Rome, Italy — Pope Francis in May formally handed over the secret report of his commission to study the history of women deacons in the Catholic Church to the global umbrella group of the world's women religious, which had originally requested the commission's creation in 2016.
Now, the new leader of that umbrella group, which represents some 450,000 sisters and nuns around the world, says it will be considering soon whether to make the report public.
In a June 19 interview, Claretian Missionary Sr. Jolanda Kafka said she and the 11 other members of the board of the International Union of Superiors General (UISG) will be determining "how to proceed now, since the Holy Father has given [the report] to us."
Kafka, a native of Poland who was elected president of her organization May 14, said she and the other board members had not yet had time to meet, as each had to attend to matters within their individual religious congregations following UISG's intensive May 6-10 triennial general assembly.
"We are just coming together now after the plenary," said the president, who characterized the discussions about what to do with the report as ongoing.
"We will see how to proceed ... how we will publish it, what will be the continuity," she said.
Francis handed over the women deacons report May 10, during a meeting at the Vatican with the some 850 sisters who took part in the 2019 UISG assembly. He gave it directly to Kafka's predecessor as president, Maltese Sr. Carmen Sammut.
Kafka said that before leaving her post after six years, Sammut, who leads the Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Africa, had drawn up some possible plans for how the umbrella group could handle the report and continue its work more generally.
"Our point of departure will be this," said the new president. "The Holy Father gave that report. I think we will read it together. And for sure we will see what will be the continuity."
Francis created the women deacons commission after a request from UISG members in a question-and-answer session during their 2016 assembly.
In response to a question from NCR during an in-flight press conference May 7, the pope said the group had been unable to find consensus on the role of women deacons in the early centuries of Christianity.
The 12 members of the commission, Francis said, "found agreement up to a certain point."
"But each one of them has their own vision, which doesn't accord with that of the others," he said. "They stopped there as a commission, and each one is studying and going ahead."
During Sammut's tenure, UISG had taken on a more active role in advocating for women's leadership in the church.
Beyond requesting the creation of the women deacons commission, the group also pressed for greater involvement of women religious in synods of bishops and in the workings of the Vatican office that oversees the world's religious orders, the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life.
Kafka said she believed that such advocacy for women's leadership had now become obligatory for her organization.
"I think this is something that is compulsory now, a compulsory role [for us] to continue," she said. "This means that we will continue dialoging, fostering encounters — and the process of the renewal of the church is ongoing."
Asked in particular about efforts to allow women religious to become voting members of synods, the new president said she and her organization continue to work for that possibility.
"We desire this," said Kafka. Noting that women religious have played bigger roles in the most recent synods, she added: "We all hope that it will continue."
Although women religious are often invited to participate in synods, they do so as non-voting auditors or consultors. Former UISG leaders have pointed out that while sisters have not been allowed to vote, nonordained religious brothers have.
St. Joseph Sr. Sally Hodgdon, who attended the October 2018 Synod on young people as the then-vice president of UISG, noted at the time that religious brothers and sisters are equal canonically and theologically.
"In theory — not even in theory, in reality — we are equal," she said in an interview then. "If the pope allowed the two brothers to vote, it's logical that I would be able to vote."
Kafka praised the Vatican's synod office for its May appointment of four women as official consultors to its work, the first such naming of women to an official capacity in the office.
The president said that while her organization had been able to collaborate with the synod office previously, those efforts had now become "more institutionalized."
"It is widening the possibility of collaboration," she said of the women's appointments. "A new opportunity to raise and to enrich the vision, to become more complementary."
Responding to sex abuse
The new president likewise spoke about UISG's efforts to respond to sexual abuse both of and by women religious.
In February, the organization issued a rare joint statement with the umbrella group of the world's men religious, acknowledging that religious orders habitually denied accusations in the past and covered up for abusers.
Kafka said that during the 2019 plenary that Sammut had proposed creation of a new UISG commission tasked with caring for survivors and guiding the group's work on matters of abuse of children and vulnerable people.
"Although the congregations can move forward independently, UISG — as for any other issue — will offer a commission to advise, to support, to orient, and also to give tools for formation," she said. "And also to elaborate the protocol: how to proceed in a case."
The president said it would be important that the commission could act as "a point of reference for those who are looking for assistance."
Kafka has been a member of her congregation's general council since 2000, and was elected for a five-year term as its superior in 2017. She has worked primarily in the areas of religious formation and education, and she said that she still finds that work most energizing.
"Every encounter with another person brings new insight," she said of formation work, adding that it "offers a possibility to listen to people and to confront also yourself."
Kafka described the focus of the work of UISG as two-fold: to religious sisters around the world, and to the wider church. She said she hopes her group can help make the efforts of women religious better known, calling them "an expression of evangelization and of the love of God towards humanity."
"The life of faith becomes concrete in the vocations of the sisters," said the president. "We can imagine it like a big cenacle, where the gifts of the Holy Spirit are shared — not only for us, but to share with the world."
Asked about her own feelings at the time of her election as president, Kafka called it "the surprise of a lifetime." She said she felt "very confused" and "inadequate" at first, but then remembered that the election was taking place on the feast day of St. Matthias, who was chosen by the 11 remaining apostles to replace Judas.
"It gave me consolation to accept despite feeling very uneasy and heavy," she said.
"I am grateful to God, who called me for this new mission," said Kafka, adding that she would ask people "to pray for the church and for new vocations."
[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]