The Table

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On the recommendation of a WOC member, Sr. Beth, I had the opportunity to sit down to tea with two Italian members of her congregation, the Franciscan Sisters of the Poor here in Rome.

“Why did Sr. Beth tell you to contact me?”

Spunky didn’t quite translate as we both grabbed words and charades between languages to express ourselves; I settled for: “she said you’re fun and active.”

These women are active, spending their days (and more often, nights) with domestic violence victims and survivors, as addiction counselors, and supporting families in need. Repeatedly, the sisters expressed “living the Gospel” as the reason they came, and the reason they stay in the Church. Interestingly, the average age the Italian sisters in their order is 47 (in the U.S. it is closer to 70).

The sisters asked about my work, and I explained the work of the Women’s Ordination Conference, tacking on advocating for decision-making roles and true leadership for and by women in the Church.

Rapidly consulting via eyeballs, they said, “We are more comfortable because you said leadership.”  It became very clear that this was a cautious, official meeting. After sharing their personal stories of vocation (both involving an encounter with a younger, active nun), we discussed the differences between American sisters and Italian sisters, and the cultural perceptions of nuns. One of the sisters expressed that she did not want to be a nun because she still wanted to “be a woman” — referring to the genderlessness of nuns (as seen in Italy).

On the subject of women’s ordination the sisters expressed that is not their main concern: their vocation is to live the Gospel, and don’t see the priesthood as a prerequisite or a barrier to that end. However, they were very supportive of greater leadership roles for women within the Vatican, emphasizing their “good minds” and degrees: “We are ready to be chiefs.” The sisters also described that the role of the priest is transforming, and they wondered aloud what the future of the role of the priest will look like, especially as Francis is creating “extra-hierarchical” councils, and consultative bodies.

For many women’s ordination supporters, this perspective is difficult: for what greater leadership role is possible for women within our Church if it does not include the reception of the sacrament of Holy Orders? How can women be content with the requirement that a man must always preside at the liturgical sacrament celebration of the Eucharist? That a man must always preach the Gospel?  Is it not true that women can also represent Jesus’ continued presence among us?

In the conversation, I felt these sisters were responding based on their own calling, their own vocation, and not necessarily on the issue; just as I heard someone say recently, “I’m not called to the priesthood, but I am called to be preached to by women.”  I believe our work in the future is to make women’s ordination an inescapable “issue” for anyone in our Church who strives to live the Gospel, to work for justice. I’m so grateful for the time I spent with these amazing sisters, and pray for our continued partnership in the future. Thank you Sr. Beth!