What was initially scheduled as an audience with Pope Francis turned into a dialogue between him and congregational leaders at the closing session of the International Union of Superiors General triennial assembly May 10 — and the more than 850 attendees couldn't have been more delighted.
Sisters were initially told that unlike the last meeting with UISG in 2016, this session would not be open to questions and the pope would deliver prepared remarks. They waited patiently in the Paul VI audience hall following a Mass celebrated in St. Peter's Basilica by Cardinal João Braz de Aviz, prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. Some sang songs and waved the Argentina flag while Francis, out of sight in a separate room, viewed the launch of the Nuns Healing Hearts photo exhibit and awareness campaign for the 10th anniversary of Talitha Kum.
Applause and cheers erupted as he entered and walked down the aisle to the stage. He set the tone immediately by asking that two chairs be put side by side and invited Sr. Carmen Sammut, superior general of the Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Africa and the outgoing president of UISG, to sit beside him. This sign of mutual respect was not lost on the sisters, several of whom cited this when asked for their reactions later.
Sammut quipped that she never thought she'd ever be "sitting at the right hand of the father." After she thanked the pope for being a source of inspiration, he joked that he was happy to be "a source of inspiration and not insomnia" for sisters. Francis then set aside his prepared remarks in favor of a dialogue.
Sammut noted the new rules against the abuse of minors and vulnerable people issued May 9 and thanked Pope Francis for helping the church fight this issue.
"We are also grateful for your having faced the painful issue of abused religious," she said, noting that many forms of abuse occur worldwide, including cases of religious abusing their fellow sisters.
National conferences of religious orders "are facing this scourge with courage and determination," she said, listing several UISG initiatives to help congregations raise awareness, train superiors and establish protocols and codes of conduct.
She raised other topics with the pope, including women deacons. Francis said the 12 members of the Vatican commission studying the issue had been unable to agree on the role of women deacons in the early centuries of Christianity. He added that he had given the part of the commission's results they did agree on to Sammut, since the question was raised three years ago at the last UISG assembly.
Some on the commission, he said, thought the church "must go forward" and reinstitute an order of women deacons. Others he said, "say, 'We must stop here.' "
"We must study this," Francis said. "I cannot make a sacramental decree without a theological, historical foundation."
He noted how the sisters were in various forms of dress. "Thirty years ago, you would all be the same," he said.
He said it is a sign of the vitality of religious life that congregations have adopted different forms of dress, noting especially the saris of sisters from India. He also reiterated a message delivered three years ago that women religious must not live in servitude to clergy.
"Help me in this," he said.
In closing, Sammut said the sisters would continue to pray daily for him. He shook hands with the delegates and board members as he left amid sisters' chants of "Hermano Francisco" ("Brother Francis").
Global Sisters Report asked some sisters attending the UISG session for their impressions and reactions.
Sr. Pat Siemen, prioress of the Adrian Dominican Sisters
I was most touched by his humanness and genuineness. While I am among those disappointed in his articulation that revelation has already been completed, and thus the possibility of women being ordained as "sacramental" deacons has to have a direct lineage to the historical time of Jesus rather than supporting an ongoing revelation of Spirit infused in a pastoral approach that is based on the needs of people and the gifts of women who are called to serve, I am not going to focus on that limitation.
Rather, I was touched by his compassion and affirmation of the women religious leaders gathered for the audience. His first words to us, affirming our call to consecrated life and acknowledging the differing charisms of religious life, were pastorally refreshing. I particularly appreciated his recognition that each congregation chooses its own religious dress and attire according to their customs and ability to serve the people of God. And "each of you are beautiful" regardless of attire.
Two other highlights: seeing Sr. Carmen Sammut, UISG president, and Sr. Pat Murray, UISG executive director, accompanying Pope Francis' walk up the middle aisle into the hall without clerical presence or fanfare, like a brother and sisters walking together. The other visual memory is seeing Carmen sitting next to Pope Francis during his entire audience with us. It signaled a sign of mutual respect and no need for other intermediaries. This image of shared leadership is what stays with me. It stirs a deep longing that women will become more present and integrally engaged at the various decision-making forums in the life of the church.
Despite Pope Francis' current restriction on women deacons, I do believe he is dedicated to opening spaces for women to serve in leadership and decision-making offices that don't require ordination. His renewed, strong plea that sisters be of service but not enter into positions of servitude is a critical call for respect of the roles women serve.
I also appreciated his setting aside his formal remarks and opening the session for questions from the UISG sisters. The question of the sister from South Sudan, asking, pleading for episcopal leadership in the five open dioceses in South Sudan, was very poignant. I thought Francis' response was telling, reflecting the complexity and difficulty in "who do we send?" It reminded me of one of the sisters from the Democratic Republic of the Congo earlier in the UISG sessions, who said in the midst of incredible violence in the DRC, the people ask, "Will you leave, too?"
Fortunately, there are sisters and other women and men disciples of the Gospel who do not turn away. This is the call and response to a prophetic life.
Sr. Eileen McKenzie, president of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration
It was a beautiful experience. The Mass was lovely, but the audience with the pope made the biggest impression on me, definitely. The three initial things — even without what was said — was him first coming down and then saying, "Take away the big chair and put both of those two chairs together." Sitting with Sr. Carmen was so symbolic. Then him saying, "I have this prepared statement, and I'm not going to read it to you because it's so boring, this is about a dialogue." I thought that was very symbolic and beautiful.
There is just this openness that is so apparent in him. I thought, "This is the way that we evolve." This is how we "become," in a sense: Not all of us are everywhere we want to be at this point, not all at the same page, but we're moving together. The important thing is we're doing it with love and with respect, and with him, it's just about mission. It's so much about mission.
[Giving the document on women deacons to UISG] was a symbol of transparency. "Here's the document, here's where they are — you take a look at it."
Sr. Linda Haydock, congregational leader of the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary
Not only has he supported us [on anti-human-trafficking efforts], but he has been proactive in terms of encouraging the sisters, for people to really know the work that sisters are doing on human trafficking. He was key around the Talitha Kum exhibit, encouraging them and supporting it. We couldn't have a better collaborator in the church than Pope Francis on human trafficking. He was cordial and friendly — he is always open, and when he meets with us, it's a great thing.
It's still a surprise that [the question of women deacons] is still uncertain and we need to keep studying it. He acknowledged that the process takes time, but it would appear that with issues related to women, it takes even longer.
He sets his talk aside and engages, so his rapport with people is infectious. He really does lean in and listen, so you really have the sense that he's respecting the person. As he says, he's never afraid of, "Let's do the research. Let's have the conversation. Let's have the dialogue. Let it be a living dialogue.''
Sr. Letta Mosue, superior general of the Congregation of St. Brigid in the Rustenburg Diocese, South Africa
Just to be in the presence of the pope was awesome. What struck me first was his request for the same size chair as Sister Carmen. Secondly, asking her to share the microphone with him. This man, for me, lives what he preaches. There is no pretense about him.
Another thing that from now I shall always expect of him is his desire to communicate intimately with people, to dialogue rather than deliver speeches. This is the second time that he put aside what he prepared to engage with us. The first time, in 2016, we had prepared questions, and he had responded to them in writing, but he preferred that the questions be asked again.
True to his word, he brought us feedback on the issue of diaconate for women. He promised that he will set up a commission and has done so. Despite the fact that the media had asked for his response, he showed us respect by responding to us as he promised.
Pope Francis affirmed and encouraged us to be proud of who we are, the consecrated of Christ and not of the clergy. This was a second reminder. I was delighted to hear him promise that in 2022, he will join the UISG plenary meeting if he is still alive. I am dead sure he will do so. We just have to pray that God preserves him for us.
I felt so privileged that I could hold his hands as one of the delegates. That was a cherry on top.
[Gail DeGeorge is editor of Global Sisters Report. Her email address is email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter: @GailDeGeorge.]