Next month, Catholics from around the world will gather in Rome to discuss and discern the future of the Catholic Church. It is part of an ongoing church-wide conversation, known as the Global Synod on Synodality, about listening to the Holy Spirit and renewing the church as a healing presence in communities, particularly in places like Boston, shaken by the clergy sex abuse crisis.
Catholics in the United States are invited to be part of that ongoing discernment process. Our participation is crucial for ensuring the conversation remains focused on the needs of all Catholics and how we continue to be a community in an increasingly diverse and connected world. Among the many questions that will be discussed at the synod is how we should rethink women’s participation in the church. It’s a question that will have a meaningful impact not only on the lives of Catholic women but on all Boston Catholics.
Catholic women are a cornerstone of their communities. However, there is currently no available path for women toward formal, vocational ministry within the church, despite the integral role many women play in fulfilling unmet ministerial needs of the community. Those of us who feel a call from God to minister in sacramental ways (baptizing, celebrating marriages, funeral services) and to preach must be flexible in our approach.
In my own experience, years ago while studying to be a classical singer I was asked by a trusted professor, “What thing, if I took it away from you, would leave you with no air in your lungs?” My answer was not the music I was studying but service to God and God’s people. That question still shapes my understanding of vocation.
Like a multitude of women before me, since then, I sought to serve the church quietly, without official recognition and, more importantly, without sacramental grace (the invisible but real presence of God) that is available to ordained ministers in the church, a concept that is integral to who we are as Catholics.
Yet, as our wounded church discerns how to rebuild much-needed communal trust, while seeking to meet a host of unmet ministerial needs amid an increase in what Pope Francis calls “the scourge of clericalism, which places a caste of priests ‘above’ the People of God,” it’s time for the church to discern how it might now formally recognize women like me who are fulfilling vital communal roles that would otherwise go unfulfilled. In fact, Catholic theologian Massimo Faggioli in discussing the synod has repeatedly noted that one meaningful and concrete step the church can take toward restoring trust and fostering a culture of accountability and transparency is to more fully incorporate women into leadership, decision making, and ordained ministry as deacons.
Deacons, or ordained Catholic ministers who tend to the needs of the community both inside and outside the walls of the church, have long served their communities.
The church’s discernment about the importance of deacons to the church is also not new. In the 1960s, during the Second Vatican Council, under the leadership of Pope John XXIII, the permanent diaconate (deacons not on the path to priestly ordination) was restored as a vocation for all men, including those who were married. Since then, our church has considered what expanding the diaconate to include women could mean for the global community.
Now, after decades of study led by multiple popes and consensus in favor of ordaining women as deacons following the 2020 Synod of Bishops in the Amazon, the gathering in Rome next month presents the church with a rare opportunity to discern our future together.
For women dedicated to serving the Catholic Church, who desire to serve in concert with their bishops and priests in ways that more effectively acknowledge and enhance their already significant contributions to the life of the church, this synod represents a daring hope. A hope that while we hold fast to the doctrinal truths of who we are as a church, there are still paths available for women in ministry — paths that are a return to tradition, not a departure from it.
Kelly Meraw is the director of collaborative pastoral care and music and liturgy at St. John the Evangelist Parish in Wellesley.