An Italian religious sister told the Synod on Synodality assembly Friday that St. Paul attended “a non-ritual female liturgy” ahead of synod discussions of women’s inclusion in the Church.
Mother Maria Grazia Angelini gave an exegesis of the New Testament for synod delegates during the general congregation on Oct. 13 in which she claimed that St. Paul “inserted himself into a ‘non-ritual’ female liturgy” when he arrived in the city of Philippi in Macedonia.
Speaking to hundreds of synod participants in Paul VI Hall, Angelini described how “Paul was welcomed by a liturgy outside the ritual, among women, in the open air.”
She said: “The apostle did not start, as was his custom, in the synagogue … He inserted himself into a ‘non-ritual’ female liturgy, breaking into it with the word of the Gospel.”
Angelini’s speech referred to a historical event recorded in chapter 16 of the Acts of the Apostles, which states: “On the sabbath, we went outside the city gate along the river where we thought there would be a place of prayer. We sat and spoke with the women who had gathered there” (Acts 16:13).
The Scripture goes on to describe how one of the women named Lydia listened “and the Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what Paul was saying” and she was baptized along with her household (Acts 16:14-15). The Biblical text does not make mention of any sort of a liturgy.
The sister’s exegesis of the Acts of the Apostles was part of a larger speech on “the cry of women” throughout the New Testament. She argued that the contribution of women “unceasingly fuels the spiritual dynamism of reform.”
Angelini is one of two “spiritual assistants” who helped to lead the meditations for the retreat and the prayers throughout the Synod assembly this month, along with Father Timothy Radcliffe.
The 79-year-old nun served as the abbess of the Benedictine Monastery of Saints Peter and Paul in Viboldone, Italy, from 1996 to 2019. She studied theology under Giovanni Moioli and has written more than a dozen spiritual books.
She is one of three women who addressed the Synod’s general congregation on Friday at the start of a new module of Synod discussions on “Co-responsibility in Mission: How can we better share gifts and tasks in the service of the Gospel?” which will be discussed by Synod delegates over the next two days.
Sister Gloria Liliana Franco, a Colombian religious of the Company of Mary Our Lady, told Synod delegates the story of a woman who earned better grades than her male classmates at a pontifical university, but “did not receive a canonical title because she is a woman,” adding “because until a few years ago women in their country could not study theology, only religious sciences.”
“Many women have no place in the parish or diocesan council, even though they are the teachers and the catechists,” Franco said.
“From the point of view of the members of many councils, the mission of women is very maternal, basic, and pastoral, while the goals of the councils are, for them, more administrative and strategic,” she added.
Sister Xiskya Valladares, Nicaraguan sister known as“the tweeting nun,” also spoke to the general congregation. Valladares, who has more than 452,000 followers on TikTok and 77,000 followers on Twitter, said in a TikTok video that “there should be no problem in there being women priestesses.” Valladares limited her livestreamed speech to the synod congregation to the subject of evangelization in a digital environment.
Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich told the Synod delegates that the morning’s testimonies help to frame the themes and questions that will be discussed and advised delegates that “everyone can revise the speech they had prepared” in light of what was said during the general congregation.
In the shadow of Cologne’s Gothic cathedral, the St. Stephan’s Youth Choir struck up a chorus of “All You Need Is Love” as couples — men with men, women with women, and women with men — lined up to have their unions blessed by ordained Catholic priests wearing rainbow stoles.
It was an act of love — but also sedition, in direct defiance of the Vatican’s decree that same-sex unions should not be celebrated or recognized.
The German Catholic Church, long known for pushing the boundaries of the faith, has been translating frustrations among progressive Catholics in pockets throughout Europe into a veritable revolt. The question for 1.3 billion Catholics now is whether the German church is in flagrant disobedience — or showing a different path.
In the letter, dated Sept. 25, Francis wrote that there are “situations” that may not be “morally acceptable” but where a priest can assess, on a case-by-case basis, whether blessings may be given — as long as such blessings are kept separate from the sacrament of marriage.
“We cannot be judges who only deny, push back and exclude,” Francis wrote. “As such, pastoral prudence must adequately discern whether there are forms of blessing, requested by one or several people, that do not convey a wrong idea of a matrimony. Because when one seeks a blessing, one is requesting help from God.”
His words appeared to contradict a 2021 Vatican statement that confirmed a ban on blessing same-sex couples. Francis has also notably removed the conservative official said to be the architect of that decision and appointed a fellow Argentine who has seemed to take a different view.
Francis’s letter released Monday appeared to reveal less movement on the question of ordination for women. He wrote that Pope John Paul II had ruled against female priests and that the decision must be respected for now. But he also suggested the topic could be further researched.
Both the role of women in the church and blessings for same-sex couples, as well as the possibility of a married priesthood, are among the divisive topics on the agenda as Catholic leaders gather at the Vatican this week for the most sweeping summit on the direction of the faith since the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.
Francis has already been facing a revolt on the right, with his most bitter conservative critics decrying him as a heretic. They have maligned the arcanely named Synod on Synodality — running from Wednesday through Oct. 29 — as a smokescreen for liberal reform.
Vatican watchers were not expecting big pronouncements, as the synod will convene again next fall and ultimately send recommendations to the pope then. And the Vatican has been playing down any notions of rapid reform.
But Francis has raised the hopes of progressives — and stoked the fears of traditionalists — that the church might, on some issues, begin to move in the direction of Germany.
German churches have been inviting women to say the homily at Mass and to baptize babies. Scores of German priests and monks have come out as celibate gay men, while some Catholic schools and churches have begun flying rainbow flags. A majority of German bishops have backed Catholic blessings of same-sex unions, calls for female deacons and the ordination of older, married men as priests.
“Many progressive Catholics look to the German church for a hopeful sense of where the church might be going,” said the Rev. James Martin, a U.S. delegate at the synod known for his ministry to LGBTQ+ Catholics. “But of course, just as many traditional Catholics look upon the German church with suspicion.”
At the Vatican, conservative fears and progressive hopes
The synod opening Wednesday — on the feast day of St. Francis — is not a political process, Vatican officials contend, but a chance for discussion, to “discern” God’s will for the direction of the church.
It requires that participants attempt to talk to each other — understanding that they represent an institution that encompasses German, Belgian and Swiss bishops who are already allowing blessings of same-sex couples, as well as American, African and Asian bishops who decry them.
The 364 voting delegates, observers say, include a relative balance of centrists, traditionalists and reformers, with some of the most extreme players on both sides left out.
But conservatives, including dozens of bishops from the United States, complain the synod is stacked against them.
They call its structure — which for the first time will allow laymen and women voting rights equal to cardinals and bishops — fundamentally un-Catholic. They see program documents asking for “concrete steps” to better welcome LGBTQ+ Catholics and people in polygamous marriages, among other categories, as dangerous.
Conservatives fear the synod process will open what they see as a Pandora’s box, eventually leading to unprecedented change on priestly celibacy, the acceptance of homosexuality and the elevation of women in a historically patriarchal church. They warn it could bring about a new schism, or split, in the world’s largest Christian faith.
Francis’s letter released Monday was written in response to a challenge, known as a dubia, issued by five conservative cardinals. They called on him to reinforce Catholic doctrine that condemns homosexuality and reserves ordination for “baptized males” only.
“The primary concern is that the pope will authorize things that are not contained in Catholic doctrine or that will contradict it — such as women deacons, blessing gay unions,” or weaken Catholic teachings against contraception and abortion by emphasizing individual conscience, said the Rev. Gerald Murray, a New York City priest who was not invited to the synod but will be in Rome doing commentary for conservative outlets.
“We’re not Protestants,” he said.
Predicting what the pope will do is much like reading tea leaves.
Francis raised the prospect of change early in his papacy, intoning “Who am I to judge?” when asked about gay Catholics. But he has been exceedingly cautious about altering doctrine. For instance, he has shied away from allowing married priests in the Amazon region, where extreme clerical shortages seemed to warrant it.
But as the 86-year-old pope looks to cement his legacy, much will depend on where he lands on these issues — whether he decides to urge the church closer to progressive positions. He faces the challenge of how to assuage liberal Europeans, in places where the church is rich but dying, without alienating fast-growing if more traditional churches in the developing world.
Going beyond talk in Germany
The Cologne Cathedral, where relics of the Three Kings are said to rest, is the largest Gothic church in Northern Europe. The writings of a rogue German priest named Martin Luther were publicly burned in its courtyard in 1520. Late last month, it served as the backdrop for a modern Catholic clash.
The Rev. Wolfgang Rothe, a wiry, openly gay German Catholic priest, organized the group blessing in reaction to a local cardinal, one of the few in Germany still disciplining priests for blessing same-sex couples. Rothe used the service as a rallying cry for the synod.
“I call on you, tell the pope, tell the synod of bishops, tell the world church: The current sexual morality of the Catholic Church is outdated,” he said. “It is unbiblical and immoral … a slap in the face of the loving God. This sexual morality belongs on the trash heap of church history.”
Nearby, a gaggle of conservative opponents prayed the rosary in protest. More radical elements on both sides — far-right Catholics and left-wing activists — jostled amid bullhorns and placards, and police intervened.
The Catholic Church in Germany is facing a crisis.
Measurable through a national church tax, German Catholics have been abandoning the church in record numbers — 522,000 last year alone. In a poll of those who had recently left the faith, the most common reason specified was the church’s handling of sexual abuse; the second its rejection of homosexuality.
Catholic bishops and laypeople in Germany sought to address that disaffection as they formulated their contribution to Francis’s synod, through a body called the Synodal Way.
Francis warned from the outset against a unilateral effort. “Every time the ecclesial community tried to get out of its problems alone, trusting and focusing exclusively on its strength or its methods, its intelligence, its will or prestige, it ended up increasing and perpetuating the evils it was trying to solve,” he wrote in a 2019 letter.
Nonetheless, by March of this year, Germany’s Synodal Way had proposed sweeping changes, including the ordination of female deacons and a reexamination of priestly celibacy in addition to same-sex blessings.
German bishops have mostly backed the proposals, while trying to buy time on some topics. They supported the ordination of female deacons, for instance, while conceding they first needed the permission of the Vatican.
But they have also grown more daring. In a country where the Catholic Church is the second-largest employer — with 800,000 workers, or six times more than Mercedes-Benz — German bishops amended the church’s labor law last year, so people can no longer be fired for being in a same-sex relationship or remarrying after divorce.
And in March, a majority of German bishops voted to allow blessings of same-sex couples — separate and distinct from the sacrament of marriage, but with standardized ceremonies to be drafted by 2026.
Liberal reforms have taken shape in other countries, too, but theologians see what Germany is doing as singular. They attribute it to a society that has emerged as one of the globe’s most socially progressive — and has a taste for rules.
“Some of these things happen in quieter ways in countries like Brazil,” said Massimo Faggioli, a Catholic theologian at Villanova University. “But the Germans are Germans, so they want formal recognition. That’s what’s different. They don’t want just de facto change. They want formal permission to change the books.”
The push within Germany matters all the more because the German Catholic Church ranks among the world’s richest —its dioceses are collectively far richer than the Vatican. And with this wealth, Germany helps to fund seminary schools and parishes across Latin America and Africa.
On a recent Sunday at St. Theodore’s Catholic Church on the edge of Cologne, Marianne Arndt’s white cassock billowed as she approached the pulpit to preach.
Arndt — a spiky-haired 60-year-old who said she had a calling from God as a young woman — has worked as a parish counselor here since 2016. She initially began offering a “final blessing” in lieu of last rites to dying patients at hospitals, using holy water instead of priestly oils. She began preaching during Catholic Masses years ago, but started describing her words as a “homily” in 2020, arguing that the time had come to “call it what it is.”<
Except that Catholic canon law requires an ordained deacon or priest to say the homily at Mass, and women can be neither.
The Rev. Dionysius Jahn, one of two parish priests who typically celebrate Mass alongside her, called her sermon an extension of religious teaching. He acknowledged the arrangement was atypical. “It’s very progressive here,” he said. “There are others that view [a woman in a role like this] very critically. They wouldn’t accept what’s going on here.”
It smarts, Arndt said, that she must metaphorically stand “behind” a male priest to deliver the homily, and she bristles against those who say she should leave the faith if she doesn’t abide by its rules.
“It is also my church, and I don’t run away,” she said.
They make up more than half its membership, they have been denied a say for centuries in the way it is run: but, early next month, women will gather in Rome for a process that they hope can bring the Catholic church’s thinking on female equality into the 21st century.
The central event is a mass listening exercise announced by Pope Francis in 2021, the synod on synodality. Its delegates will meet in Rome throughout October to discern the future direction of key issues in the church; and at the forefront of soundings already taken across the 1.3 billion-strong Catholic church across the globe has been the role of women.
To underline this clamour for change, a consortium of 45 pro-reform Catholic organisations will run their own synod – entitled Spirit Unbounded – alongside the official event: and former Irish president Mary McAleese, who will be among its keynote speakers, says it is crunch time for Francis and his cardinals and bishops. “They have to do something more than a cynical exercise in kicking the can down the road,” she says. “If the cardinals and bishops can be humbled into listening to the people of God, maybe the Holy Spirit will have a chance to bring about change.”
If not, she says, it is hard to see a way forward in a church that has shedded members – certainly in Europe and the west – and been ravaged by abuse scandals, financial misconduct and a dearth of men signing up to become priests.
“The scandals show up the craven stupidity of so many of the members of the magisterium,” says McAleese, who was president of Ireland – a country that bore the brunt of Catholic abuse scandals – from 1997 to 2011. “And, of course, there have always been examples of appalling teaching: but we are in a different generation now, with a highly educated laity who are more than capable of critiquing church teaching,”
Women in particular, she says, are being “driven away”: “They’re seen as second class and they won’t put up with it any more.”
Also addressing the alternative synod will be Cherie Blair, who will tell participants that “the church’s track record on women is at best mixed”, but that it needs to change and should not be afraid to change. “There remains a strong sense that the church does not do enough for women, that its structures and teaching on matters such as birth control and its priorities do not always serve women well,” she says in a pre-recorded video message.
For many, top of the change agenda is female ordination: admitting women first as deacons, and in time as priests. Miriam Duignan of Women’s Ordination Worldwide, one of the organisations taking part in Spirit Unbounded, is expecting hundreds of pro-ordination supporters for a march in central Rome on 6 October, as the synod on synodality gets under way.
Her organisation is also planning some “surprise” events, she says. “In almost every parish in the world where synod discussions took place, from Lesotho to the Philippines to Peru, women were talked about as an area where change is needed,” she says. “The Catholic church doesn’t have enough priests, and yet everyone knows nuns and laywomen who are already doing 90% of the work in the parishes – then they have to stand aside when a priest is needed to say mass.”
She adds. “Right now we’re at a tipping point: it’s clear that women are doing the work of priesthood, and they want to be recognised as priests.”
Despite what’s seemed a hard line against women priests from the Vatican, Duignan says there’s “below the radar” support from many priests and bishops. On demonstrations, she says: “We’ve had priests smiling at us, putting their thumbs up, clapping. One cardinal said ‘brava’ to me.”
Since becoming pope in 2013, Francis has convened two commissions to look into the question of female deacons. It is widely acknowledged that women served in leadership roles in the early years of the church and, says Duignan, as late as the 15th century women abbesses were hearing confessions and presiding at eucharistic services. But so far, Francis has failed to act. “He has a blind spot where he doesn’t see that the discrimination he speaks out against in wider society also happens in the Catholic Church.”
The official Synod Instrumentum Laboris, or working document, asks synod delegates to consider how women can be better included in the governance, decision-making, mission and ministries at all levels of the church, and asks whether women deacons could be envisaged. Although it doesn’t mention the possibility of female priests, many believe this would follow a decision to admit women to the diaconate, as happened in the Church of England – women were first ordained as deacons in 1987, and as priests in 1994.
Penelope Middleboe of the UK Catholic reform group Root and Branch, one of the lead organisations behind Spirit Unbounded, says the alternative event reflects suspicions about whether the official synod is properly taking laypeople’s views into account.
“In England and Wales, we researched what happened to points raised in the parish discussions, where there were calls for more action on abuse, for the inclusion of LGBTQ+ people, and for women to be admitted to the priesthood and to leadership roles – but we found these had been watered down by the bishops who filtered them for the report document,” she says.
Freedom to speak, and an ability to listen, are essential ingredients in what happens next, says McAleese: “I believe change is possible, which is why I stay – because many argue that by staying you’re collaborating or colluding with inequality. I feel that myself: but I feel I must stay to nudge the internal debate, and to press for change.”
FILE UNDER: Insulated, monolithic, callous, tone deaf church power structure
By Tammy Mutasa
Worcester Diocese says students must use names and pronouns assigned at birth
Worcester Catholic schools have started a new policy on sexual identity in which students must use their names and pronouns assigned at birth.According to the policy starting this fall, students at the diocese’s 21 schools must “conduct themselves” in a way that’s consistent with their biological sex, which includes what they wear and which restroom they use.
The Diocese of Worcester said they wanted a consistent policy across all schools because some had policies while others did not. The diocese said the policy is adopted from Catholic teachings about “accepting one’s own body as it was created.”
“They want to be honest. What does the church teach about sexual identity? As Catholics, we believe that not only is our life is a gift from God, but that our sexuality is also a gift from birth,” said Ray Delisle with the Diocese of Worcester.
The policy does emphasize that bullying or harassing students based on their perceived sexual identity will not be tolerated.
“We still respect everyone, even when we disagree with people,” said Delisle.
The new policy is already being challenged by LGBTQ+ advocates. Some said it will push out students who need love and acceptance.
Eighth grader Finn Santora said the policy is pushing him out of the Catholic school system. Like every student, he was looking forward to walking across the stage and hearing his name called. But for graduation, Finn said his school, St. Paul Diocesan Junior/Senior High School, would only call him by his birth name before he transitioned, saying it was school policy.
“They don’t understand that kids just want to be themselves and live with no fear,” Finn told WBZ. “It just made me feel like I’m not a human, like they don’t care.”
As a result, Finn and his family decided not to go to the ceremony.
“It’s just humiliating, degrading and embarrassing,” said Jai Santora, Finn’s mom. “And that type of behavior leads to bullying and segregation.”
LGBTQ+ advocates said the policy itself undermines students. Joshua Croke, the co-founder of “Love Your Labels,” said they are organizing to challenge the policy on every level and circulating a petition online.
“We know that LGBTQ+ young people have higher rates of anxiety, depression and suicidality,” said Croke. “We want young people to know that they matter, that they are loved, that they are worthy, that they are celebrated for who they are.”
For Finn though, the policy has left him no choice but to leave the Catholic school system.
“All I want is to live a normal life as a child and be who I am. They’re taking that away from me,” said Finn.
The Archdiocese of Boston said right now, it doesn’t have a policy for schools, but they are going through a collaborative process which is not completed. Officials said it’s too early to discuss anything.
A Catholic school near Kansas City, Mo., has expelled an A-student because his mother objected to a ban on LGBTQ+ books, according to a report.
The Kansas City Starreported that St. John LaLande Catholic School in Blue Springs disenrolled Hollee Muller’s 11-year-old son Hunter after “prayerful consideration.”
A July letter from the school said both parents “stated both verbally and in writing you do not agree with nor do you support the teachings of the Catholic Church. After prayerful consideration and discussion among our school administration it is obvious we no longer have a partnership with you, since the values of your family are not in alignment with those of our school. Therefore, the school administration has made the decision to disenroll your child from our school.”
But the Mullers are longtime and active members of the church. Muller’s husband Paul even attended the school as a child, the report stated.
Muller said the problem began when a new priest “came rolling in hot” and started banning books, including a book about a polar bear with two mothers.
“I don’t think being blatantly homophobic is a teaching of the Catholic Church,” Muller told the paper. The school also banned the Duolingo language app for translating words like “gay” and “lesbian.”
Another news source, CNN 10, was discontinued “because its parent company is too liberal,” one mom said.
“I don’t consider myself liberal, but banning books, and Duolingo? Don’t punish the child for the parent. And honestly, Hollee did nothing wrong,” she said.
School officials declined to comment, but a statement suggested the Mullers broke a “Family-School Covenant.”
“When a family challenges Catholic teaching and curriculum decisions through sustained complaints to the school and diocesan administration, irreconcilable differences can arise. In these situations, it is in the best interest of the family and the school to separate,” the statement said.