Recently in Marseilles Pope Francis admonished us – quite rightly – not to treat migrants as hot potatoes. But what about those of us who are being treated as hot potatoes in the church? Too hot to handle and therefore left out in the cold of no-woman’s land. Our crime? Migrating into the sacred space men have reserved for themselves alone – the presbyteral ministry, or priesthood.
The place of women in the church has surfaced as one of the big issues confronting the Catholic Church today, and with it their continued exclusion from ordination to both the diaconate and the priesthood.
However, the issue of female priests was filtered out, “discerned out”, in the working document for the synod of bishops about to start in Rome. Pope Francis has declared it a closed question.
The truth is that where there are open wounds, there are open questions. And there are plenty of open wounds in members of the church, wounds from which the life blood of the church is haemorrhaging. A church that would aspire to be a field hospital needs to address these wounds and take responsibility for inflicting them. This applies especially to church leaders. Survivors of clerical sexual abuse and cover-up have revealed to us how a church built on inequality and power is abusive and cannot be a credible witness.
To be a follower of Jesus is to belong to a discipleship of equals and what affects all must be decided by all
Those of us who do not have the privilege of considering that question closed, because it is our very selves and our lifelong vocations, have had to find spaces where we are welcome and can share freely what the Spirit is doing in our lives.
One such space is Spirit Unbounded, a lay-led synodal process that will hold an assembly in person – in Rome and Bristol – as well as online on October 13th and 14th, with speakers from around the globe. In the week preceding there will be digital recording presentations from over 100 people drawn from all five continents.
The title of the Spirit Unbounded assembly is Human Rights in the Emerging Catholic Church. A wide range of issues will be covered under the following broad headings: ministry, justice (indigenous rights, care of creation, social action), authority, ethics and clerical abuse.
Spirit Unbounded follows on from the very fruitful experience of the 2021 Root and Branch lay-led synod in Bristol. Now Spirit Unbounded has the support of more than 40 reform organisations, including We Are Church International. Spirit Unbounded has been described as a synodal assembly for the uninvited, an alternative synod. It is not in competition with the Vatican synod, but it makes space for voices that are denied a hearing, for people with different experiences of God and of life, whose vision challenges deep rooted prejudices and unjust rules.
Some of us refuse to be hot potatoes tossed aside or cans to be kicked down the road while exhorted to silence and endless patience. Who knows what encounters might happen in the margins?
I see it as a response to the deep sense of exclusion experienced by many Catholics who do not fit in a patriarchal, hierarchical, model of church that is neither safe, just nor inclusive. To be a follower of Jesus is to belong to a discipleship of equals and what affects all must be decided by all. Sr Joan Chittister OSB and Mary McAleese will both address that theme in Rome.
While there was a laudable effort in the preparatory phase of the Vatican Synod to try to reach out to the peripheries and a small number of “non-bishops ” – priests, religious, lay – will now participate, the invitation list is still very exclusive and not just because women will be a small minority (14 per cent with a vote). For instance, there is not one openly gay person, and not one woman with a declared vocation to ordained ministry.
Besides the Spirit Unbounded synodal assembly, several church reform organisations will also have a presence in Rome, including a Woman’s March on October 6th. Some of us refuse to be hot potatoes tossed aside or cans to be kicked down the road while exhorted to silence and endless patience. Who knows what encounters might happen in the margins?
Thirty years ago, I shared in a petition my dream that all ministries in the church would be open to women. St Thérèse, born 150 years ago and whose feast day is October 1st, had already shared that dream. That too is part of our tradition, rooted in the early church baptismal creed that “in Christ there is no longer male and female, but all are one”. And there lies our hope.
Soline Humbert is a spiritual director, an advocate for women’s ordination and a member of We Are Church Ireland