Pope Francis had prepared a written text for the conclusion of the 21st assembly of the International Union of Superiors General in Rome on May 10, but, as was widely expected, he put it aside in favor of an open dialogue with the women superiors from 80 countries, who represent many of the 660,000 women religious across the world. The result was a humorous and challenging exchange.
Francis was questioned about the possibility of women deacons by a German sister, who said she hoped the church “would not rely only on the basis of history, of dogmatics, of divine revelation, but also on… how Jesus accompanied women and on what humanity has need of in the 21st century” for a future decision about female deacons. Francis said that was true but added he could not do something that has not developed from revelation, the truths about the faith revealed by God.
He repeated what he had said on the in-flight press conference on May 7, explaining that the commission of women and men that he set up over two years ago had reached agreement on some questions.
But on other issues, the commission had not reached an accord, including whether the formula used for the women deacons in the early church was a sacramental one like that used for men. “I can’t do a decree of a sacramental nature without having the theological, historical foundation for it,” he said. He offered to give the reports from the different members of the commission to those who ask him for it. But, he said, “let’s go forward with the study.”
“In regard to the diaconate we must see what was there at the beginning of revelation, if there was something, let it grow and it arrives, but if there was not, if the Lord didn’t want a sacramental ministry for women, it can’t go forward.”
He said he would give Sister Carmen Sammut, the U.I.S.G. president, that part of the report on which there had been agreement. Pope Francis told the assembly of 850 superiors of women’s religious congregations, “We walk on a solid just path, the way of revelation; we cannot walk a different road...that alters revelation and dogmatic expressions.”
“In regard to the diaconate we must see what was there at the beginning of revelation, if there was something, let it grow and it arrives, but if there was not, if the Lord didn’t want a sacramental ministry for women, it can’t go forward. For this reason we go to history and to dogma.”
“We are Catholics,” he said, adding with a touch of humor, "but if anyone wants to found another church they are free [to do so].”
He went on to speak about the development of doctrine in the church and reaching “a better understanding of revelation.” He said that the church understanding is not just Denzinger—the book in which is collected the dogmatic and other teachings of the church. “The way we understand our faith today,” he said, “is better than in the pre-Vatican II period; there is development in our understanding.
“There is continuous growth.”
He pointed, for example, to “the development of moral consciousness” in relation to the death penalty. The position of the church today is not that of 50 years ago, he said. But every development in church teaching “has to be in harmony with divine revelation,” and in this “Denzinger helps us.”
He emphasized the need for “discernment” in moving forward in the dialogue with the world. “We have to discern. It’s not just black and white or even gray.” The understanding of faith is not something static, he said. “It’s all in movement,” but we have to move forward “in harmony with revelation.”
“The way we understand our faith today,” he said, “is better than in the pre-Vatican II period; there is development in our understanding. There is continuous growth.”
In her welcome address, Sister Sammut told Pope Francis that one really needs to participate in the women superiors plenary assembly to grasp what women religious are doing in the world and the seeds of hope that they are sowing. “I will participate in part of your next general assembly if I am still alive,” he responded.
“If not, then remind my successor,” Pope Francis said.
“I never thought I would be sitting at the right of the father,” Sister Sammut remarked when Pope Francis invited her to sit beside him at the table and speak from there, instead of at a distance from him. She told him of their discussions at the general assembly on the theme of “sowers of hope,” and then Sister Sammut raised a number of issues that concern women religious, in particular, the abuse scandal and the abuse of women religious not only by clergy but also by women religious themselves through the abuse of power and conscience.
Sister Sammut recalled that they had raised the question about women deacons at their last general assembly, three years ago, and that Pope Francis had set up a commission and spoken about it on the flight from Skopje to Rome. Sister Sammut asked about the ministries and roles the church has today that allow men and women to contribute to its mission.
As for the role of women in the church and specifically that of consecrated women, Francis said, “Let’s not go forward making functions [the only goal].” He recalled that in Buenos Aires he had a woman chancellor in the archdiocese, and there are other roles they can have as head of a dicastery or such. But, he said, “we haven’t understood well yet this question” and said there is a need for “a theology of women.”
He began by affirming that the abuse problem in the church is not something that can be resolved in a short time. He recalled that “we didn’t have a consciousness” of the real dimensions of the problem 20 years ago, but “we have gained that consciousness with shame, blessed shame.”
He recalled that some were disappointed at the results of last February’s meeting of the presidents of all the bishops’ conferences, but he said the problem cannot be resolved in one day. “We could have hanged 100 priest abusers in St. Peter’s Square, but we would have resolved nothing,” he said.
On the problem of the abuse suffered by women religious, Pope Francis said: “It’s a serious problem, a grave problem. It’s not just sexual abuse; it is also the abuse of power, the abuse of conscience.”
Indeed, “the problems of life are resolved gradually, not from morning to evening.” It requires time, the maturation of consciousness and taking measures that address the problems, such as yesterday’s motu proprio. “I will never forget the sufferings of these people,” he said, adding that the people of God have to move forward together to resolve this problem.
Then, turning to the problem of the abuse suffered by women religious, Pope Francis said: “It’s a serious problem, a grave problem. I’m aware of it also here in Rome.... It’s not just sexual abuse; it is also the abuse of power, the abuse of conscience.”
He drew the distinction between “service” and “slavery” (“servitude”) and told the sisters, “you’ve not become women religious to be the servant of a cleric.” He said women religious entered the consecrated life for service, adding: “Service, yes! Servitude, no!”
He said they were not called to be “domestic servants,” unless, of course, they were doing so in the homes of the sick or disabled as a vocation, like a religious order in Rome is doing.
Responding to another sister who raised questions about how to deal with “fragility” and their call to be “mother” and to “service,” Pope Francis said women religious should understand this “fragility” in terms of the Incarnation when God sent his son to become man through a woman. He encouraged them not to fear fragility as consecrated women and said entering into fragility “is a theological act” linked to God becoming man.
He also spoke about the church as “mother” and said the motherhood of the church “has its reflection in consecrated women; it’s a total reflection.”
Another sister thanked Pope Francis for his work in interreligious dialogue and the ecumenical field. Speaking about the pain caused by the division among Christians, she asked what more can be done in working for the unity of all Christians.
Francis responded by saying, “We do ecumenism on the way, on the journey.” Referring to the theological questions that divide the churches, Francis recalled how St. Paul VI is reported as saying that “St. Athenagoras,” the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople, told him, “Let us put all the theologians on an island [to discuss these questions], but let us go forward together!”
Pope Francis told the sisters, “Let us [in the different Christian churches] go forward together with the poor, with the immigrants” in what he called—as he had done in Bulgaria—“the ecumenism of the poor.” He said, “We go forward together” in “the ecumenism of blood” because when Christians are persecuted, their executioners never ask, “Are you Anglican, Catholic, Orthodox or Lutheran?”
He added, “Let us also go forward with ‘the ecumenism of prayer,’” praying together as Christians from different denominations.
A sister from Brazil thanked him for all “the initiatives for the poor” that he has taken up, asking what women religious might do to help with the upcoming Pan-Amazonian synod. He told them that as women and women religious, they can understand better the challenges to indigenous peoples. He also recalled how his fellow Jesuits, Matteo Ricci in China and Roberto de Nobili in India, understood this problem, too, and said, like them, the sisters are able “to accompany with respect” indigenous peoples.
A sister from South Sudan said the Catholic community in her nation needs new bishops—three dioceses are without bishops—and bishops have reached retirement ages in two other dioceses. Francis responded that it had been difficult to find suitable candidates, but the Vatican had now found one, and he urged them to pray for others.
After praising him for a recent gesture, kissing the feet of the South Sudanese president and vice presidents, she told him, “Our people want you to come to South Sudan.”
Francis said the South Sudanese leaders were the only ones ever to ask to come on retreat even in a time of conflict, and he was impressed by this. He said he had planned to go to South Sudan with the archbishop of Canterbury last year, “but that was not possible.” He made clear he is determined to go at the right time and said it might be possible when he visits Mozambique, Madagascar and Mauritius next September.
Time had run on. Francis invited them to sing the Regina Coeli Laetare and then gave them his blessing. The sisters gave him a standing ovation that lasted several minutes.
Unofficial translation by the author