NEW YORK (RNS) — Sister Nathalie Becquart, the highest-ranking woman at the Vatican, dropped into St. Paul the Apostle Church in Manhattan on Tuesday evening (March 28) to talk to and about young Catholics, and particularly young women in the church. The French nun, who is shepherding a worldwide survey of Catholics ahead of a fall meeting of bishops on the future of the church, didn’t have answers for the women in the audience so much as she had advice: Listen.
As undersecretary of the General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops, Becquart has been traveling the globe in recent weeks as an ambassador for the Synod on Synodality, planned for October in Rome, that has the potential to shift the power in the Catholic Church more toward the laity, and especially women and young people.
The synod, where Becquart, 54, will be the first woman with the right to vote with the bishops, has as its theme “synodality”: a dynamic emphasized by the Second Vatican Council that encourages listening and dialogue among clergy, religious orders and laity inviting them to participate in discerning the next steps for the church.
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“Synodality is a dynamic vision of the church in history,” Becquart said. “It’s not a theoretical, idealistic vision of the church in the sky. It’s about being the church of the people of God over time.” Nor, she said, was it only for Catholics talking to Catholics. “It’s a way to be a church in dialogue with people from other faiths, in society. It’s a way to bring the church to the world,” she said, later adding that “it was already the style of the early church.”
Pope Francis, who called the Synod on Synodality and who has made synodality a core value of his papacy, has encouraged parishes, in gathering comments and concerns about the church for the bishops to consider, to reach out to people on the margins, including those who no longer attend Mass, non-Catholics, the poor, the disabled and the elderly.
Some have interpreted Becquart’s appointment as undersecretary as a sign that Francis is pushing the church closer to ordaining female deacons, often the first step to priesthood. But Becquart told the audience of about 150, about half of which comprised young people, that a more important goal than women’s ordination is to “seek the truth together, listen and to reach a consensus.” With Catholics from so many different countries and cultures, it takes time to build a consensus, she said.
Rather than making ordination the only path to leadership, she encouraged every Catholic institution to cultivate “a new style of leadership that is a servant and collaborative leadership.”
That style of leadership, she made clear, depends on listening. “Listening is more than simply hearing. It is a beautiful listening, in which everyone has something to learn,” Becquart said. “No one should be excluded or censored.”
The response by American Catholics to the synod process has fallen short of this vision by most measures. Only 1% of the U.S. Catholic population, or about 700,000 people, participated in the listening sessions, according to a September 2022 report from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops summing up the 10 months of listening sessions in local parishes and dioceses.