NEW YORK (RNS) — Sister Nathalie Becquart, the highest-ranking woman at the Vatican, dropped into St. Paul the Apostle Church in Manhattan on Tuesday evening (March 28) to talk to and about young Catholics, and particularly young women in the church. The French nun, who is shepherding a worldwide survey of Catholics ahead of a fall meeting of bishops on the future of the church, didn’t have answers for the women in the audience so much as she had advice: Listen.
As undersecretary of the General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops, Becquart has been traveling the globe in recent weeks as an ambassador for the Synod on Synodality, planned for October in Rome, that has the potential to shift the power in the Catholic Church more toward the laity, and especially women and young people.
The synod, where Becquart, 54, will be the first woman with the right to vote with the bishops, has as its theme “synodality”: a dynamic emphasized by the Second Vatican Council that encourages listening and dialogue among clergy, religious orders and laity inviting them to participate in discerning the next steps for the church.
“Synodality is a dynamic vision of the church in history,” Becquart said. “It’s not a theoretical, idealistic vision of the church in the sky. It’s about being the church of the people of God over time.” Nor, she said, was it only for Catholics talking to Catholics. “It’s a way to be a church in dialogue with people from other faiths, in society. It’s a way to bring the church to the world,” she said, later adding that “it was already the style of the early church.”
Pope Francis, who called the Synod on Synodality and who has made synodality a core value of his papacy, has encouraged parishes, in gathering comments and concerns about the church for the bishops to consider, to reach out to people on the margins, including those who no longer attend Mass, non-Catholics, the poor, the disabled and the elderly.
Some have interpreted Becquart’s appointment as undersecretary as a sign that Francis is pushing the church closer to ordaining female deacons, often the first step to priesthood. But Becquart told the audience of about 150, about half of which comprised young people, that a more important goal than women’s ordination is to “seek the truth together, listen and to reach a consensus.” With Catholics from so many different countries and cultures, it takes time to build a consensus, she said.
Rather than making ordination the only path to leadership, she encouraged every Catholic institution to cultivate “a new style of leadership that is a servant and collaborative leadership.”
That style of leadership, she made clear, depends on listening. “Listening is more than simply hearing. It is a beautiful listening, in which everyone has something to learn,” Becquart said. “No one should be excluded or censored.”
The response by American Catholics to the synod process has fallen short of this vision by most measures. Only 1% of the U.S. Catholic population, or about 700,000 people, participated in the listening sessions, according to a September 2022 report from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops summing up the 10 months of listening sessions in local parishes and dioceses.
Those Catholics, the bishops’ report said, are most pained by the ongoing sexual abuse crisis, the fraying of communities after the pandemic and polarization in the church laity and among bishops. They listed among their top concerns the ongoing marginalization of immigrants, the poor, ethnic minorities, the homeless, incarcerated people, people with disabilities and mental issues, people suffering addiction, the LGBTQ+ community, the unborn and their mothers and women, including parish staff who feel unseen and underpaid.
Among the young people at Becquart’s talk, a resumption, post-pandemic, of Fordham University’s annual Russo Lecture series, the greatest concern seemed to be the lack of Catholics their own age who are listening in or to the church at all.
“Hearing this talk has given me more of a sense of urgency to make sure we’re sharing with our community members, the young adults, so they can share with their friends,” said Kayleen Hecksher, a member of the leadership team of Apostolist, a ministry at St. Paul’s for young adults in their 20s and 30s. The church, the seat of the priestly order known as the Paulist Fathers, also has a well-known ministry for LGBTQ+ Catholics called Out at St. Paul’s.
Hecksher wanted her fellow young Catholics to know that “there is space for conversations that no one was expecting there to be space for.”
But Analucia Castillo-Cano, another member of Apostolist, said she keeps hearing church leaders say, as Becquart did, that “youth are not the future of the church; they are the present.”
“It’s reassuring to hear that, but again, we need more strategies as to actually how to bring (the youth) in,” said Castillo-Cano, who travels from Queens into Manhattan every week for a special 5 p.m. Mass with a choir led by young adults. “Because we are here, but I have friends that don’t come to church. … They wouldn’t know. So how do we make sure that we get them?”
Hecksher added, “We need to regain the participation of people that have felt pushed out.”