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Radical change of mindset needed to balance leadership within Church and recognise role of women – report finds

Radical change of mindset needed to balance leadership within Church and recognise role of women – report finds

Limerick Diocese report published ahead of webinar tomorrow night on Role of Women in Church Leadership

Sunday, May 9, 2021: There are multiple challenges that need to be addressed if the Christian community is to fully benefit from the “creative energy and giftedness of its women ministers”, a webinar on the ‘Role of Women in Church Leadership’ will be told tomorrow night.

A report prepared ahead of the Limerick Diocese webinar link arrives at a range of conclusions, including that there are difficulties and struggles for women, both lay and religious, particularly in a parish environment that revolves around the priest. It also concludes that a radical change of mindset is required to balance leadership within the Church and the entire Christian community.

Furthermore, it finds there is a “need to honour the dignity of Christian women in ministry” and that whilst women have been working continuously within the Church, their experience is that much of what they do, is in the background and somewhat ‘invisible’.  However, it states that there is a breadth of possibilities open to the Church within the existing provisions of canon law which need to be more widely understood and called upon to facilitate change.

The report is by the working group established following the 2016 Limerick Diocesan Synod to explore how and where women can play a leadership role in the governance of the Church at diocesan and local level.  Speakers at tomorrow night’s webinar are Sr Patricia Murray, who was appointed by Pope Francis as a consultor to the Pontifical Council for Culture and is Executive Secretary of International Union of Superiors General; Austen Ivereigh, Writer, Journalist, Biographer of Pope Francis and Co-author with Pope Francis of 'Let us Dream'; Jessie Rogers, Dean of Theology, Lecturer in Sacred Scripture; Brendan Leahy, Bishop of Limerick and Rose O’Connor, Chair of the Women in Leadership Working Group that developed the report and arranged the webinar.

Much of the report content is based on insights the Working Group received after inviting 24 women in ministry within and outside of the Diocese to submit a reflection on their experience as a woman in ministry.  It finds that challenges arise from the absence of formal ‘official’ recognition of the roles played by women in the church and states that opportunities need to be created for women’s voices to be heard in our liturgies, in Church leadership and in Church life. 

The Working Group recommends that opportunities for greater team ministry and co-responsibility be explored by the Diocese and a policy for opening ministry and leadership roles to the lay faithful be developed. It also recommends that the local Church and its communities need to have a greater understanding of and recourse to the provisions in canon law (1983 Code of Canon Law) for sharing ministry and parish administration and that any ministry or leadership role taken on by a lay person, woman or man, be formally, officially and publicly commissioned by the Bishop.

The possibility of any new roles being created, as team ministry and other initiatives develop and evolve, should be explored with a view to opening them to lay women and men with the requisite skills and experience, it recommends. It also suggests that these new roles are developed alongside other ministry roles such as the Permanent Diaconate to avoid either one displacing the other. 

The report also recommends that there is a sense of urgency in implementing these recommendations as the cohort of lay women and men who would be willing to take on the challenges of being actively involved in Team Ministry is ageing.

Rose O’Connor, Chair of the Women in Leadership Working Group said that while there are very significant challenges, there are also opportunities for women when it comes to leadership roles in the church.

“While the issue of ordination of women is at the forefront of most people’s thoughts when it comes to inequalities in the Church, as a working group we concentrated on what is possible within the provisions of canon law; what we can impact here on the ground, what we can change. In doing so, we have identified some significant challenges and explored options for dealing with those. While the challenges and issues are most definitely a concern and speak to a wider cultural problem that challenges both women in the church and lay men, we are not without solutions and we will be exploring some of those at our webinar,” she said.

“The engagement with the respondents was revealing. One woman with a leadership role went as far as to say she felt blatantly ignored because there was a priest present at a meeting, the message being that the authority of the priest superseded the lay woman’s role. That’s not something that’s exclusive to women either. Lay men experience the same problem in some parishes. Again, as one respondent said, the influence of lay people depended on the parish priest and his openness and willingness to engage in collaborative style ministry. Some priests are delighted to share ministry and appreciate a woman’s perspective, but others don’t.”

Said Bishop Leahy: “If we look back to our Synod, the motion that got the highest approval vote was on looking at how we can explore where women can play a leadership role in the Church and diocesan level.  It is something we shouldn’t have to address as it’s a problem that shouldn’t exist but it does. The first thing we need to do in addressing any issue is name it and the Working Group with its report has done that. Now we need to find solutions and implement the change that’s clearly needed and within our grasp.

“It’s not going to be an easy journey; change never is and some of the issues we have in that respect are embedded deeply in the culture of the church and the community around it.  I’ve been saying for quite some time that our Church is overly focused on the church building itself, what happens in it and the priest. We have to flip that on its head. We must go out into the community and we must bring people together. That’s not a job for one person or one gender, it’s a job for all.”

He added: “We need to always recall that it is Mary, the mother of Jesus, who most embodies what the Church is meant to be doing: communicating the Good News that is Jesus in our world in all the spheres of human life and culture, not simply the religious domain.”