Sister Elizabeth Davis has been a leading figure in Newfoundland and Labrador’s health care system for decades. Now, the Roman Catholic nun is about to embark on a new adventure close to her original vocation.
Davis plans to travel to Rome to participate in the General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in October, led by Pope Francis.
Davis is one of five members of a group called Women Religious who were invited to participate, and this synod will mark the first in history to have women present and voting.
Before his trip, Davis sat down with Very active Host Anthony Germain to discuss the synod, the agenda items and what he hopes will emerge from it.
While synods are common in other denominations, they have not been held regularly in the Roman Catholic Church.
“However, Pope Francis really likes synods because he believes he needs to get in touch with people around the world,” Davis said. “He also believes that it should not just be bishops who attend the synod. So, for the first time in our history, this synod will have lay people, including women attending, who will vote at the synod. So, for the Roman Catholic Church, “It’s a pretty historic event.”
Here’s the rest of their conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: It is historic that you go. So how did you end up on the guest list?
A: I have no idea. 364 voters participate in the synod, of whom around 90 are not bishops. Fifty-four of them are women and I am one of those 54 women. I’m not sure why I’m there. The women religious are part of an international organization called the Union of Superiors General, and that international organization was given the right to name five religious women who would attend the synod. So I was appointed by them…
[Women Religious is] a women’s religious organization. People call us nuns.
I think what is interesting for outsiders, whether Catholic or not, are the topics that are going to be discussed. Women deacons, priestly celibacy, LGBTQ outreach. As someone who grew up in a mixed Catholic environment, I find this quite significant. What is your opinion?
Pope Francis has really dared to name the problems that have stained the face of the Roman Catholic Church for centuries, and still do so in our time. And by naming these themes, he calls us together to see how we see these things differently.
The very word “synod,” a gathering, Pope Francis has redefined as walking together. And even the image he chose for the synod shows people of different colors walking together, led by a child and a teenager, with the Pope in the middle, not at the beginning or at the end. Older people, younger people and people connected to the Earth too. That’s why he has been trying to call us to a more inclusive communion, and he thinks and believes, as I do, that that is the only way we can help make our world better and more just. More peaceful.
And that image you are referring to, sister, the rainbow motif is already built through it. So it’s interesting that something that’s basically been passed around as the symbol of LGBTQ tolerance is actually related to what’s going to be happening.
The colors of this symbol are very revealing, a beautiful image of the nature of inclusion. And in fact, the first time we hear about the alliance between God and the Earth is in the book of Genesis of the Bible, in the Jewish and Christian tradition. And in Genesis Chapter 9, God creates the rainbow to remember that God has made a covenant with the people and with all the creatures on Earth. It has a beautiful history and a wonderful presence in our current society, always showing inclusion.
On the LGBTQ issue. What strikes me about this, and I’ve sort of seen this evolve over time, is that, for certain generations of Catholics, this is a matter of sin. tThis is quite a far cry from where we used to be, than the fact that the Pope is actually putting this on the agenda. Which of these topics is most important to you if you were to rank them?
We were asked to sort them ourselves before we went. My first interest is all of them, because I believe that unless we see that image that they have shown us as a seal of who we are, we are not going anywhere. So becoming a person with only one problem will still lead us back to exclusions.
So how do we walk together differently? So whether I’m walking with you as a man, whether I’m walking with you as a bisexual, whether I’m walking with you as an Indigenous person, whether I’m walking with you as a homeless person… the point is that we should be walking together. Our Earth is terribly vulnerable right now.
The synod really promises that we will get there. Our church doesn’t have a good track record of that. We have been quite exclusionary in our church, particularly in recent centuries. Quite defensive. And that is not useful for the church or for the world.
Regarding women within the church, as you know, there has been a long debate about the celibacy of priests, with priests being the true holders of power within the church. Is there much room in this meeting to talk about that?
The documents we have been given to work with…all speak of the need to look at the place and role of women in the church very differently. Ensure that women’s voices are heard where decisions are made. This has troubled our church for many centuries. It still worries our society today. It’s not unique to our church, but we haven’t been among the leaders who changed that…
If today you go to a church anywhere in the world to attend mass and look at the entire congregation gathered there, 80 percent will be women. It is consistent throughout the world. So women are the most active participants in the church, but we have the least voice in the church.
And in the same way, I gathered from what you said earlier in this interview that, for people who happen to be gay men, lesbian men, bisexual men, or…non-binary men, are you hopeful that there will be some kind of opening like a Result of this meeting that you are going to have in Rome?
Absolutely, I hope we become much more gender sensitive. We humans tend to create these dualisms all the time, don’t we? Good, bad, black, white, Catholic, non-Catholic. We always create dualisms and we did it with sexuality and gender. Female male. And we are beginning to realize that that is not the reality of lived experience. until we recognize [and] Mention that, what Pope Francis has begun to do, and mention the fact that we had not been very wise in creating that dualism, that is a good first step. But it is only a first step.
The Pope has publicly lamented a certain current of beliefs that he has detected in very conservative American Catholics, who he says or suggests are obsessed with abortion and issues of sexuality instead of really thinking about the teachings of Christ and caring for the poor. and focus on other aspects of what believers believe. Is there room for debate within the Church to do that without creating tensions that could divide the Church between the conservative side of the Catholic Church and perhaps, for lack of a better term, the more progressive side, which I believe you represent? and this? represents the meeting?
We have to find a way to bridge that divide. We will never all think alike, and we shouldn’t. That defeats the purpose we’re talking about here. Our church at first was called Catholic, which means universal. Now, Catholic today often means exclusion and exclusion, unfortunately. But when we were first called Catholic, it was because we were so universal, so inclusive. We need to get back to that vision of who we are… We will have tensions, and if we don’t have them, it means we are in denial. And if we don’t confront those tensions and contradictions at the Rome meeting, if we don’t have voices speaking differently, we won’t be getting to the heart of the matter.
Very active14:26Sister Elizabeth Davis
When this synod ends, what do you hope will be different?
The synod will not end [then]. Next year, in October, will be the last session of the synod. But Pope Francis has been very clear. He says that the synod is just a meeting, a meeting in time. He wants the church to change. The meeting is going to be just an opportunity and many opportunities to talk about it. So what do I expect? I hope that when we return at the end of October we will have increased our willingness to mention the differences between us. We will have increased our awareness that we need to change some things among ourselves. That we will have increased our openness to listening to others who do not agree with what we think. And we will have greater opportunities to talk to others outside of our church.
Listen to the full interview:
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