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Vatican gathering tackles topics from women in ministry to LGBTQ+ Catholics

The Synod on Synodality gathering at the Vatican could be defining for Pope Francis. Key agenda items include women's role in the church and welcoming divorced Catholics and LGBTQ+ Catholics.
Riccardo De Luca
The Synod on Synodality gathering at the Vatican could be defining for Pope Francis. Key agenda items include women's role in the church and welcoming divorced Catholics and LGBTQ+ Catholics.

For more than a dozen years, Jazmin Jimenez was a Catholic-school teacher. It was a job she loved but one that also highlighted certain contradictions. Among them, teaching her students that the church excludes women from the sacrament of ordination to the priesthood.

"We told them that we all have a common dignity and a common mission," she says. "And then you fast-forward to a course on sacraments, and we say, 'Oh, yeah, well, but not here.'"

Her students noticed the contradictions too, as have a lot of younger Catholics who live in a world where equality of opportunity among the sexes is believed to be a given.

Jimenez is a member of American Martyrs Catholic Church in Manhattan Beach, Calif., where, for the last several years, the congregation has been holding listening sessions leading up to a major meeting — called a synod — taking place at the Vatican starting Wednesday.

The Synod on Synodality is a several-year-long process of talking and listening, begun in 2021. Congregations around the world held small group sessions to discuss topics facing the church, from the lack of men entering the priesthood to how the church could better welcome divorced and remarried Catholics.

Jimenez and her congregation enthusiastically participated in the process.

"For me," she says, "it was a place where you could talk about exclusion and marginalization and pain that has been felt either personally by myself or by people that I know and love who are either in the church or who have left the church."

What came out in those sessions was sent up to the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and then on to the Vatican. The same process happened at tens of thousands of parishes around the world. Jimenez says the conversations with her fellow Catholics clarified something for her.

"If women were allowed to be deacons in the Catholic Church, absolutely, tomorrow I would seriously discern and consider becoming a deacon," she says. "It is a pain point for me that that is not something that I am able to discern at this time."

A report issued this summer by the Vatican about those listening sessions, called "Enlarge the Space of Your Tent," highlighted widespread interest in ways to officially recognize the ministry that many women already perform in the church.

The possibility of women in official church ministry

This month, Jimenez is traveling to Rome for the synod as an observer with Discerning Deacons, an organization that educates Catholics about the historical and contemporary role of women in ministry within the church.

The Vatican meeting will include both laity and clergy talking and listening. And for the first time, about 10% of participants will be women.

"Which by Catholic standards is a big improvement," says Massimo Faggioli, professor of Catholic theology at Villanova University in Pennsylvania.

He says the inclusion of more people in the process of church discernment has been an important issue for Pope Francis, and the presence of women — with an official vote — is a salient example of that inclusion.

Another example, Faggioli says, is the openness to talking about women's ministry at all. Francis broached the idea of women deacons early in his papacy.

"Which broke a taboo," says Faggioli, "because for many people, that issue had been solved forever by John Paul the Second and Pope Benedict, who had zero interest."

The workspace for the Synod on Synodality is the Vatican's Paul VI Hall. Pope Francis will preside at the global gathering of bishops and laypeople to discuss the future of the Catholic Church.
Gregorio Borgia / AP
The workspace for the Synod on Synodality is the Vatican's Paul VI Hall. Pope Francis will preside at the global gathering of bishops and laypeople to discuss the future of the Catholic Church.

Deacons are not priests and cannot preside at communion or hear confessions. But they are official leaders who preach, teach and baptize — something Faggioli says women already do in many Catholic parishes.

"We allow you to do these things as long as you don't ask to be formally acknowledged," he says. "So many of us think that it's time to get rid of this hypocrisy."

Around the world, the Catholic Church is experiencing an extreme shortage in priests — a shortage that could be eased by allowing women to serve as deacons. Many scholars argue that women deacons would not, in fact, be a new idea but rather the recovery of an ancient tradition.

They point to biblical passages that refer to women serving the early church in a variety of ways. For instance, in his epistle to the Romans, Paul refers to Phoebe as a deacon.

Who is included when the church says "everyone"?

In early September, the Catholic Church celebrates the life and service of St. Phoebe. At St. Monica Catholic Community in Santa Monica, Calif., several women preached and helped lead worship on that day.

The congregation is one of the largest in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and is known for engagement with groups that often feel excluded from the church. For instance, the church has an active LGBTQ+ group that's recognized on a plaque in the congregation's coffee shop.

Monsignor Lloyd Torgerson has been pastor here for 35 years. His congregation also held listening sessions in preparation for this month's synod. He says the message from his flock was clear.

"Make sure that there's room in the tent for everyone," he says. "They want to hear their pastors say that to them — that you're welcomed. Where you can come and find our Lord and find each other and find an honor and respect for each other."

Torgerson says "everyone" includes divorced Catholics as well as gays and lesbians. He points to this synod as an example of the difference between Francis and his predecessors, who were more rule-bound than pastoral.

He smiles broadly as he quotes a saying from Francis: "Pastors, smell like your sheep."

For Torgerson, that means knowing what his flock cares about and worries about and knowing what those in the pews each Sunday long for the church to be.

A defining moment for Pope Francis

Participants gathering in Rome through Oct. 29 will talk and listen to each other, but they won't vote on any positions or issue any documents at this time.

The Synod on Synodality is a lengthy process that will continue through next October, when participants will return to the Vatican for further conversation and deliberation. Some type of communiqué is expected from that 2024 assembly.

Actual changes regarding any of the issues up for discussion — from women deacons to blessing same-sex unions to being more welcoming of divorced and remarried Catholics — would ultimately be in the hands of the Vatican hierarchy and Pope Francis.

Still, there are some conservatives in the church who are not happy with the direction or the tone that Francis has set with this synod or by his papacy in general. They say conversations about topics such as women in ministry and divorce only confuse the faithful.

Vatican watchers, both liberal and conservative, say whatever eventually comes from this synod could define Francis' legacy.

The church's more recent openness to dialogue, embodied in this synod, has been revolutionary for lifelong Catholic Lupita Perez. It's a life she divides into the time of Francis and the time before he became pope.

"In the before time," she says, "I need to be honest with you — I wasn't very much involved in my community and my church, in my relationship with the church."

Now, Perez is an active member of Our Lady of Guadalupe in San Diego, where she serves as a youth minister. She's in Rome this week for the opening of the synod.

Perez says all this talking and all this listening makes her hopeful but cautious. She knows that the church is slow to change, and she worries failure to move forward on at least some of the issues being tackled by the synod would be heartbreaking.

"Some may be listening," she says, "but are you really, really open to the change?"

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Jason DeRose
Jason DeRose is the Western Bureau Chief for NPR News, based at NPR West in Culver City. He edits news coverage from Member station reporters and freelancers in California, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Alaska and Hawaii. DeRose also edits coverage of religion and LGBTQ issues for the National Desk.