Synodal Pathway: Interview with Leading Member of Synod Secretariat

Myriam Wijlens: ‘Don’t wait for someone else’s initiative

Passionately, church lawyer Myriam Wijlens helps lead the Synod on synodality.

Has the hour of women in the Church come?

Interview (Extract) – Lieve Wouters

Pope Francis announced a synod involving the broad base of the Church for the first time in history. Every diocese in the world was instructed to listen to believers, people whose voices are rarely heard and concerned outsiders. Everything with the intention of learning from past mistakes and finally taking input from laymen seriously, from advice to decision making and execution of tasks.

One of the great women behind this project is the Dutch church lawyer Myriam Wijlens (59), who is a professor at the University of Erfurt (Germany). In her busy schedule she readily made time for a conversation with Kerknet.

Has the hour of the woman in the Church come?

Myriam Wijlens:

When people ask me what the synod will mean for the role of women in the Church, I think back to the press conference at the presentation of the preparatory document. Two of the five people on the podium were women: Sister Nathalie Becquart (Undersecretary of the Synod of Bishops) and myself.

What we say about laity in the church is already being put into practice in the working group of the synod. I hope women will to see that.

See how we are already co-writing the documents and thinking about the steps that need to be taken. The working groups advising the Secretariat of the Synod include women from different continents, from grandmothers to singles, experts in organizational management, communication, religious and lay people. So I am hopeful and would like to call on women in Belgium and the Netherlands to make their voices heard in the local discussion groups.

What really makes this synodal process different from previous synods?

In the mid-1980s, I studied the decisions of the Second Vatican Council and what it took to translate them into reality. A contradiction had to be resolved.

The council stated that the Holy Spirit works in every believer, but at the same time there was no structure to involve the People of God in the decision-making process.

Until now, bishops who are not entrusted with their own local church have also participated in synods of bishops, for example because they are auxiliary bishops or are retired. But diocesan bishops also did not necessarily bear witness to the people in their diocese.

This time it is clearly stated:

“We don’t want to hear what you yourself think or what you think Rome wants to hear. We want to know what moves your people.’

Henceforth, a bishop speaks as a witness of the community entrusted to him. That is why he must also know what goes on in ‘his’ people and must therefore stimulate discussion groups and hear their decisions.

How can this be anchored in canon law?

Canonists are fully investigating this. But of course the synodal process is not just a matter of law. You can say: a bishop must regularly meet with his priesthood or pastoral council on important matters. But what does “regularly” mean? What are ‘important matters’? Who sets the agenda?

Much depends on the inner attitude.

Who should take the initiative to start synodal talks?

In the past, as a woman you had to wait for the man’s initiative to dance. In the parish you waited for the pastor’s initiative. On the synodal road there is no reason to believe that you should wait for the priest’s guidance. That is why I like to use the image of the tango: It takes two to tango.

Everyone can talk to each other. For example, 3 families can take the initiative to talk about community, participation and mission in the Church together. If you know that certain young people have trouble making their voices heard, talk to them.

The intention is precisely to come into contact with people who do not or no longer participate in those structures.

After such a meeting, you can communicate the decisions of your discussion group to those who have been appointed for this purpose in the diocese. Don’t make it a weighty document. It is mainly about forming a church and making decisions in a different way.

Why does the preparatory document emphasize the involvement of young people and women?

In addition to young people and women, we generally mention ‘all groups that are heard too little’. You can think of LGBT, but also prisoners (the Archbishop of Westminster held synodal talks in a London prison!), victims of sexual abuse, migrants, you name it.

These groups can also be found among young people and women, so it was not necessary to mention them all explicitly. That’s just the job of the discussion groups around the world.

In 2018 you were already asked by Pope Francis in the Commission for the Protection of Minors. Do you see a link with the synod?

The drama of sexual abuse in the church was one of the reasons for a thorough examination of the decision-making processes in the church. As a professor, I am currently leading a study in that committee on transparency and accountability in the synodal church: no longer only to the top (the Pope, God), but also to the base.

This applies not only to the approach to sexual abuse, but also to the finances of a diocese, to name just a few. Who decides big expenses in a diocese? Based on what arguments and how is it explained to the community?

Which other groups do you hope will contribute to the Synod?

I like to think of the works of mercy and the groups mentioned there: the sick, the lonely, the prisoners, the poor, drug addicts, the homeless. How can we include them in our considerations?

They may not be so interested in the more church-organizational questions from the preparatory document. However, the questions about personal faith experience: where and when did I feel heard? What did the listening ear of this or that person in the Church mean to me? How am I myself in dialogue with God?

Starting is always the hardest. Can you give us some tips?

I’d say just start. Are you ready to walk, then walk. Don’t let that stop you, the others will follow. Worldwide we see that there is a lot of enthusiasm among believers, just as there is among bishops, but we hear that priests are hesitant. We will have to listen to that too. Is it cold feet? Do they wonder what exactly their role is in the community?

We want to include everyone in the process, even those who oppose it.

The question then is how can we encourage them to express those feelings and thoughts. There are also women who do not speak because they fear yet another disappointment. Just like victims of sexual abuse who say: We haven’t been heard for once.

In any case, the synodal road continues, even after the synod.

The synod was opened in October 2021. How is it currently going?

We notice that there is a lot of movement, especially in South America, Africa and Asia. Europe seems a bit more reserved, it remains to be seen why. Is it fear of change? Unbelief that something can change? Or is it because people think they are already further along in consultation with laymen and prefer to wait and see? Whatever the case may be, we’d like to know.

There are also some reactions from religious. For example, the Jesuits in Canada launched. If your parish does not organize anything, or you have no connection with a parish, you can contact them. In the Netherlands, the conference of religious (KNR) took the initiative to organize discussions in their communities and with those who are connected to them through the apostolate.

I am very often in conversation with people to explain the intention well and to take them on board.

Source: Kerknet (own translation)

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