Women’s – and Men’s – Voices Emerging! Conversations in the Spirit Co-Responsibility and Women’s Participation in the Church

VOTF Responds to 60 Minutes Interview with Pope Francis

We strongly agree with Pope Francis’ statements made during his 60 Minutes interview regarding the multiple cultural scourges of clericalism; the suicidal attitude of viewing the world as closed to change; sexual abuse; raging wars; immigration; and same-sex blessings. It is his one word, “No”, to the ordained diaconate for women that causes us to respond in greater detail.

We are a lay-led organization recognized by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops as a lay apostolate within a church whose membership is 67% women.  The Pope’s negative response to ordaining women to the diaconate was a shock for many of us. His answer appears not only to deny this call but to deny, as well, the established Tradition of ordained women deacons in Christianity. 

Pope Francis’ position, especially considering his synodal approach and his own institution of study groups to address the issue, is heart-breaking and would itself seem to be suicidal in the longer term. The incongruity of his “No” with the foundational principles of synodality upon which to change the culture of the church is startling. Women’s voices must be heard and women’s indispensable service to the church from the very beginning must be validated in tangible ways.

Therefore, we will continue to pursue the issue with vigor, doing what we have always done: offering opportunities for education and collaborating with like-minded organizations to provide resources and ongoing conversation in listening sessions. We will keep walking on the synodal path Pope Frances inaugurated and pray that he fulfills his own promise to listen.  As protagonists for the ordination of women deacons, we will remain attentive to the Spirit in enduring faith and unending hope.

What Happened at the Synod: The Call to Dialogue on Co-Responsibility and Women’s Participation in Our Church

In February, the Women in the Church Working Group of the Association of US

Catholic Priests (AUSCP) hosted an interactive synodal webinar entitled “What Happened at the Synod: The Call to Dialogue on Co-responsibility and Women’s Participation in Our Church.”

The interactive webinar was conducted over Zoom and featured testimonies from Synod delegate Dr. Cynthia Bailey Manns, church leader Bishop John Stowe of Lexington, Kentucky, and other women who have studied and participated in the Synod. The target participant audience was Catholic priests and women. Over 425 priests and women registered for the call and over 400 either participated live or watched the recorded event afterwards. The demographics were roughly 40% priests and 60% women. Co-Chairs of the Women in the Church Working Group Dr. Sarah Probst Miller and Rev. Michael Hickin, a member of the AUSCP Leadership Team, served as co-facilitators.

The conversation began with Dr. Manns, Director of Adult Learning at St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church in Minneapolis, sharing her experience of being one of the ten non-bishop voting delegates chosen to represent North America at the Synod’s General Assembly. Besides covering the procedural nature of the assembly, Manns said that the “Conversation in the Spirit” method is not “merely a generic exchange of ideas” but a “Spirit-led process” that enables participants to draw closer together. She emphasized that it is “a slow exercise” designed to “avoid artificial and shallow and prepackaged responses.” It is also a means to “honestly acknowledge the challenges and gifts of today’s church.”

The next speaker, Dr. Maureen O’Connell, offered a definition of co-responsibility for attendees: Co-responsibility is “a posture of ongoing discovery,” an “invitational way or form of discipleship” whereby “God calls us to be co-creators in this very messy world.” She continued, “Co-responsibility also fosters a sense of solidarity,” [and confirms that] “we truly do belong to each other.” O’Connell also emphasized the rediscovery of the link between baptism and mission; ways that spiritual conversation “across ranks and status” is remaking the “relational conditions” of the church and forming it for mission; how synodality is giving the church courage to wade into areas of potential tension and conflict, such as the role of women and the exercise of co-responsibility within a hierarchical structure; and the emerging pathways around issues of women in the life and mission of the church.

Ellie Hidalgo, co-director of Discerning Deacons, focused on a specific proposal from the “Women in the Life and Mission of the Church” section of the Synthesis Report which states: “Theological and pastoral research on the access of women to the diaconate should be continued, benefiting from consideration of the results of the commissions specially established by the Holy Father, and from the theological, historical and exegetical research already undertaken. If possible, the results of this research should be presented to the next Session of the Assembly” (9.n). Acknowledging that “women’s ministry is often unstable,” Hidalgo spoke of how the issue of women in the diaconate is being discerned on a global level. The guiding question in this discernment, she said, is “What is the will of the Holy Spirit for women’s participation in a co-responsible church?”

Next, Bishop John Stowe of the Diocese of Lexington, Kentucky, expressed delight “to see the women’s issue come to the forefront” during the Synodal process. Alongside this observation, he praised the contributions of the women coordinating and participating in the event. Stowe said, “I want to work with [these women] on a regular basis and share in that co-responsibility.” He added, “I love the phrase co-responsibility. Co-responsibility helps to overcome the clergy-laity divide.”

Bernadette Rudolph of the Cranaleith Retreat Center in Philadelphia concluded with a brief presentation on how the “Conversation in the Spirit” method of Synodal conversation is taking root in local parishes. Rudolph has assisted with training of parish leaders in Synodal practices. Rudolph described the “deep listening” of the Synodal method as “an ancient practice reclaimed.” Deep listening “amplifies co-responsibility,” she said, while fostering intentional silence and purposeful speech. She noted “how much hope [Synodal conversation] inspires in people. People say, ‘This is making me feel good about church again.’”

In the seventy plus participant reflections submitted during and after this event, a leading theme was “love for our church.” Participants expressed delight “to be with others who love our Church!” Another expounded, “I am especially inspired by the young people who are approaching these subjects, not with anger, but with love.” More expressed joy to be a part of what they viewed as “a historic moment” for priests and women from across the US to have a safe place for synodal conversation.

A common thread which emerged was great hope. Often lament accompanied mention of hope. A woman reflected, “There is so much pain when the female voice is removed. I hope for a co- responsible future for women and men.” Another priest said, “I feel both hope and trepidation; [we] need to bring priests and bishops on board.” When we asked him to expound, he said: “In many dioceses throughout the US and in most parishes in the Archdiocese of Boston, people have heard very little about the synod. The priests and bishops in these parishes and dioceses view the synod with suspicion or even contempt. There is significant animus towards Pope Francis among many American clergy, especially the younger clergy. They fear that he is attempting to change the Church in a way that undermines Apostolic Tradition, rather than responding to the Holy Spirit’s movement in the Church. So, there is a big challenge in building a bridge of understanding and trust across a very polarized Church. My intention is not to be negative. But I do see a big challenge. Sadly, the political polarization of our society is mirrored in the Church. But I remain hopeful. God is faithful!!”

The next theme which emerged in comments was the beauty of and need for deep listening. Specifically, it was identified as a competency which needs further development. In reflection, both priests and women mentioned desires to approach listening with curiosity along with humility. While some mentioned that the synodal process of listening does a lot to remove fear, others acknowledged that it can be both “sacred and messy work.” Participants expressed a longing for synodal listening sessions at the parish level. Others noted that synodality will be a key part of “making our church relevant and appealing to young people.” The hope was expressed that synodality could be “a good first step in breaking down the polarization in our church and society.” Another woman said, “we also need to learn how to respond actively as a member of synodality within our parishes, and even between our friends.” In the call to action, the question was asked, “Why wait for synodality to come to you? Be a synodal people where you are. It can start with you.”

Many spoke of the synodal process having no expression locally due to resistance from priests and/or bishops. While some felt there is now a synodal door to “knock on” and that the synodal process is “alive and moving forward;” others expressed a longing to experience it with their parish priest. One participant said their parish priest has called synodality the “work of the devil.”

In response to expressed frustration with how the synodal process is going locally, Rudolph spoke encouragingly by saying, “I have come to think of myself as water. Where there are cracks, I will go into them. Where I am hitting a hard rock surface, I simply move around.” An attending priest responded to her words in his reflection saying, “Flowing water that goes where it is received and sidesteps obstacles illustrates a strategy of flexibility that has served me well for decades. It was great to hear it so pithily stated by Rudolph. It is a telling image of the Holy Spirit, the Living Water that will accompany and carry forward the gestation of a Co-Responsible Church.”

Co-responsibility was the final theme which emerged strongly in reflections and was often cited as the root of feelings of hope. Participants reflected back to us that, “the call of our Baptism is co-responsibility.” In Baptism we come to “share Christ’s life and thus mission. By creation, every human being is called to live and spread love.” Another participant cited co-responsibility as “urgent energy.” They spoke of “realizing co-responsibility and discovering what the Holy Spirit is calling us to—TOGETHER!” Others wrote the phrase “co-creativity as an expression of co- responsibility.” They further explained, simply, “We are all created for love.” And others encouraged, “We need to support one another as change agents.” Several priests noted, “A key issue [with co-responsibility] is how we teach at seminary.” They expressed that strategically, it needs to start there.

Sharing the enthusiasm and hope of her fellow panelists, O’Connell concluded the Q and A by proclaiming, “The synodal process is indeed working! We are becoming a pilgrim people of God. We are being co-responsible in mission by engaging in this discernment,” She added, “What better time to be a disciple in our church?”

The AUSCP Women in the Church Working Group announced an invitation for clergy and laity to join an interactive webinar on Wednesday, February 7, 2024 to “Dialogue on Co-Responsibility and Women’s Participation in the Church”.

As a member of the working group that prepared the webinar, I want to tell you who we are and how this came to be. The planners included clergy and laity:  representatives of AUSCP, VOTF and Discerning Deacons. VOTF has collaborated and supported AUSCP over the years, and we have been mutual partners with DISCERNING DEACONS since its inception. It was appropriate that these three organizations joined in co-responsibility for this historic event!

The response to the invitation was immediate and overwhelming! By that date there were 425 registrations.  It is a sure sign that people are eager for conversations between and among clergy and laity.  Since it was not possible to include everyone who wanted to take part, the webinar was recorded.  And now YOU can be part of this “conversation in the Spirit”. 


Use this link to view.  YOUR FEEDBACK IS WELCOME AND STONGLY ENCOURAGED.  After you watch, please take time to answer the question “Considering what you heard, what is resonating with you and why?” Please share your thoughts with us by adding your comment under the video or emailing office@auscp.org

A synodal report will be sent to the General Secretary in Rome and the U.S. Bishop’s Synod Office based on the reflections you share.  YOUR INPUT MATTERS!

Share, share, share this link widely.  Better yet, ask your pastor and clergy friends to have a “conversation of the spirit” with you and others.

Be part of this momentous opportunity in the history of our Church by being a protagonist for a synodal church in our time.