Expanding Synods Beyond Bishops: The Women Who are Leading the Synod on Synodality

October 4, 2023

You may have heard (if you’re a Catholic news nerd) that 54 women will be participating as voting members in the Synod on Synodality in Rome this month. Now if you’re thinking, “Okay, back up… What’s a synod? What’s synodality? What’s a voting member? And why does this matter?” – we’re here to help!

What is the Synod on Synodality?

Let’s start with “synod”: It’s an ancient word, one that’s been around since the first centuries of Christianity. In 325 AD, Church bishops started describing their gatherings as synods. “Synod” is from the Greek for “walking together.”

In 1054, the Eastern and Western Churches split and the schism between Eastern and Western Christians made convening bishops a fraught issue. Pope Paul VI brought back the Synod of Bishops in 1965. It was his effort to promote the collegiality and collaboration that many bishops and priests experienced during the Second Vatican Council. His decision emphasized that the Church is not a monarchy or a democracy, it’s a third thing: a synod – a community.

Now for “synodality”: It means the quality of being synod-like, so I guess that translates to “walking-together-ish-ness.” Has a ring to it, right?

And finally, the Synod on Synodality: This is a process that started in 2021 (two years ago!). Pope Francis called the whole Church to operate in a more communal way – to get better at walking together, encountering each other, and listening to one another. After two years of discussions in parishes and dioceses, and across nations and continents, 363 bishops and lay people are gathering from October 4 through 29 in Rome, where they will encounter, listen, and discern what the Church has learned thus far. At the end, they will vote on a document that will guide the next stage of the synod.

Why is This Synod Unique?

Since 1965, when Pope Paul VI brought back the synod of bishops, the synod has met 15 times. What’s unique about this synod is the Vatican’s explicit recognition that women – whose role in leading and bearing the Church’s tradition on their shoulders is undeniable, who make up over 75% of Catholic school teachers and administrators in the U.S., and who make up 54% of Catholics in the U.S. – have been essential in fostering a synodal spirit in their communities.

“From all continents comes an appeal for Catholic women to be valued first and foremost as baptised and equal members of the People of God,” says a compilation document of the global discussions published last fall. “There is almost unanimous affirmation that women love the Church deeply, but many feel sadness because their lives are often not well understood, and their contributions and charisms not always valued.”

This synod, women from all over the world have been making their mark on the synod process and will be representing women’s voices in Rome this month.

We talked with four of them. Allow us to introduce you.

Sr. Nathalie Becquart: General Undersecretary of the Synod on Bishops

Sr. Nathalie Becquart is a synodal icon. She is a sister in the Xaviere Congregation (named after the Society of Jesus co-founder St. Francis Xavier) and the first woman to hold the role of General Undersecretary of the Synod on Bishops. That fancy title means that she’s been helping organize the Synod on Synodality since Pope Francis first announced it on May 21, 2021 – and that she can vote in the synod process.

Sr. Becquart got the call that Pope Francis had appointed her as General Undersecretary after the school year when she was (coincidentally or providentially) studying synodality and ecclesiology at Boston College’s School of Theology and Ministry.

But even before that, when she decided to attend Boston College in 2019, Sr. Becquart had gotten a call from the Vatican, informing her that the pope wanted her to be a consultor to the synod of bishops.

“That was really a deep experience,” said Sr. Becquart in a Zoom interview with FemCatholic. “I had discerned with my superiors and spiritual director this call to research synodality and serve a synodal church. And the fact that I was appointed by Pope Francis was a kind of confirmation of that discernment,” she added.

Her journey toward supporting a synodal Church began with a speech given by Pope Francis in October 2015 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Paul VI’s establishment of the Synod of Bishops. “He stated that the world in which we live now is so fragmented and with so much division, that the path of synodality is the path for the Church in the third millennium,” Sr. Becquart said. His words moved her. “That was the first time I really started to understand the importance of synodality. 

At the time, she was working for the French bishops supporting youth ministries at the National Office of Evangelization of the Youth. She worked closely with the Office for the Family. Pope Francis convened the Synod on Family in 2014 and 2015, and the Synod on Young People in 2018 – topics that jived perfectly with Sr. Becquart’s work.

“It gave us a great joy,” she said. One of her colleagues in the Office for the Family advised her that good preparation was key to bearing fruit from the Synod. So, Sr. Becquart started to gather people together to prepare for the synod on youth.

This lesson of good preparation is reflected in the process of the Synod on Synodality, which has been a two-year journey of discussion in preparation for the discussion in Rome this month.

Sr. Becquart was asked to give a testimony on the experience of the preparation for the Synod on Young People in France. Instead of reporting on her work alone, she invited the young people she had been working with to present with her. The General Secretary of the synod was there at her testimony and asked her to join in the coordination of the synod in Rome.

“The most consoling experiences in the Church were those in which I have experienced synodality,” Sr. Becquart said. She spoke about her work both with France’s bishops and in her religious order as synodal, a way of journeying together and listening.

World Youth Day, for example, she says is “synodality in action,” even if young people don’t use this word.

At World Youth Day, she said, young people experience a Church that is excited to listen to and encounter the youth. “They see a church of fraternity, unity, diversity… these people coming from so many different backgrounds but being together in communion,” she said. “Once people have this experience, they could recognize, yes, that's synodality. Because it's difficult. You can't understand synodality just with a book or a speech. It's a learning by doing. It's an experience.” 

Sr. Becquart said that the lay and female voting members of the synod will be a witness and reminder of the diversity of the Church. “They're here to remind the pastors [and] to witness to them that you can't be a pastor without journeying closely with the people,” she said. The lay delegates represent the wider Church who are not in the room.

So, how can those who are not in Rome participate in the Synod?

“The first way to participate is to pray,” Becquart says. She suggests looking at the Synod website. Their office has made particular Prayers of the Faithful and prayers before the Eucharist that the bishops will pray throughout the world during the Masses at the opening of the Synod.

She recommends that each person read the working document that synthesizes the many conversations and concerns of the global Church from the past two years. “We have to discern how we will continue to serve the mission of the Church all together, in our world of today,” Sr. Becquart said.

She encourages Catholics to form discussion groups to discern what applies to their church in their local context, and how to operate more communally “There are many, many things you don't need an assembly in Rome [for] to put into practice in your parish,” she said.

The goal of the synod is primarily a spiritual journey, it’s to become a Church that has a style and manner of communion, participation, fraternity: a Church that journeys together as missionary disciples. 

“The journey is not finished,” Sr. Becquart said: “All are invited to come on board.”

Julia Oseka: Representing Young People in the Church

“Young people are the ‘now’ of the Church,” said Julia Oseka, a native of Poland and a physics and theology student at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. Oseka, 22, is the youngest member of the 363 voting delegates – and she is one of 10 lay members from the United States who are invited to the Synod.

Oseka is full of enthusiasm for the synod. She believes that synodality has answered the needs of many of her young peers in the Church. Young people often get called the future of the Church, she said, but the young are actually the present and their lived perspectives can help the Church respond more effectively to the signs of the times. “Calling them ‘the future’ excludes them from having a place at the table right now, today,” she said. She has heard her peers express a desire to be more involved; to be on parish councils and to have more decision-making involvement in a church context.

Oseka said she was “very surprised” when she got an email announcing that she was one of the 10 candidates to attend the synod. She was also grateful, overjoyed, and humbled. “Pope Francis’ invitation to women and young people to be active voting members became incarnate in that moment. It felt like a real responsibility – it still feels like a huge responsibility,” Oseka said in a phone call with FemCatholic.

She first heard about the synod by listening to an interview with Sr. Nathalie Becquart on an episode about synodality by a Jesuit podcast. “She said synodality has the spirit of the coffee date – it’s something anyone can do,” Oseka remembers. And those words captured her deeply, she said. “It’s not a lofty idea, you don’t have to have a theology PhD in order to be understood – it’s really down to the roots of who we are… It’s stripping ourselves of biases and trying our best to love each other and meet each other.”

Oseka became involved with an initiative to engage young adults and college students in synod called Synodality in Catholic Higher Education in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia (SCHEP). SCHEP facilitated listening sessions across college campuses for small groups, choirs, and the broader university community. Oseka describes those listening sessions as “holy space.” “It was such an inclusive space. It happens so rarely you get 100 young people who just want to listen to one another,” she said. At the large archdiocesan gathering in April 2022, she suggested going on coffee dates as a start for synodality. Archbishop Nelson Pérez, who was present, said, “I’ll get a coffee with you.”

She was a delegate for the Continental Assembly in the United States, which met over Zoom and discussed the Document for the Continental Stage, as they worked to create a synthesis to use in Rome this month. One of the paragraphs in this document says:

“The Church faces two related challenges: women remain the majority of those who attend liturgy and participate in activities, men a minority; yet most decision-making and governance roles are held by men. It is clear that the Church must find ways to attract men to a more active membership in the Church and to enable women to participate more fully at all levels of Church life.”

Oseka looks forward to carrying the voices of her peers into these conversations in Rome. “My duty is to carry the voices and experiences of the people who participated in the synod, and also those who were afraid to participate in the synod,” she said. In Rome, she sees herself being an advocate especially for young people, women, and the marginalized. So far, she says, from Archbishop Pérez to Cardinal Mario Grech to other elderly delegates, her experiences as a young person have been met with welcome.

She encourages young people and women to continue talking to one another and to their bishops and church leaders about synodality, about journeying together and listening to one another along the way. Even invite them for a coffee chat, where synodality begins.

Sandra Chaoul: Daring to Encounter Others

Sandra Chaoul, one of the delegates in Rome this month, doesn’t have a background in academic theology. Rather, she has come to understand the concept of synodality through personal experience.

A Maronite Catholic, Chaoul studied economics as an undergraduate at St. Joseph’s University and got her master’s in financial economics at American University in Beirut, both in her hometown of Beirut, Lebanon.

After graduation, she worked in the corporate world. “Synodality was not something I understood back then or even came across as a concept,” she said in an email. 

But, for the past ten years, she has collaborated with the Society of Jesus in Beirut, forming leaders and working with Jesuit initiatives in the country. “My experience of the Ignatian retreat and the Spiritual Exercises has really opened me to the experience that prayer is not just saying words, but rather opening myself to the way God is walking with me as a person,” Chaoul said in a Zoom call with FemCatholic.

But, looking back, she realizes she experienced synodality as common discernment with a community and by “opening spaces of listening and sharing.” Over the past decade, she has learned more about Ignatian spirituality and collaborated more with Jesuits through the Discerning Leadership program, which develops young adult leaders and provides faith formation through retreats, small group prayer, and practicing “spiritual conversations” by sharing desolations, consolations, and listening to others.

She shares this story about her experience of the synod:

“In one of the synodal listening phases I was part of in the Middle East, there was a time dedicated to prayer, where we invited members to take a moment of contemplation before joining their small groups. A few participants, including priests and bishops, spent the biggest part of that time gathered in the hall chatting together, taking calls or responding to emails. I found myself frustrated and discouraged by that.

“The next day, on the bus sitting next to a bishop in our group, I shared in a heart-to-heart, somewhat animated, conversation my disappointment when priests do not respect prayer times and seem resistant to the process. I was very moved by his deep listening and encouragement, and something shifted in me. I noticed how easy it is in these moments to fall into generalizations, to allow resentment or judgment to build up and to get stuck in what is not working, and how this brings a sense of desolation.”

She has found silence to be important for “resetting” after a difficult plenary discussion or disagreement. Silence allows her, she says, to tap into that longing for unity underneath the frustration.

“Women and lay people (especially youth) can bring a prophetic voice, a spontaneity and a freshness that is worth listening to if we are to rediscover what it means to be Church today,” she said. The voices of the discounted and the marginalized are essential for walking together better as a Church.

Chaoul encourages readers to open up a conversation with the local church governance: talk to a priest or a church community, go to a synod listening circle, reach out to someone in the church. “Daring an encounter is key,” she said. “I know it from myself, how easy it is to disconnect when I feel hurt or ignored, and there [have] been a lot of wounds in the Church, so this may not be easy.”

Margaret Karram: Answering the Call to Unity

For Margaret Karram, the president of the Focolare movement, synodality has a personal dimension, in addition to an ecclesiological and a communal one. She has learned a lot about synodality from Focolare, a lay movement that emphasizes unity as a human family. Focolare means “hearth,” and the goal of Focolare is to gather humanity around a common hearth of belonging. 

“The main purpose of Focolare is to live for unity,” said Margaret Karram to FemCatholic. She sees synodality as offering the Church a way of living for and with unity. “This is what humanity is lacking,” Karram said. “Humanity is lacking this togetherness.”

Karram certainly understands division. She and her three siblings grew up in Haifa, a coastal city in Israel/Palestine that is majority Jewish Israeli but has the second-largest Christian Arab population in Israel/Palestine. Haifa is a “mixed-city” according to the Israeli census, but faces many tensions, divisions, separations, and prejudices among its members.

At the age of 14, Karram discovered Chiara Lubich, the founder of Focolare, and her call to unity based on the famous passage from the Gospel of John: “that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you.” She understood that the call of the Gospel wasn’t only personal or spiritual conversion. “The Gospel can transform our own life and can bring a social revolution,” she said.

She hopes the synod on synodality helps men and women all over the world feel part of “a big family where fraternal relationships can be experienced concretely… where you are part of a mosaic where every piece is important.”

Focolare focuses on ecumenism and interreligious dialogue as part of its mission of unity. She has seen Focolare members all over the world bring this dimension to the synod’s goal of “walking together.” She has seen members include in listening sessions Christians from other churches, people of other religions, and also agnostics.

“For me, walking together means walking with Jesus among us,” she said, comparing synodality to the Road to Emmaus story. “We are on the journey with Jesus. He is the only one that can make the Church more beautiful and that can transform the Church and transform our societies,” she said.

Karram has been the president of the Focolare Movement since 2021, and so she lives in Italy, where the movement is headquartered. She participated in the Continental Assembly for Europe that took place this spring in Prague. 

They gathered together in plenary sessions and small working groups, and they discussed the working documents through prayer together, silence, and listening to one another. “It was in an effort to leave room for the action of the Holy Spirit,” she said. She found it a touching experience. “I saw that the Church is like a mother that really respects everyone and there is room for everyone,” Karram said.

As the third president of one of the world’s largest lay ecclesial movements, Karram understands the importance of the laity, who are – as she points out – the majority of Catholics in the world. She also understands the specific gifts of women. Chiara Lubich stipulated that a woman must always be the president of the Focolare movement.

“It seems to me that it is not about roles but rather about creating the opportunities where we women can better give our specific contribution to the Church,” she said.

Karram noted that Pope Francis is also welcoming women into positions of responsibility in the institutional Church. Women now make up around 22% of the Vatican employees. 

“I prefer to emphasize the gift that the Church can perceive when the presence of women is more consciously recognized and valued,” Karram said. She notes that she was born in the Galilee, the land of Mary. “I believe there is still much for us to learn from the greatest woman in history – Mary,” she said. Mary, the model for all Christians, is not just a model for women. Valuing the contributions of women is essential for all of us to walk together in unity as a Church and a world. Karram believes that this synodal path of unity is the way forward.

“I believe we can contribute to a more authentic and beautiful Church that opens her arms to the whole humanity.”

Learning to See Women’s Gifts as Truly Necessary

Women participating in the synodal processes desire both Church and society to be a place of flourishing, active participation, and healthy belonging.

Some reports note that the cultures of their countries have made progress in the inclusion and participation of women, progress that could serve as a model for the Church. Others note that there is still a long way to go toward valuing women’s gifts and seeing them as necessary, not just as a nice add-on. 

“This lack of equality for women within the Church is seen as a stumbling block for the Church in the modern world,” said a report from New Zealand in the 2022 compilation document.

As Sr. Nathalie Becquart and other synod leaders remind the Church, the work of gathering everyone together, of enlarging the space of the tent we gather under, and of considering who we see as an essential part of that is far from done.

“The journey isn’t finished,” Sr. Becquart said. “All are invited to come on board, all are invited to be part of the synodal Church. Everybody has a role.”

Renée Roden

Editor of Special Projects, 2021-present

Renée Darline Roden holds a B.A. and M.T.S. in theology from the University of Notre Dame and an M.S. in journalism from Columbia University. She is the executive director of Catholic Artist Connection and a freelance writer and playwright. Her plays have appeared at The Tank and the Bushwick Starr in New York City and at universities in Dallas and South Bend. Her writing has appeared in the Associated Press, Washington Post, Religion News Service, The Tablet, and America Magazine. She lives at St. Francis Catholic Worker House in Chicago.

Don't miss the Weekly Insight.

Friday updates from FemCatholic's Founder, Sam.
By clicking “Accept”, you agree to the storing of cookies on your device to enhance site navigation, analyze site usage, and assist in our marketing efforts. View our Privacy Policy for more information.