June 2024

We give thanks for our friendships, both in delight and disappointment

Following his recent remarks about women deacons and homosexuals, it occurs to me that Francis’ signature commitment to synodality has been compromised, seriously compromised, writes Good Samaritan Sister Patty Fawkner.

Years ago, I came across a brief poem by Michael Leunig about friendship. Leunig begins:

We give thanks for our friends.

Our dear friends.

We anger each other;

We fail each other.

Isn’t it true? In any friendship there is delight and disappointment, affection and inevitable frustration with each other.

I thought of this poem in the wake of Pope Francis’ unequivocal “No” when asked publicly on American television about the ordination of women deacons in the Catholic Church, and then his vulgar slur when referring to gays during a private meeting with Italian clergy. I felt anger and disappointment that my “friend”, Francis, had somehow failed me.

Claiming Francis as a “friend” may be a bit of a stretch. I have seen him three times: once at a distance in St Peter’s Square with 300,000 other people, once in the Paul VI auditorium with 800 women religious and once “up close and personal” when I shook his hand at a private audience with 70 Benedictine women.

Pope Francis laughed when I told him that, like him, I had come “from the ends of the earth” to Rome. I reiterated his first words to the vast crowds in St Peter’s Square immediately after his election in March 2013.

From the get-go, I have been drawn to Francis and admire him. The way he asked for the crowd’s blessing on the first evening of his pontificate, his laying aside of much of the “bling” of pomp and ceremony that has built up around the pope over the centuries, his calling out the sin of clericalism, his plea for urgent climate action, and his entreaty for the Church to go out to the peripheries rather than stay in the safety and smallness of its own self-absorption. There is so much more.

Pope Francis has walked the talk. The shepherd with the “smell of the sheep” chose to wash the feet of the marginalised – young and old, men and women – in prisons and refugee centres rather than the feet of 12 priests on Holy Thursday in St Peter’s Basilica.

There is something refreshing, spontaneous, warm and “human” about Francis’ style, but now, for the first time, I hesitate to use the word “inclusive”. I am deeply disappointed in my friend.

It occurs to me that Francis’ signature commitment to synodality as the modus operandi of the Church has been compromised, seriously compromised.

A conclusion from the First Session of the Synod on Synodality in October 2023 was that the topic of women deacons required further study and conversation. Indeed, one of the 10 study groups designed to inform discussion for the Second Session of the Synod in October this year included “the question of women’s possible access to the diaconate”.

Francis’ blunt “No” has pre-empted this discussion.

I was left wondering about his endearing response “Who am I to judge” when answering a reporter’s question about gay clergy in the early days of his pontificate. His only qualifier was that the person “searches for the Lord and has good will”.

Such stark contrast in tone and content with his use of a highly vulgar and disparaging word for gays in his recent meeting with Italian bishops, together with a strong caution against accepting gay men into the seminary.

So, what does one do in the face of disillusionment and disappointment?

Initially, I need to own and not deny my feelings. I sit with them and experience the pain of them – there are lessons here.

I acknowledge that Francis, as with any of my friends, would be disappointed in me at times and disagree with me. Although I feel very let down, others would be rejoicing in Francis’ stance, reminding me that I am indeed a member of a broad Church.

Then I must pray for Francis that he will be faithful to his own call to be a listening, inclusive Church and a Church that is not afraid to ask for forgiveness when mistakes are made. “In order to make others feel welcomed, loved, forgiven and encouraged, the Church must have open doors so that all might enter,” he has said previously. 

The motto of WATAC (Women and the Australian Church) of which I am a member, gives me another strategy. It is as sobering as it is simple: “Model the Church you want to be”. Be inclusive of the one who seems “other” to me. Try to be inclusive when I feel excluded. Speak up when I perceive an injustice. Model adult mutual respect. Don’t water down the role of women with pious platitudes. Continue to advocate for the full Christian vocation of women and gender-diverse people.

Image of St Phoebe the Deacon @ Terry St Ledger 2023/ Sisters of the Good Samaritan.

The last thing I will do is ask St Phoebe to intercede. I was utterly delighted when my recently born grand-niece was named Phoebe. Her birth family are unaware of the role their daughter’s namesake played in the early Church. In his letter to the Romans, St Paul celebrates Phoebe’s giftedness and service. He calls her his sister and mentions her rank as deacon. Phoebe, unquestionably, was a deacon.

St Phoebe stands for the countless number of women who wish to contribute their gifts of leadership, hospitality and service in the Church. Please God, please St Phoebe, may women’s giftedness not be lost nor dismissed because of Francis’ “No”.

I will continue to count Pope Francis as “friend”. Michael Leunig’s poem continues:

We share this sad earth, this tender life,

this precious time.

Such richness. Such wildness.

Together we are blown about.

Together we are dragged along.

All this delight.

All this suffering.

All this forgiving life.

We hold it together.

This does not mean we always have to agree.

Patty Fawkner

Sister Patty Fawkner is a former Congregational Leader of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan. She is an adult educator, writer and facilitator with formal tertiary qualifications in arts, education, theology and spirituality. Patty is interested in exploring what wisdom the Christian tradition has for contemporary issues. She has an abiding interest in questions of justice and spirituality.

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