The Table

Sr. Carmen Sammut, a Missionary Sister of Our Lady of Africa originally from Malta and president of the International Union of Superior Generals (UISG) shared her experience as a non-voting auditor of the recent Synod on the Family this morning in Rome. Nearly 125 attended the public event to hear Sr. Carmen’s perspective on the three-week process.

Sr. Carmen Sammut and Pope Francis

Sr. Carmen Sammut and Pope Francis

The other sisters auditing the Synod were Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary Sr. Maureen Kelleher, a founding member of NETWORK and a lawyer, and Costa Rican Capuchin Sr. Berta Maria Porras Fallas. Here is Sr. Carmen’s intervention.

Sr. Carmen began by reminding the group that in 2014 Extraordinary Synod, UISG was not invited, despite meeting with Vatican officials and sending letters requesting an invitation, while five invitations were extended to male religious (USG). This year, after meeting with several other Vatican officials again, the sisters were given three seats, compared to the ten for men. “Do not think it was automatic!” 

Sr. Carmen shared that she met Pope Francis briefly during a coffee break and informed him of this, giving him an invitation to the upcoming UISG meeting in May 2016. Pope Francis said he had not received any letters (despite UISG being assured by high-level Vatican officials they would be delivered). The next day, UISG received a hand-written, hand-addressed note from Pope Francis, and the following day, a fax with scheduling information arrived. “When they want things settled, they are settled very quickly!”

Carmen also joked that in 1974, two sisters were included in the Synod, and forty years later they have three seats. (50% increase?)…

UISG meeting with Sr. Carmen Sammut

UISG meeting with Sr. Carmen Sammut

It is clear to say that Sr. Carmen was guided by the words of Pope Francis throughout the Synod. She quoted at length from his presentation during the 50th anniversary of the Synod of Bishops, where Pope Francis described his vision of a listening Church: base/particular communities, Conference of Bishops, and Synod of Bishops as an “inverted pyramid” of a Synodal Church. She reflected on how quietly engaged he was throughout the Synod, without interrupting the process. 

Sr. Carmen chose to be in a French speaking small group which followed a “See,” “Judge,” “Act,” model as they progressed through the working document. The weakness of this method, she suggested, was the abundance of material and the lack of prayerful time to discern and “distinguish the movements of the Spirit,” and to be able to “go beyond one’s own wants.”

In Sr. Carmen’s small group, she described the time spent talking about one’s families in all of their diversity and struggles as the easiest and most encouraging: “The image I thought of was of the Risen Christ, showing his wounds.” She also shared that the issue of permanent ordained women deacons was discussed a couple of times in her small group.

en_banner_invitation_carmen_synodIt was only at the end of the second week that the auditors were allowed to give their interventions, which meant that Sr. Carmen described feeling somewhat “anonymous” until after she had spoke. Among many flaws in this system, a  “major flaw” was that by the end of the second week the Synod had worked through the first two parts of the working document, and would not likely return to it in light of an auditor’s intervention referring to an earlier section. 

Similarly, when it came time to review the document to be voted on, auditors were not given copies to read. Without knowing what specifically was being referred to, Sr. Carmen described feeling concerned about some of the comments shared… and hoped it was not the whole group who wanted to keep the status quo. At the same time, Sr. Carmen described feeling sorry for the bishops for the first time in her life, (and especially those who do not speak Italian): the hard questions of living and teaching love and mercy, for being free enough to live beyond fear, to hold Church doctrine, teaching, and the needs of the people together. She suggested that this underlined the role of religious in our Church, as prophetically living this responsibility.

Following Sr. Carmen’s presentation, several questions from UISG members came about the role of women in the Church, and if there were threads of what a “theology of women” could mean, if bishops seemed interested in talking about women? Carmen shared that the role of women was one topic among so many, and not until she spoke did many of the bishops seek her out.

Miriam Duignan and Kate McElwee in St. Peter's Square

Miriam Duignan and Kate McElwee in St. Peter’s Square

In the end, Sr. Carmen seemed encouraged that the “Holy Spirit is still walking with the Church,” and “they didn’t forget us completely.” I don’t think that anyone in the room was satisfied with the inclusion of women in the Synod, but many expressed that the paragraph specifically on women (27) was strong, discussing violence against women and greater decision-making roles for women in the Church:  

Può contribuire al riconoscimento sociale del ruolo determinante delle donne una maggiore valorizzazione della loro responsabilità nella Chiesa: il loro intervento nei processi decisionali, la loro partecipazione al governo di alcune istituzioni, il loro coinvolgimento nella formazione dei ministri ordinati.

The sisters were overwhelmingly pleased to have Sr. Carmen represent UISG and women religious at the Synod. Sr. Carmen offered two questions to conclude her reflection, asking UISG and leaders of their congregations to think about: “How does the Synod influence us (religious)?” and “What should the topic of the next Synod be? What do we want Bishops to study?”

Sometimes it is hard to emotionally sort between relief that something is over, and the feelings that will come. I will share more details of my own thoughts in another post, but briefly: the sense I get in Rome is that most are satisfied that the Church did not go backwards, left openness on some issues to be interpreted by Pope Francis, raised up the concept of the internal forum, and real questions about women were raised (if not really discussed, or discussed with women). No women voted, but a lay man did. Pope Francis’ leadership style was tested, and eventually respected. The Institutional Church talked (to itself) for the first time in many years. 

Suggested Reading:

At Synod Closing, Pope Stresses Inclusion, Open Hearts, Mercy (New Ways Ministry)

The Bishops Bend, The Pope Proclaims the Good News, and “Why you and not them?” (FutureChurch)

Where were the voting women at the Synod? (America Magazine)

Synod on remarried Catholics, consensus in ambiguity (National Catholic Reporter)

Global women religious leader asks them to do synod’s unfinished work (National Catholic Reporter)