Limerick, Ireland — The role and full equality of women in church life as well as the governance of the church were the two main issues discussed by delegates at the second international meeting of priest associations and lay reform groups here April 13-17.
In a statement at the conclusion of their four-day gathering, the 38 delegates from 10 countries, who seek to establish an international "network of networks" to develop strategies on church reform, said: "The election of Pope Francis has begun a new era in Catholicism."
Speaking on behalf of participants, censured Irish Redemptorist Fr. Tony Flannery of the Irish Association of Catholic Priests said, "With the resignation of Pope Benedict we are at the end of an era, and this is our best chance to renew the church for a long time."
According to Deborah Rose-Milavec, executive director of the U.S. reform group FutureChurch, it became clear during a very open and honest discussion among participants from the U.S., Ireland, the United Kingdom, Australia, India, Germany, Slovakia, Austria, Switzerland, and elsewhere that there is much pain over the exclusion of women from governance, leadership and ordained ministry.
Despite that, the mother of six and grandmother of 11 said the group focused on how they could bring the role of women forward. "We think there are many ways that the role of women can be improved within the church without even addressing ordination," Rose-Milavec said as she outlined an idea the group says is "workable."
"The pope has said we need a more incisive presence for women in the church and a new theology of women," she said. "One suggestion we are putting forward is the creation of a council of women, like the commission for the protection of children and the pope's Council of Cardinals, which would advise him and become a mechanism for launching something like a gender policy within the Vatican and the church."
This gender policy could be based on the one adopted by the church in India, which another participant at the conference, laywoman Astrid Lobo Gajiwala, was instrumental in helping the bishops in India develop.
Rose-Milavec is more hopeful for the church under Pope Francis.
"There is a new open space. The system of silencing is being lifted to some degree," she said. "He is stirring up the pot and asking for dialogue. If we have that kind of opening, we can bring in new elements."
Nonetheless, the elephant in the room in Limerick was the church's prohibition on the ordination of women to the priesthood. On the third day of the gathering, a group of female participants, including Kate McElwee of Women's Ordination Conference, approached Flannery with the idea that one of the women might co-preside with one of the priests at their joint Eucharist. (Editor's note: McElwee is married to NCR Vatican correspondent Joshua J. McElwee.)
"We reasoned: The Eucharist, the sign and symbol of our unity in the church, should reflect our common work together in Limerick as co-equals working for change," Rose-Milavec said.
Writing afterward on his blog, Flannery said, "It created enormous dilemmas for most of us ... There was a great deal of hurt, sadness and tears, with many people clearly wrestling with their own conscience and coming face to face with their fears in a very open way."
In the end, the group decided not to celebrate the Eucharist together but to hold a joint prayer service instead.
Another key issue on the table in Limerick was church governance and how to devolve authority away from the Vatican to local churches, enhancing the authority of bishops' conferences and parishes.
Fr. Helmut Schüller, founder of the Austrian Priests' Initiative, told NCR that the church must become more decentralized because the "wisdom and experience of the faithful at the base of the church is not coming to the top."
Pointing to Francis' willingness to foster a new culture of consultation and shared responsibility through his Council of Cardinals and the openness he sought to foster at last October's synod on the family, Schüller said the church should be aiming to embed this new culture more deeply so that "the marginalizing of people ends" and communities at the base of the church have greater scope. "At the moment, the top of the church remains the top of the church," he said.
The Austrian priest, who spearheaded his association's "Call to Disobedience," acknowledged that some bishops may be intimidated by the vocal opposition to Pope Francis from some quarters, such as Cardinal Raymond Burke, an American who has been outspoken against some points raised before and at the synod, especially about admitting divorced and remarried Catholics to Communion.
Asked if this conservative opposition could intimidate Francis into playing down his agenda, Schüller said: "It could happen, but those who try to do this must keep in mind that the vast majority of the Catholics all over the world will be very disappointed and frustrated. That would produce an atmosphere that the church cannot want to have."
He said he hopes support for Francis from other bishops would become stronger and clearer so that this "neoconservative group" would see that they are not strong enough to halt the process of reform.
Fr. Brendan Hoban of the Association of Catholic Priests in Ireland said he believes there is a sea change happening in the church, and there are possibilities now that haven't existed since the Second Vatican Council.
"The reforms envisaged by the Vatican council are now on the agenda of the church again," he said. "There are huge possibilities now in terms of the future. But priests, people and particularly bishops have to get behind Francis and move these reforms forward. We have lost half a century."
Delegates also called for the full participation of Catholics who are divorced and remarried, members of interfaith families, and LGBT and other marginalized people in the life of the church at the forthcoming Synod of Bishops on the family in October.
"Most Catholics believe the synod process itself is quite flawed -- it is making decisions about families without families being auditors or having a vote," Rose-Milavec said.
She said the reform movements want to see more women and Catholics from the constituencies that are going to be discussed invited to the synod.
"How do you have a synod and talk about creating a more pastoral way of being church without people who have experienced being divorced and remarried or without people from the LGBT community or the communities of women who are impoverished?" she asked.
At a public forum on the last day of the gathering, writer and former seminary rector Fr. Donald Cozzens said the reason renewal and reform is so important for the church is that there are so many people hurting who are at the same time "spiritually starving." He said he believes the church needs to "speak a word of hope and light to our secular age."
The key to evangelization, Cozzens said, "is a healthier, moral and more pastoral church" in which all are called to be missionaries and reformers working for a more open, transparent and vital church, which is reaching out to "Catholics who are drifting, discouraged, confused, wounded, and angry."
Paul Collins of Catholics for Ministry in Australia said although Francis has brought the church "out of the cold into the sunlight," the problem is the church has become far too "papocentric."
"We have lost the sense that we are the church," he said. "The real task lies down at the local base level. Our emphasis has to shift more to the local. We must become a local [church] that looks outward and is involved in the world and cares about issues -- and is not looking at its own naval."
[Sarah Mac Donald is a freelance writer based in Dublin.]