STATEMENT TO THE SYNOD ON SYNODALITY
SISTERS OF CHARITY OF THE BLESSED VIRGIN MARY
Our Synodal response bears witness to our founding spirit.
We are Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVMs), a religious congregation of pontifical right, whose motherhouse is in Dubuque, Iowa. We began in 1833 with five women from Dublin under the leadership of Mary Frances Clarke and bound together by a unifying conviction: “God who is love has called us to follow Jesus Christ” (BVM Constitutions 1). Their longing to live in the way of love compelled them to cross an ocean, found a new community of women religious, and venture beyond diocesan boundaries. Called and companioned by the freeing power of God’s love, our founding women moved through and beyond boundaries of every kind living the mission of Jesus as their own: “being freed and helping others enjoy freedom in God’s steadfast love” (BVM Constitutions 10).
One hundred and eighty-nine years later, during the months of February and March 2022, 143 BVMs and associates met in person and by ZOOM, to engage in the Synodal process as proposed by Pope Francis, designed by the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), and adapted by BVMs. Inspired by our founding spirit of an ever-widening embrace of liberating love, the predominant theme underlying and weaving its way through all our conversations was that of inclusion. We addressed the theme of inclusion through three interrelated perspectives: mission, structure, and theology. In the sharing of our experiences, we affirmed over and over again, the expansive, welcoming Church we long for and commit to creating.
We affirm a Church whose inclusive community is lived in its mission of promoting God’s liberating love and generating communion in the world.
The Church we affirm is unified by a communal embrace of the message of Jesus to make the unconditional love of God known. It is a Church that prioritizes the expansion of mission over the preservation of power. Such communities of boundless love originate within the local community itself: its ways of being together and especially how it prays together. Prayer is truly communal, inclusive in language, diverse in form. Participation is recognized, respected, and intentionally sought. Rituals are open to a variety of cultural expressions. Leaders, participants, and the content of prayer reflect the wide diversity of the people of God in gender and age, sexual identity and ethnicity. The Church we affirm reaches out specifically and intentionally to young adults to help shape the Church of the future.
We value the formation of communities enhanced by small faith-sharing groups. Such groups feed into inclusive worship and ritual, leading us to outreach and action in caring for the environment and all people. The Church we affirm honors Eucharistic moments where God is encountered in acts of justice and in relationships with all beings, not a Church of rigid and formulaic rituals. The Church we affirm removes barriers created by strong statements on sexuality and a narrow one issue pro-life view. It focuses instead on actions that help build the Kingdom of God rather than preserving hierarchical structure and clerical status.
Our vision for the Church in the 21st century includes moving from a focus on internal issues to a focus on the mission of reflecting and promoting God’s liberating love. We desire a Church centered on justice and outreach. In a clerically-centered Church, there is a regression into a “decorative” or “ceremonial” Church rather than a movement towards a Church in the world committed to walking with people and working for justice. Bishops and priests often do not reach out or listen to the people they serve. This hinders their ability to teach and preach meaningfully. Too often they seem to feel they do not need to be accountable. In the United States few bishops speak out on urgent social issues; even though Pope Francis provides them with a strong example, too few follow. We, on our part, are troubled by the level of opposition Pope Francis and other reform minded bishops face. The one issue where bishops do speak out is abortion which cannot be understood apart from other social issues. Social justice issues and common good need to be addressed with the people, including racism, homophobia, abortion, care of earth, human trafficking, and the death penalty. We advocate for a Church that promotes human rights and resists the divisiveness of “cultural wars.”
Thanks to advances in the biological and human sciences, we are learning about the impacts of climate change, the importance of environmental justice, the hurt caused by racism, the evolving understanding of how our bodies develop, giving us a more nuanced sense of gender. Moving beyond preaching, the Catholic community needs to act, to unite behind a clearly focused ministry, e.g., feeding the world’s hungry. Climate change is Earth’s existential crisis. We affirm the efforts of the Laudato Si’ Action Platform; the outcome of the Synod must include making this a top priority. Such world-wide initiatives will require collaboration, steadfast focus, and attentiveness to the systemic change that will be necessary for a lasting solution.
We affirm a Church that is an authentic community shaped collaboratively by the ministerial gifts of all, especially those of women.
The Church we affirm reflects the early Church as described in the Acts of the Apostles: women and men called by the community to lead in all aspects of community life i.e. prayer, preaching, worship, and outreach to those in need. Believing that the gifts of the Spirit are lavished on women and men alike, this Church welcomes women to all roles of service including ministry as deacons, priests and bishops. Recognizing that the people of God are the Church and not the helpers of the clergy, the Church we affirm displaces priests from the pedestal and relocates them among the people. It is a Church that understands, values, and implements team leadership, empowers the people to define what needs to be done locally, is enhanced by small faith-sharing groups, and chooses the asceticism of dialogue as a way beyond polarization. The Church we affirm is a community where all have a voice. All, including its leaders, are called to accountability in mutual dialogue, speaking their truth honestly, listening deeply, and carrying forward the impetus of the Spirit active among them.
We affirm a Church that has moved beyond structures shaped by the elitism of clericalism and the exclusivity of patriarchy to structures shaped by the generosity of the Spirit alive in all of us. It must embrace the very people who have been excluded (women, LGBTQ persons, married priests, etc.) in formal ministries and at every level of decision-making. Leadership within the various communities that form Church must involve those who are being served: bottom-up, not top-down. Clericalism and patriarchy reduce the action of the Spirit to the ministry of ordained males. Patriarchy needs to be acknowledged for what it is: domination, a caste system with male hierarchy over everyone else. It is sin. It is not right relationship.
The Church of the future must re-imagine the spirituality of the sacraments, especially Holy Orders and how it contributes to elitism. The pastor’s leadership style and the people’s relationship with the pastor affect the parish community. The pastor’s response to the people could be inclusive or domineering. We described parishes that we have lived or worked in that model inclusive leadership. The problem is that a new pastor can come in who is not collaborative and can change everything back to a hierarchical model, which is discouraging for all involved. Many pastors have a skewed sense of their role, often taking a power position. Pastors come and go. Parishioners are frequently lifetime members of a local Church. Whose Church is it? Does the local Church need an ordained pastor?
The Church is in dire need of feminine spirituality and leadership. Women are excluded from meaningful leadership roles. We have examples of dioceses where women were given responsibility for parishes without ordained ministers; people flocked to their ministry and preaching. The practice was stopped as it seemed to threaten some priests. Women experience the call from God as strongly as men do. Women do a significant portion of the work in the Church and, yet, are not treated as equals. Too often the intelligence and wisdom of women are devalued in favor of clerical preservation of power.
Women who work in the Church often focus on inclusion with many groups, e.g. people with disabilities, people who have left the Church, local ministerial associations for ecumenical dialogue, high school students drawn into parish ministries of lector and Eucharistic ministry, social justice groups gathered to educate and act, etc. Yet women are not at the decision making table. Does the Church value women? Girls and women continue to be marginalized. This must change. Ordination needs to be open to women and to married men. We do not have a “vocation” crisis; we have a crisis in recognizing vocations.
We want our voices heard; women must be seen as equals in the Church. There are many examples of women ministers in other faiths who are ordained and seen as equals. Why do the wives of deacons need to attend the classes but are not able to be ordained? Ecclesial leaders need to pay serious attention to the experiences of women as they are courageously expressed in the public voice of organizations like the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) and in our Synodal response.
Many women are profoundly skeptical about this Synod. Some BVM sisters and BVM associates have chosen not to participate at all in this Synodal response. Is this process going to go anywhere? Our history of dismissal and pretense of being listened to has exhausted our hope to the extent that participation feels like collusion with an unjust ecclesial system. The hierarchy is already dictating what will be addressed in their particular dioceses and what will not be addressed. Some parishes have not even initiated a process for the Synod. Again, it seems to depend on the bishop. We want our bishops to really listen in this process, and we want to hear our bishops verbalize their hopes and dreams. Deep down and most urgently, we ask: Can women’s ordination be on the Synodal table? And, do women want to be priests in today’s Church?
What a wonderful Church it will be when we mutually share our gifts as ordained ministers, when all are welcome at the table, when there are no divisions based on race, nationality, gender, sexual identity, etc. The Spirit is calling us to do things differently: more simply, inclusively, empowering the people in the Church as they help define what needs to be done locally. Let “Renew My Church” provide the opportunity to create a new framework: leadership teams where the priest is the liturgical presider and part of the leadership team that makes financial, educational, cultural, spiritual and liturgical decisions about how to be Church in the local community. A non-hierarchical model of leadership leads to vibrant parish communities where people pray and serve with a sense of ownership and responsibility.
It is essential that a strong community spirit be nurtured in our parishes. Parish communities are places where we see a vibrancy in the Church as people come together to pray, to serve and to form community with one another. Vibrancy is most likely to be found in small informal groups rather than in a parish as a whole. We are heartened by the cultural richness in the local and global Church where this is allowed to flourish. People want to feel that they are an essential part of the parish. For example, at a Christian Experience Weekend (CEW) people meet other parishioners, get to know them, and see the effect of faith in their lives through struggles and joys.
Serving on parish committees is another way to get involved and learn about the parish community. Getting to know people is key to feeling welcome. When we think of the personal connections we have, or have had, with parishes, we realize how much we have shared with, learned from, and been inspired by the People of God. This vibrancy, however, is not apparent in all parishes. Compared with the times of renewal after the Second Vatican Council, many parishes now seem dead, with much of the hope of those days stalled and even undone.
We envision a Church that shapes a community structure sourced through dialogue where all voices are heard. This includes women, divorced and remarried, LGBTQ and others. Creating community is what is so important; feeling a part of the community; able to share laughter and tears. If we talk to each other and know each other, we are better able to dialogue. Even if we do not agree, we can dialogue. We need to connect with each other. We need to share the positives and the negatives without judgement. It is easy not to listen if we disagree or think of our rebuttal instead of really listening. All of us, especially the bishops and clergy, need to invite the people in by listening, to exercise servanthood by paying attention.
We all need to have the courage to move from anonymity at the margins to visibility at the center of the community, to speak up, to approach others, and welcome them into our Church community. The practice of dialogue is essential to our Church where socio-political “cultural wars” and polarization create division and discord in the way the Church is present to the world. The polarization in the Church mirrors the polarization in politics in the United States and this must be addressed. We need to critically ask: What is the Church becoming? Who, what, where are the powerful voices in our Church? Is it the voices of wealthy donors
Some among us ask: Why do parishes have “councils” if many of them are ignored by the pastors. What spaces are available on parish boards? Are the poor, homeless, immigrants, and minorities represented on parish councils? If not, how do parish leaders get input from these voices who live a reality different from the majority in the parish; or are they not welcome in the parish?
What we know and own is that we are Church on the journey as a community who celebrate together, who remember that we participate not for self-glorification but for the common good, and who welcome all to our table, even when we get our hands slapped or our pastors are changed for not toeing the line. We all feel better when parishioners are included in the decision-making. A sense of belonging and investment of time and talent are the fruits of being part of the decision-making process. The parish Church is a community. It hangs together because the people have a common interest, a personal connection, with others around them. Seeing people living Gospel values is the sign of a good parish.
We affirm a Church theologically animated by the life and example of Jesus and the ongoing action of the Spirit.
The Church we affirm has moved from a past theology of atonement to a contemporary theology of accompaniment which calls us to be open and welcoming to all, especially the poor and marginalized. Framed by the Jesus story, rather than dogma and laws, this Church is centered in compassion and mercy. It is humane, recognizing the full humanity of each person without drawing lines between those “worthy” and “not worthy.” Understanding that the Spirit is asking us to grow and mature in our faith, this Church encourages us to develop spiritually, intellectually, morally. Young people leaving institutional religion would find meaning in a Church shaped by Vatican II theology and the universe story, and open to the new cosmology, advances in science, and the emerging needs of our time.
What we experience is a dissonant Church, a Church with medieval structures and values which emphasize sinfulness, not what Jesus preached: a beloved community that recognizes the holiness of all creation. There is a rigid clinging to the past which makes the Church more and more irrelevant, especially to young people, but not only to them. Our own past experiences of Church stay with us: inequities, memories of abuse, failed annulments, closing of parishes. An emphasis on unchanging doctrine or on the preservation of structures created for other times prevents a bold response to the movement of the Spirit today. There was an excitement after Vatican II which seems to have gotten lost. We seem to have stepped backward from what was accomplished in Vatican II. We are no longer journeying together.
There is a gap between our experience of Church and the Gospel of Jesus. The Spirit is at work and yet in many ways we as Church are slow to respond. The people in the pews in our churches and communities are first of all, “the Church.” But so are the many people who have left the pews to seek other faith communities because they do not feel welcome or spiritually fed in the Catholic Church. They leave, often with a great sense of loss, but feeling they have little choice for their own spiritual wellness. We need their wisdom and gifts now, too. We ourselves share at times in this sense of loss and homelessness when our experience of liturgies or the actions of the hierarchy do not reflect our deep sense of who God is, or who we are called to be as Church today. Images of God that were once meaningful, or which we once uncritically accepted, no longer speak to us.
All of this requires a different kind of education so we can move forward in a collaborative manner. We need ongoing education of all clergy and laity in areas including contemporary moral theology, scriptural study, sexuality as a gift of God, and practical ways to engage in the mission of reflecting and promoting God’s liberating love for all creation. A Vatican II theological, scriptural spirituality and ecumenical study for all ministers is essential to transforming the current Church.
We have serious concern about seminary education. Thinking and practices lean very much toward pre-Vatican II worship, customs and thinking. There is a gap between the theology found in our Catholic academic universities and what is taught in many seminaries. What is the process leading to ordination? Who decides where people go for this education and training? How are seminaries evaluated? Bishop Untener contends that every parish council should ask, “How does what we are deciding affect the most vulnerable in our parish and in the world?” Seminary preparation needs to encourage seminarians to look at what Jesus said, then look at every law that the Church says people must follow. Does it match what Jesus said? If not, consider “why do we have this law?” Whose tradition is it? Is it good for today?
Even though Pope Francis frequently denounces clericalism, seminaries seem to be reinforcing clericalism. Priests are usually “set apart” and educated in a separate environment from the non-ordained baptized who will be their partners in community and ministry. Acknowledging that a pervasive culture of clericalism has led to a sense of entitlement and abuse of power, we urge the Church to reimagine seminary training placing an emphasis on developing servant leadership and listening to the divergent voices of the people of God.
Affirming the Church we desire, we commit to model and witness to a Church freed in God’s love.
Recognizing and accepting our responsibility to lift up our voice in word and action for a new Church, we BVM sisters and associates are committed to collaborate with others for systems change. “By our work in union with Christ, we participate in his creating and redeeming action, transforming the earth and promoting the kingdom of God” (BVM Constitutions 11). We resonate with Pope Francis’ words of hope for the transformation of the Church when he proclaims, “God is a God of surprises! . . . And when one is on a journey one always finds new things, things one does not know” (God of Surprises Oct 2014). May that be true of this Synodal journey.
April 25, 2022