International Church Reform network

priest and reform-movements working together

The Tent for Women?

By Virginia Saldanha

Mumbai, March 13, 2023: An interesting question asked at a recent webinar on the Synod was, “Is the Synodal Process Expanding or Shrinking the Tent for Women?”

Elissa Roper, an Australian theologian who answered the question from the Catholic Women’s Council, said, “The hope for the future of the Catholic Church lies in the empowerment of all the baptized to be the Body of Christ together in the world, and for the world.

About 100 Catholics attended the March 9 online program on the theme based on the same question.

Philomena Mwaura, a theologian from Kenya, said, “The tent is a space of communion, a place of participation and foundation for mission. All the baptised are co-responsible for the one mission of the Church, the one Misssio Dei.”

The metaphor of the ‘tent’ is used in the title of the Document for the Continental Stage (DCS) of the Synodal process, “Enlarge the Space of your Tent.”

The tent, is a wonderful metaphor for ‘Church,’ it can be small enough to accommodate a family, a neighbourhood community, and large enough to cover a field to welcome all. As Dr. Elissa pointed out, “My hope is that we will stretch the metaphor of “tent” beyond our parish or diocese model; that we may perceive the many tents of our family life, local community, our shared tent as women mercied by God, and the tent of our own hearts, minds and spirits. May we learn to “not hold back” as we “enlarge the site of our tent.”

However, to convert our current model of a patriarchal and hierarchal Church to the open model of a ‘tent’ we have to overcome a number of obstacles. Mwaura asks “can the Church in Africa provide spaces for radical inclusion when women, young people and children still bear the brunt of clerical abuse of power, when women are still excluded from power and decision making? While certain categories of women continue to be denied Holy Communion? Is the big inclusive tent willing to change its attitudes and structures to include these women on the peripheries? How soon will this inclusion of all take place?” Her question for Africa is echoed by women everywhere!

“For synodality to be a realistic hope it involves a two-pronged approach: 1) The replacement of clericalism and hierarchy with synodality. 2. Sharing our renewed life of friendship and collaboration (with each other and God) in wider and wider circles. Going forth from the tent we call the Catholic Church into the wider, all-encompassing tent of God,” asserted Roper.

Rafael Luciani, appointed as expert of the Theological Commission of the General Secretariat for the Synod of Bishops, spoke of the need for a New Ecclesial Culture. He made a difference between decision making and decision taking. Decision making is a process that involves the communities or Small Christian Communities (SCC) as we know them. Shared decision making is taking guidance from the communities for decision taking.

Working from the bottom to the top and giving back to the people at the base, is the culture that is practised in the Church in Latin America. The synodal process was executed in the same way. He pointed out that CELAM has fostered the creation of an Ecclesial Conference. Each community has a representative on the Parish Pastoral Council, elected by the community. From the parish representatives are at the diocesan Council and then on the National Pastoral Council.

Back in 1991 the Asian bishops had articulated their vision for the Church in Asia very similar to the Latin American model, it was described as “a communion of communities,” where “laity, religious and clergy recognize and accept each other as sister and brothers” (FABC V, 8.1.1), a participatory and co-responsible Church.

A lot of work was put in by the office of Laity to train the laity to adjust to this model of Church which was adopted by most of the Ecclesiastical Conferences. Women were the majority of leaders in the SCCs. However, the momentum towards that vision was lost with the closing down of the Desk in the office of Laity that promoted this vision of Church. The Church in Asia slid backwards to being a patriarchal and hierarchal institution.

The synodal process in India was a silent process that took place without the knowledge of the majority of the baptized. I did not know who my parish representatives were to the diocesan gathering. I recently asked a gathering of about 350 women on women’s day in the diocese of Bombay, how many of them had heard of the Synodal process taking place in the Church only about 15 put their hands up! Yet Synodality means “Communion, walking together, participation together in the mission of the Church.” 

All 3 speakers emphasized the responsibility of every baptized person in the mission of the Church. All the baptized receive the power of the Holy Spirit. “Restricting the involvement of women restricts the action of the Spirit in the conversion of clericalism,” explained Roper.

Mwaura points to the need for inculturation, “Since women play significant and prominent roles in the religious heritage of the people of Africa, this ought to be brought to bear on any attempt to inculturate the Catholic identity holistically.”

In Asia, the bishops discerned that community and hospitality is central to Asian life. Women’s leadership can help in the inculturation of the Asian Church towards dialogue and expanding the tent, in Asia.

The Covid lockdown gave women the opportunity to be ministers of Christ to people around in the various forms of outreach and online liturgical celebrations that kept our faith vibrant and alive. As Roper concluded, “We are together the Body of Christ in the world, and for the world. Remembering that the Spirit is already working to enlarge the tents of our minds, hearts and spirits.”


• • •

%d bloggers like this: