal to change the structure, the role of women is a worthy subject of prayer and renewal. We need only look back to the last chapter of Jim Muller and Charles Kenney’s book Keep the Faith, Change the Church, called “How We Can Change the Church—Together,” to be reminded of this. In their list of nine suggested activities to help strengthen the church, “Enhancing the role of women in the church” is ranked number three.
We are a universal catholic church, spanning the globe as brothers and sisters sharing our universal call to holiness by virtue of our baptism: prophets, priests, and royal leaders. Our desire for the equality of women is not an isolated endeavor. VOTF is like a star within the wider galaxy of voices whose concerns we share.
And so before I describe some of our initiatives, I am reminded of the rising tide of voices speaking up for the inclusion of women seeking affirmation and credibility. Our questions and our hopes are set within a broader context of the wider Church that challenges all of us to be the Gospel people God calls us to be.
Here are some courageous challenges spoken to popes by a number of our faithful sisters.
Remember the day Pope John Paul II came to the United States in 1979? Many of us saw him on that rainy day in Boston. 400,000 people gathered for Mass on the Boston Common. As memorable as that day was, I remember his visit most profoundly for what happened in Washington, DC a few days later.
Sr. Theresa Kane, a Sister of Mercy and then president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, stood before 5,000 other sisters (not counting men!) who had gathered to greet Pope John Paul II at the Basilica of the National Shrine in Washington, DC. She spoke these memorable words:
“Our contemplation leads us to state that the Church in its struggle to be faithful to its call for reverence and dignity for all persons must respond by providing the possibility of women as persons being included in all ministries of our Church. I urge you, Your Holiness to be open to and respond to the voices coming from the women of this country who are desirous of serving in and through the Church as fully participating members.”
Theresa’s action was a “huge boost” to the promotion of women’s roles.
Although these words were spoken well before the horrific revelation of abuse and cover up, they were an inspiration to me when the time came for us to speak truth to power. Moved by the Holy Spirit, and buoyed by the courage and dedication of so many unnamed heroes, VOTF was born and endures to this very day! God’s will be done!!
Fast forward to the Papacy of Francis. Among other changes, Pope Francis called for synods for wide consultation on critical areas that need attention in the Church. The 2015 Synod on the Family included 30 women and 279 men. However, invited as auditors only, the women were not allowed to vote. As welcome as the synodal approach is, voting by members is limited to men only.
One woman asked, “Where are women’s voices in the Synods? You are breathing with only one lung.” Italian historian Lucetta Scaraffia wrote, “The absence of women’s perspectives at times of reflection on these issues is not only an act of disdain toward women, who make up more than half of religious and believers, it is also an impoverishment of Catholic life.”
In the Final Report of the Synod on the Family, Pope Francis admitted that a contributing factor in the social recognition of the role of women depends on a greater appreciation of their responsibilities in the Church: this includes involvement in decision-making, participation in the administration of some institutions and involvement in the formation of ordained ministers. (para 27)
At the May 2016 meeting of the Women’s International Union of Superiors General, the Pope was challenged with the question, “What prevents the Church from including women among permanent deacons, as was the case in the primitive church?” Sister Carmen Sammut, President of the International Union of Superiors General admitted, “We are already doing so many things that resemble what a deacon would do, although it would help us to do a bit more service if we were ordained deacons.” Challenging the way leadership is tied to being a cleric and therefore excluding women, Sammut adds, “It’s not just a question of feminism, it’s a question of our being baptized, that gives us the duty and the right to be part of the decision-making processes.”
The Pope responded by promising: “I would like to constitute an official commission to study the question: I think it will be good for the church to clarify this point, I agree, and I will speak so as to do something of this type,”
Subsequently, the Study Commission on the Women’s Diaconate was established in August 2016 to review the theology and history of the of deacons in the Roman Catholic Church and the question of whether women might be allowed to become deacons.
That Commission comprised five men and five women (CORRECTION: six men and six women, with Archbishop Ladaria President), the first Papal Commission ever to have women and in equal proportion to men. Dr. Phyllis Zagano (Catholic studies scholar who also addressed VOTF ‘s 2020 Conference) was one of those members! The commission met for two years . After submitting their report, it was a great disappointment that their conclusion about the possibility of women deacons was ultimately deemed inconclusive. But the work continues with a reconstituted Commission.
In October 2018, the Synod on Youth ended with some of the strongest language yet for the inclusion of women in its all-male decision-making structures, calling the matter a “duty of justice” that requires a “courageous cultural conversion.” Paragraph 148 in the final report states, “The absence of women’s voices and points of view impoverishes discussion and the path of the Church, subtracting a precious contribution from discernment.” It continues, “The synod recommends making everyone more aware of the urgency of an inescapable change.” The spirit of inclusion in the synod was meant to spill over the entire Church, calling for a greater “female presence at all levels of ecclesial organisms.”
More recently, at last year’s Amazon Synod, delegates returned to the question calling of the possibility of women’s ordination to the permanent diaconate. Bishop McElroy of San Diego wrote, “My hope would be that they find a way, a pathway, to make that a reality. And I think there is a good possibility that’s the direction it’s going to head into,” and cited the Pope’s comments immediately after the final vote as an indication that “there’s a good chance some positive action” will take place.
Some of that positive action was expressed at the conclusion of the Synod when Francis indicated that he welcomed “the request to reconvene the Commission and perhaps expand it with new members in order to continue to study the permanent diaconate that existed in the early Church.” Although the new Commission does not include any of the old members, it does continue the balance of five men and five women (plus two men: priest secretary and cardinal president).
What other POSITIVE ACTION is possible? Without the collaboration of both women and men working together, nothing will change. Positive action is dependent on men raising their voices on behalf of women—for it is men who are seated at the table where decisions are made. Women have no authoritative voice to vote, and women are no longer content to wait for mere crumbs of recognition to fall from the table.
My hope in the possibility of reform comes from so many of you, men and women, lay and clergy together who are committed to instituting pathways to shared governance and ministry that have been open to male, celibate clergy alone. To do so depends on ongoing conversation and collaboration between and among the People of God.
And HALLELUJAH! There are men who respond to this call for tangible recognition of women’s ministry. We are blessed with priests and pastors and even some bishops who support our desire for women’s rightful place in governance.
Many of those clerics are members of the Association of U.S. Catholic Priests, the largest association of priests in the United States. Founded in 2011 its members are priests in good standing in dioceses and religious communities.
At its national assembly held in Seattle in June 2013, the Association of U.S. Catholic Priests passed a resolution to promote the ongoing discussion of the ordination of women as permanent deacons and agreed to ask the U.S. bishops to give public support to the restoration of the first millennium practice of ordaining women as permanent deacons.
In August 2018, Executive Director Bob Bonnot, a priest of the diocese of Youngstown, Ohio, and a good friend of VOTF, invited us to be part of a project regarding The Status of Women in the Church. The idea was to develop a white paper on the matter to “clarify the basis of distinguishing the pastoral ministry that can be afforded the faithful (and others) by men and by women respectively in the name of the Risen Christ. Without clarification, the legal and practical distinction between men and women as regards the ability to provide pastoral ministry appears to be discriminatory and is a scandal to many.”
I was honored to be one of eight members—four priests and four women. I think it is important to name each one:
- Steve Newton, CSC (Congregation of Holy Cross), campus minister at St. Mary’s College Notre dame
- Deborah Rose-Milavec, Executive Director, FutureChurch
- Sister Mary Beth Ingham, CSJ (Sister of St. Joseph) of Orange, California, Professor of Philosophical Theology at Franciscan School of Theology, and a Blessed John Duns Scotus scholar at the University of San Diego
- David La Plante, a priest from the Archdiocese of Omaha in ministry in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee
- Sister Jackie Doepker, Franciscan Sister of Tiffin, Ohio, who is the executive Secretary of AUSCP
- Jerry Bechard, co-founder of AUSCP and longtime pastor at Sts. Simon and Jude Catholic Church in Westland, Michigan
- and Friar Kevin Schindler-McGraw, OFM Conv, Director of Ongoing Formation of Priests Formation in the Diocese of Oakland, California
We met via zoom and committed to the goal of promoting discussion, using the white paper as an opportunity for dialogue rather than an argument in favor of a specific position. Although we admitted that the conclusions of our thinking could (and did) point directly toward a proposed solution, we hoped the style would be invitational rather than adversarial. Our method called for presenting different threads from various disciplines, suggesting certain implications or conclusions. We prepared the paper as an impetus to engage the People of God in discerning women’s equal status in the church.
The preamble of our paper quotes the opening lines of Gaudium et Spes in expressing “the joys and hopes” which spring from our faith in Jesus Christ, along with the help of the Holy Spirit to overcome the “griefs and anxieties” caused by crises in our Catholic Church today. We believe that unless the institutional Church engages women as equals those crises stand little chance of being overcome.
The signs of the times suggest that what were once considered to be the most effective ways of spreading the Gospel are no longer sufficient. We need new models of universal and parochial leadership to stimulate Church renewal.
Relying on the guidance of the Holy Spirit, who speaks to us through various disciplines and our own experiences, we each chose a topic and briefly reflected on the role of women from different sources: historical, cosmological, anthropological, biological, scriptural, philosophical, theological, sacramental, liturgical, and pastoral. Each entry supported the conviction that this is a moment when we can engage a process that recognizes our common Baptism and the vital role of women in the present and future of Church ministry. Each section posed a question such as:
- How might the institutional Church meet women where they are pastorally?
- How might the Church welcome their insights as prophets and preachers, as priests in the universal priesthood of believers taking part in rituals collaboratively with their male counterparts, and as leaders with an authoritative place at the table where pastoral decisions are made?
- Would ordaining women in the permanent diaconate further endorse and sanctify the rights and duties of half of the people in the pews as a visible sign for the benefit of the People of God and the world we seek to serve?
In addition to these questions, the paper concludes with a discussion guide, suggested prayers and additional resources.
Where is the Holy Spirit leading us in these efforts? What are the possible NEXT ACTIONS for us? It is clear that the question of THE PERMANENT DEACONATE continues to rise to the surface ever since its restoration after Vatican II. And so our attention in VOTF focuses on this topic.
And who have we turned to for expertise on the subject? There is no one more well-known, more knowledgeable and more outspoken than Dr. Phyllis Zagano. VOTF is blessed by our mutual support and admiration. You are already well aware of her qualifications as a theologian, author, speaker, and member of the first Papal Commission on Women Deacons.
It was highly appropriate that we awarded Phyllis our “Catherine of Sienna Award Distinguished Layperson Award.”
Catherine’s famous statement, “Speak the truth with a million voices, its silence that kills the world,” could readily apply to Phyllis, whose “hash tag” could be “PREACH the truth with a million voices…” And through her books, articles, webinars and on-line opportunities, she must have close to a million supporters!
We all had the privilege of hearing Dr. Zagano speak this morning (use this link to watch Dr. Zagano’s presentation), and although I do not have the benefit of responding because this was prerecorded—I am sure you were captivated by her faithful and persistent dedication to the ordination of women to the permanent
We are blessed to be affiliated with her, and VOTF is a grateful recipient of her friendship and generosity. Her book Holy Saturday: An Argument for the Restoration of the Female Diaconate in the Catholic Church was a ground-breaking exposition of the possibility of ordaining women to the permanent diaconate.
In 2011 she co-authored Women Deacons: Past, Present, Future. This book offers a way to explore the history of women deacons in the Church through examples from Scripture, rites of the Church, ancient documents and contemporary sources beginning with Vatican II, when the diaconate was restored as a permanent vocation.
Donors supported the book, along with a Reflection and Study Guide for group discussion, for availability on the VOTF website.
Last Spring, VOTF offered this opportunity with downloads of the book and study guide. Eight groups of 55 people from across the US signed up and engaged in lively discussions about the permanent diaconate.
My parish collaborative hosted a workshop for 20 parishioners, which included men and women, one of whose father was ordained a permanent deacon in the first group in Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston.
For many it was an education about a topic they knew little about. For others it was an opportunity to express the frustration as well as the hopes for women in ministry. Most importantly, it raises awareness and encourages ongoing conversation and action.
We plan to continue to offer this resource on our website, as well as introducing the opportunity to colleges and faith groups interested in learning more about this ministry.
This year, Phyllis published another book titled Women: Icons of Christ. This book explores the imaging of Christ and whether a woman is suitable to be the face of Christ, and capable of being conferred sacramental ordination to the diaconate. A similar Reflection and Study Guide to the Women Deacons book groups is offered on line for continuing education and discussion.
And finally, another resource is a small card, available for you to download and print, that summarizes the case for women deacons: It has already been translated in 14 languages!
One side reads:
The Second Vatican Council restored the diaconate as a permanent vocation, noting men already functioned as deacons, and thus “it is only right to strengthen them by the imposition of hands that they may carry out their ministry more effectively because of the sacramental grace of the diaconate.” Many women function as deacons today. The diaconate is not the priesthood. Women can image the Risen Lord.By Phyllis Zagano, Ph.D.
The other side reads:
Ancient and medieval liturgies document Women were ordained as deacons by their bishops within the sanctuary during Mass, in the presence of the clergy through the imposition of hands by the invocation of the Holy Spirit; they self-communicated from the chalice; the bishop placed the stole around their necks. These women were called deacons. Deacons minister the diakonia of the Word, liturgy, and charity to the people of God.By Phyllis Zagano, Ph.D.
Speaking of women deacons, did you know that the church celebrates the Feast of St. Phoebe on October 3rd? You may not know much about Phoebe, and that wouldn’t be surprising.
That’s because in the continuous reading from Romans, verses one and two of chapter 16 are omitted from the lectionary (Saturday of the Thirty-first Week in Ordinary Time, Year I). So churchgoers never hear of Phoebe in our liturgy, a woman who was a deacon!Tweet
Let me proclaim it to you now!
“I commend to you our sister Phoebe a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, (sen-kree-aye) that you may receive her in the Lord as befits the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a helper of many and of myself as well.”
If Saint Paul entrusts his letter to a woman deacon, how can the church justify not doing so today?
The VOTF website offers many opportunities to promote women in the church. Take a look at Women’s Roles on the votf.org website listed under “Programs.”
Some of those suggestions include:
- Writing a letter to your Bishop calling for ordained women deacons (there is a template included)
- Distributing the cards summarizing the evidence and need for women deacons
- learning about women deacons
- sharing what you learn with others—both lay and clergy
- connecting with others for conversations about restoring this Church ministry for women
- check out the DeaconChat page prepared by FutureChurch
- look at the video and reading resources;
- Of special note among the readings is a paper titled “Women Deacons: How Long?” by Carrolyn Johnson, Ed.D.
Johnson was one of the awardees of the Emily and Rosemary Fund donated by Lynette Petruda of Missouri in 2010 for women facing hardship after losing their jobs in the Church as a result of injustice or discrimination. Lynette established the fund after winning her own court case. She donated her substantial settlement money to be dispersed as grants distributed by VOTF in the name of her two grandmothers, Emily and Rosemary.
What more can I say? It’s your turn now.
- If you believe it is time to hear a woman’s voice preach the Word of God.
- If you hope to see a woman pouring the water of baptism
- If you welcome a woman witnessing the sacramental vows of a couple in marriage
- If you envision the comforting presence of a woman ministering to the bereaved
Then DO something about it.
Stand up and be COUNTED!