What’s it like being the only female cleric at the synod on young people?

Rev. Martina Viktorie Kopecká at the Synod on young people (Credit: Vatican Media)Rev. Martina Viktorie Kopecká at the Synod on young people (Credit: Vatican Media)

A young priest in the Czechoslovak Hussite Church has been pleasantly surprised by the welcome and openness she has experienced at the Synod of Bishops on young people, she told America in an interview. A fraternal delegate, Rev. Martina Viktorie Kopecká, 32, has the distinction of being the only female cleric at the Synod of Bishops, which is taking place from Oct. 3 to 28 in Rome.

Dressed in the liturgical vestments of the Hussite Church—a black robe with an imprinted red chalice and white stole—she delivered an address to the whole synod body on Oct. 11, emphasizing the importance of ecumenical relations, calling the synod a “sign of hope” and affirming the capacity of young people to be bridge builders.

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“The true ecumenical movement must be lived and shared together,” she said.

Rev. Kopecká did not go unnoticed. She believes the cardinals and bishops “were surprised, maybe shocked” to see her clerical attire, she told America. “They recognized me as the girl at dinner and now as a priest. It takes some time, but they have accepted me.”

Rev. Kopecká believes the cardinals and bishops “were surprised, maybe shocked” to see her clerical attire.

“After my intervention, a lot of people came to me in the hallways, saying they listened to me and were inspired,” Rev. Kopecká said. “I was surprised that they even listened to me. I am quite young and a woman. I wore a white stole. They are not pushing me away. They accept me as a member of the family.”

The fraternal delegates who represent other Christian churches can make interventions in the synod aula and participate in small group discussions, but they cannot vote. The Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople has a delegate, as do ecclesial organizations like the World Lutheran Federation, the World Communion of Reformed Churches and the World Methodist Council.

Rev. Kopecká is representing the World Council of Churches, a fellowship of 350 member churches “seeking unity, common witness and Christian service.” Even at her young age, she has been entrusted with great responsibility at the W.C.C. She serves on their central committee and 20-member executive committee, and she moderates the ECHOS commission on youth in the ecumenical movement.

“I was surprised that they even listened to me. I am quite young and a woman. I wore a white stole. They are not pushing me away.”

“When a human being meets another human being, it doesn’t matter which denomination we belong to,” she said. “We believe in Christ and can find a way—as Pope Francis says—to work and pray together. We are from different cultures and societies, but we have something in common. Young people, through friendship, are learning how to move toward acceptance and respect.”

At the beginning of her experience in the eternal city, Rev. Kopecká was not certain she would receive a welcome, she admitted. She is staying at an international house for clergy and sat alone for her first three meals. “I said: This is a disaster.” On the second day, however, a bishop from Paraguay asked if he could join her. “I said, Yes, please!”

She described the encounter as the first major “turning point” in her experience. The bishop was “really interested in who I am,” she said. “Ecumenical circles are not about papers, documents and institutions. It is about meeting people without any judgment. Yes, I am the girl. I am ordained. But he was interested in my culture and church and, later, many others joined us.”

“We believe in Christ and can find a way—as Pope Francis says—to work and pray together.”

Another turning point happened in her small group. “At the first meeting, I felt very vulnerable,” she admitted. “I’m quite introverted, so it is not easy for me to talk in a group with people I don’t know.” But the leader of the group helped create an atmosphere where she felt comfortable, she said.

“I feel accepted. My voice is heard,” she said. “I can even turn the direction” of the conversation and influence decisions. “My answers are valued. We support each other.”

The moderator of the group is Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago. The relator is Auxiliary Bishop Mark Edwards of Melbourne, Australia. Several young people have spoken about their high regard for the welcoming and inclusive spirit of Bishop Edwards. On Oct. 15, Bishop Edwards invited Yadira Vieyra, a young auditor from Chicago, to read part of the group report to the entire synod.

Rev. Kopecká said the W.C.C. strongly supports young people, inviting many young leaders and speakers and “trying to be inclusive.” With the diversity of 350 member churches, she said, a consensus model of decision-making is “very, very difficult” but enriching. In fact, the Synod of Bishops has reminded her of the open-minded climate of the W.C.C.

“I feel accepted. My voice is heard,” Rev. Kopecká said. 

“I feel we are touching very, very sensitive issues in the synod, like child exploitation,” she said. “People are speaking to each other very openly. I would not have expected the mutual acceptance, the variety of the topics, the richness and diversity. It is not about bringing divisions and differences but charity, which builds the Christian community.”

In her intervention to the synod, Rev. Kopecká referenced her conversion to Christianity at age 20. “When I heard the voice of God, I left everything and I followed that inspiration,” she told the synod.

In the interview with America,Rev. Kopecká described her native Czech Republic as a highly secularized society in which people generally do not want to be part of any institution, especially the church. She noted that her parents, who are both medical doctors, are “spiritual” but not Christians or churchgoers.

[Explore America’s in-depth coverage of the Synod on Young People]

She could not have foreseen her conversion to Christianity or call to ordained ministry. She had been working as a highly paid manager in an international company and “had everything,” except for education. She decided to go to Charles University in Prague to study theology, simply because there were no entrance exams. She explained, “I had no knowledge of the Bible or Christianity.”

She started to take classes in Hebrew, Latin, systematic theology and biblical hermeneutics. In studying Hebrew, she said she discovered the values she had always been looking for. At first, she told herself it is only a science: “No, Martina, don’t believe in anything.” But she was being drawn into a mystery.

“For me, ordination is not a question of gender but human dignity and equal possibilities.”

“I could not help myself,” she recounted. “Day by day, I realized this is the way. I fell in love with Jesus. I realized this calls me to become a member of the church.” So she began visiting parishes and considering baptism. Later, the “amazing work” of priests inspired her to quit her job and pursue ordination.

She has studied theology, psychology and special education and has worked as a crisis counselor. She was ordained at age 30 and is currently working as a pastor. She is also pursuing a doctorate in ecumenical theology at Charles University, which involves attending seminars, teaching classes and writing a dissertation.

She feels strongly about the ordination of women but also understands the sensitivity of the issue in the Catholic Church.

“For me, ordination is not a question of gender but human dignity and equal possibilities,” she said. “Women do a lot of work in the church today and should be considered as spiritual leaders and servants of God. They are doing the hardest work, caring for people in miserable situations. They make the face of the church more human.”

“Women do a lot of work in the church today and should be considered as spiritual leaders and servants of God.”

She said her small group discussed the ordination of women deacons. “I understand it is not an easy question. It is sensitive,” she said. “Sometimes I can disagree but I am trying to accept the different contexts and backgrounds.”

The Czechoslovak Hussite Church, formally established in 1920 in Prague by members of the modernist reform movement of Roman Catholic clergy, draws from the tradition of the Czech reformation in the 15th century (a century before Martin Luther). According to the website of the World Council of Churches, the Hussite Church has nearly 100,000 members and “occupies the middle ground between the essence of the Catholic Church (liturgy and the seven sacraments) and the principles of the Protestant churches (teaching and order).” Bishops are elected by a diocesan assembly. The church values dialogue, freedom of conscience and openness to a pluralistic world.

Jan Hus, a leading priest in the movement, sought to purify the church, Rev. Kopecká explained. He criticized indulgences, wanted to preach in the vernacular and asked for theological dialogue. Under pressure, he refused to renounce what he believed. He was burned at the stake in 1415 and considered a heretic for hundreds of years until 1999 when Pope John Paul II apologized and expressed “deep sorrow” for his “cruel death” and praised his “moral courage” as a true reformer of the church.

“My heart is really in Hussitism and the Reformation and the legacy of Jan Hus,” she said.

Rev. Kopecká said she first met Pope Francis in Geneva, when the pope visited the headquarters of the World Council of Churches on June 21. When she met him again at the synod, he remembered her.

“I expressed my gratitude [to Francis] on behalf of the World Council of Churches,” she said. “To be involved in the synod is a huge step in the ecumenical relationship between the Vatican and the World Council of Churches. It is an open door and a new era, a new dimension of sharing, of becoming a family.”

In the synod hall, she said, Pope Francis “is always very relaxed, ready to smile. He accepts fun, which is beautiful. When there is a joke, he smiles. He is not rigid in any way. We feel we are at home and can speak openly.

“He is really inspiring for many youth because he is not old,” she said. “He is incredibly young. He has openness, creativity and energy, and he also brings wisdom and experience, but not in the way that he is pushing anybody to anything. He just brings his values.”

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Will Niermeyer
1 month 2 weeks ago

And yet these very men uphold the male only priesthood. I say rather two faced of them but considering the sexual abusive mess the Church is in with its state of affairs most likely are in a state of stupefied shock. Give us shephards who are only after the heart of Jesus.

Nora Bolcon
1 month 2 weeks ago

Amen Will, and thank you.

I was called to ordained priesthood just like this woman when I was fifteen. You have no idea how painful it has been and still is to read this article or ones from women of other churches. I can't help but ask myself what my life might have been like to have known this kind of acceptance of my people and church leaders.

All I have ever felt since I was 15 is tolerated, if that. Sometimes I have felt accepted within communities of priestly orders, as long as I don't speak too much about this bias in church. However, the sensation that I am not normal, not really wanted, a risky friend to keep close, is felt whenever I speak in most Catholic circles. Sometimes Catholic laypeople express happiness you are there but often clandestinely, and out of earshot of priests, which makes you feel like you are a sinner for your calling. It hurts enormously and is even spiritually, mentally and emotionally traumatizing in very real and long term ways.

Things seems to be changing a little since the youth are telling our church they are leaving in good part due to our sexism and the evils that come with it.

Still, I also sense Pope Francis has recently started to push even harder down on those communities of priests and Catholic media outlets which used to discuss women priests by ordering them to not bring up women priests at all and threatening them now more than he was before. I believe this is due to his wanting to shove optional celibacy down people's throats and he hopes that if we don't talk at all about the misogyny that would entail, thru the gender segregation it would create, he can get it done. You can tell these groups are more scared now and often omit sexism off their lists of social evils when writing or preaching on the subject of discrimination overall.

“For me, ordination is not a question of gender but human dignity and equal possibilities,” This is really the only genuine Christian stand anyone should have based on the Gospels of Jesus Christ. That being true is why the Gag Order from our hierarchy and Pope exists silencing the wrong of discriminating against women for priesthood or any ordained ministry. Once the wrong is openly discussed, it is clear how abusive the bias has always been, and there is only one Christian choice left for the Church: Change the Law and remove all bias to uphold the equal humanity of women thru same ordination practices in all ministries.

Crystal Watson
1 month 2 weeks ago

And the pope says that women will *never* be priests in the Catholic church. This is one of the reasons young people don't want to be Catholic.

Tim Donovan
1 month 2 weeks ago

With tespect, I disagree with your claim that not having women as priests is the reason why young people "don't want to be Catholic. First, respected surveys indicate that many young people choose to be agnostics. Many Churches that permit women to be priests or ministers have during the past generation have had significant declines in members. The Episcopal Church is one prominent example, as well as the Methodist and Presbyterian churches. The number of Catholics has certainly declined in Western nations. However, the number of Catholics has grown in so-called Third World countries. I believe that Pope Francis has made this observation. Again, I certainly believe that priests or ministers like Rev. Kopecka are dedicated to loving God and their neighbors.

Crystal Watson
1 month 2 weeks ago

I didn't say it was the only reason, just one of them. Of course the Catholic church is growing in developing countries like Africa - society there is still very misogynistic and homophobic.

Nora Bolcon
1 month 2 weeks ago

The fact is this is one of the top five reasons given by our youth who have left and become NONES on most surveys taken over the last 10 years. It has also been a recurrent theme before and during this synod and that is true even though the youth at the synod have been told to not bring this issue up as a discussion topic.

Nora Bolcon
1 month 2 weeks ago

Tim, these churches have not declined due to ordaining women but for a variety of other reasons, including marrying LGBT and because of the general exodus from standard religion and other issues not related to ordaining or marrying anyone. Much of the Episcopal Church's loss is not from people leaving but from their strong decline in birth rate. Overcoming sexism is still occurring in many of these churches as some did not make all parts of their churches change overnight but allowed a slow progression which has them still dealing with the pain of mere change. That is why it is better to just rip the band aid off at once with legal change to ordain women. Otherwise the pain of change goes on for decades from people who leave because you let women be ordained and for others who find the change to allow them into all ministry is still too slow. All change causes people to leave and some people to enter churches. We are now losing more women than protestant churches that have leveled out in very recent years.

Also by Episcopal Surveys of themselves - these churches have gained as many new people as they have lost over the ordination of women priests. Many people have left our church to go to theirs for this reason alone. LGBT are leaving us for the same reason now too. Once these protestant churches' change is stabilized and they orient themselves to evangelize more to gain people rather than depend on birth rate, you will likely see these churches grow in the future. That may not be true of ours except in Africa.

James Haraldson
1 month 1 week ago

You have that backwards. A Church of capricious accommodation to idiotic cultural expectations is precisely what drives away any young person with any human decency.

John Mack
1 month 2 weeks ago

Lovely angle on the Synod. They are blessed to have a woman priest among them.

Tim Donovan
1 month 2 weeks ago

I know that many Catholics will be opposed by my opinion. However, while being a follower of Jesus and his words of salvation and forgiveness I don't claim to be a "perfect" Catholic. However, because I struggle and often sin, I do go to the Sacrament of Reconciliation each month. As one who when I worked with many fine women, I certainly respect Rev.Kopecka. (I'm now retired) . I very much agree that she is a dedicated, caring pastor who wants to bring people to Jesus and be given the opportunity to gain eternal life. It's particularly good that Rev. Kopecka believes in ecumenism, as I do. I know and respect Presbyterians (my sister-in-law and niece whom I love are Presbyterians). I also have friends, neighbors, and acquaintances who are Baptists, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Jehovah's Witnesses, Orthodox Christians, members of other Protestant churches, as well as Jews and Muslims. However, while she is undoubtedly a good Christian, I do believe in the teaching of St. John Paul that the priesthood is reserved to men. Again, while I'm not a theologian (although I did attend sixteen years of Catholic schools). I do believe that the teaching that only men can be priests, in imitation of Jesus, who as the Son of God chose to be celibate, that for priests celibacy is in imitation of Jesus. While I do believe that priests should be celibate, I certainly know that in the early centuries of the Church that priests could choose to marry. However, although being celibate can be difficult (I know because I'm gay and have been celibate for most of my life, although years ago I had sex with men but regretted my acts and received forgiveness and consolation. through the the Sacrament of Reconciliation) I do believe that celibacy is best for our priests. With due respect and not to be sarcastic, priests who want to marry can join another Church. I also believe that Protestant churches have every right to have women as ministers or priests. A n unpopular view, to be sure. But I do as an imperfect Catholic believe that my opinion has great merit. All the best to Rev. Kopecka in her ministry to bring people to Jesus.

Vincent Gaglione
1 month 2 weeks ago

Reading the article, the only thing that came to mind was this question: are there any or many Roman Catholic nuns present and participating the synod? I certainly would hope so!

Mister Mckee
1 month 2 weeks ago

One female priest and two non-ordained but voting male participants in the synod. As paltry as such numbers seem, it is -for lack of a better word- progress. Luckily, entrance into HEAVEN will not be nearly as stringent. And as for all of the old white male gatekeepers and bean counters fighting Pope Francis at every turn, the words of Murphy Brown 2.0's recent jeremiad comes readily to mind when thinking of Vigano and those of his curial crew:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-UG9nGZemtw

Bill Mazzella
1 month 2 weeks ago

It always helps to get the whole picture before repeating hackneyed phrases which make no sense. We are out of the patriarchal age where we approve of the anti-semitism of "Saint" John Chrysostom and the bellicosity of "Saint" Bernard of Clairvoux. Even that great promotor of patience "Saint" Frances de Sales, could not muster up any kindness for "heretics." The "Church of Dogma" brought us many evils including Cardinal Frances Spellman and Cardinal Law. Etc. This woman found Jesus. Which is the point is it not? Too many of us "orthodox" have no idea who he is.

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