On Sunday March 13th, 120 men and women gathered in an upper room – at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota to reflect on scripture, listen, share, and await the Holy Spirit to guide our discernment and help us speak aloud. The question was a synodal one: “What is the Holy Spirit saying to each of us with regards to ordaining women as permanent deacons as a way to grow in our journeying together?”
This synodal listening session was organized in collaboration with Discerning Deacons, the League of Catholic Women Foundation Fund, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, and St. Catherine University.
Lisa Amman, deputy director of engagement for Discerning Deacons reminded our group that the only way the bishops of the Church can know the will of the Holy Spirit is by listening to what the Holy Spirit has to say through all the people of God. Among the 120 gathered were religious and lay women and men, a few priests, a deacon and Archbishop Bernard Hebda, who has been guiding our Archdiocese in a three-year synod process.
Theologian, writer, and editor Sr. Joan Mitchell, CSJ proclaimed the Gospel of Mark, noting that women followed, served and accompanied Jesus from the beginning to the end. “The women of Galilee witness the primary events enshrined in the creed,” said Sr. Mitchell. “Jesus was crucified (they were there); Jesus died and was buried, (they were there) and on the third day he rose from the dead (they were there). They are us, the women of our parishes who follow and serve.”
Then, Sr. Carolyn Puccio, CSJ witnessed that during her 39-year career serving in rural parishes as parish administrator and serving on the ground in communities where a priest was not regularly available, she led Word and Communion services, preached, led expectant families preparing for baptism, and visited the sick, hearing their confessions in anticipation of the priest offering absolution. And she wasn’t the only one. She concluded, “they didn’t call us deacons, but that’s what we were.”
The assembly was grounded in the history of women in the diaconate by Dr. Cynthia Bailey Manns, scholar, spiritual director, and adult learning director at St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church in Minneapolis, and a member of the theology department at St. Catherine.
Rhonda Miska, a lay ecclesial minister at the Church of St. Timothy, spoke about the significant impact that would be made in the Church by creating a space for women to preach the Sunday homily. She shared with sadness about women she knows who have chosen to live out their call to ministry in other Christian denominations that create more space for women’s voices and leadership. Echoing Pope Francis, she concluded by inviting all present to dare to dream.
Former director for Hispanic/Latino Ministry and current pastoral associate at Church of the Ascension, Anne Attea, shared her experiences as either the beneficiary of women who broke through barriers, or one who paved the way for others. There is no doubt for her that ordination to the diaconate matters. As a lay person she was only able to walk with immigrants so far – clergy status was required to be with immigrants in detention centers where they were often innocent victims of an unjust system.
Retreat facilitator Jane Cavanaugh led participants through a synod discussion guide at our small group tables and an art activity imagining the Church of the future. We wrote down our individual input to the global synod on this issue as we reflected on what we believe the Holy Spirit is inviting and is calling us to do as a Church to journey better together into the future.
I want my daughters to remain in the Church, and I want them to be able to hear women preachers whose messages resonate with their experiences as women of faith. I need that too. For this reason I am grateful that the synodal process is opening the door to have open conversations about the future of women in ministry in our Church.