I would like to thank The Girl Child & Her Long Walk to Freedom team. For many of us participating in the reading journey, this was an amazing experience to learn more about global issues impacting girls and fearless faith-inspired change agents from all walks of life. When I was asked to write something from the Catholic perspective in moving the patriarchal mountain, it took me aback. I must admit I do not think any of my brothers and sisters of the Abrahamic faiths are doing it all right or all wrong. All of us on this journey are the mustard seed planted in the ground or the pebble thrown into the lake. We must all walk each other home, even if it is one painful step at a time.
Perhaps The Roman Catholic Church is often spotlighted as an example of patriarchy because it is so visible with its structure, hierarchy of men, scandals, and strong stances on prominent topics. For those not familiar with Catholicism, the Latin word ‘catholic’ is derived from a Greek word meaning ‘universal’. The word universal often gets confused with oneness or sameness, in my opinion. Despite the implied meaning, the Catholic Church is anything but universal. This notion of sameness and uniformity is often misguided, as I was recently reminded with a current change to canon law.
In January 2021, Pope Francis ordered a decree that allows women to serve as readers at liturgies, altar servers, and distributors of communion. While in much of the U.S., women already fill these roles, it’s not the case everywhere. By making it official, conservative bishops can no longer block women in their dioceses from those roles. While not a radical shift, it officially recognizes common practices on a global playing field. The difference now is that bishops who exclude women from serving in the sanctuary will not have legal backing to do so. According to this decree, they would have to prove that the women coming forward to join these ministries are not qualified, which would be difficult. This decree is a stark reminder that not all rules are ‘universal.’
Women have always played an active role in any church I have attended. Growing up in Long Island, New York, there were always women serving at the altar. Women are the ones who bring families and husbands to church, educate the next generation, form countless ministries and are the true backbone of the parishes. Pope Francis is beginning to publicly acknowledge this with key moves.
For example, Pope Francis wrote in his 2020 letter “Querida Amazonia” (“Beloved Amazonia”) that he wanted to see the church give more official roles to women, albeit not in the role of priests. Pope Francis has also set up commissions to study the history of women deacons in the early centuries of the Catholic Church, of which there is evidence of in many frescoes in the ancient catacombs throughout Rome. Pope Francis also appointed Italian magistrate Catia Summaria to be the first woman prosecutor in the Vatican’s Court of Appeals. Along with this he appointed French Sister Nathalie Becquart as co-undersecretary of the Synod of Bishops, which organizes meetings of world bishops. In this high-ranking position, she has a right to vote in their assemblies and influence cannon laws.
Perhap most importantly, Pope Francis has taken steps to increase women’s leadership at the Vatican with the appointment of six laywomen as members of the Council for the Economy, as well as numerous others in key roles in various Vatican bodies. Dr. Linda Ghisoni, Sister Veronica Openibo, and Valentina Alazraki were powerful voices at the February 2019 Vatican meeting on the protection of minors in the church, strongly pushing for needed reforms in response to the global clergy sexual abuse crisis.
The hope is that our grassroots uprising and the role of women in each parish community will one day come crashing into the top-down changes the Pope is implementing, and not just in the Catholic Church in the U.S., but around the globe. As the Catholic Church moves forward there is a sense from our current Pope that we are moving to a more universal church. A universal church defined by the intention of inclusiveness and wholeness, albeit slowly, and maybe not on the most urgent issues. We press on to that vision to be followers and imitators of the ultimate change agent, Jesus Christ, led by the knowledge that each woman and girl is known to be made in the image of God.
If you want more information, please check out these websites:
Women’s Ordination Conference https://www.womensordination.org/
The International Union Superiors General UISG – International Union Superiors General
Anne Marie Gonzalez was a participant in the 2020-2021 Girl Child & Her Long Walk to Freedom reading journey. She lives outside New Haven, CT, and she is a parishioner and Parish Council President at The Church of Assumption in Ansonia, CT. She works as a School Social Worker with students on the Autism Spectrum and with Intellectual Disabilities.