On Saturday, Pope Francis appointed a French nun, Nathalie Becquart, as one of two undersecretaries to the Synod of Bishops, an advisory body to the pope. It marks the first time a woman will hold a voting position at the Vatican. This follows his Friday appointment of Italian magistrate Catia Summaria as a prosecutor to the Vatican’s Court of Appeals — another first for a woman.
The pope also changed church law last month to allow women to distribute Communion and serve as readers and altar servers. These moves allow women to play a greater role during Catholic Masses.
Ultimately, none of this changes the church’s — or the pope’s — position on keeping women from being priests, but it’s still a sign of change, many say.
“A door has been opened. We will then see what other steps could be taken in the future,” Cardinal Mario Grech, the Synod of Bishop’s secretary general, told the official Vatican news agency on Becquart’s appointment.
It’s welcome news for many millennial women — the latest sign of progress in a church that has felt out of step with their reality.
Megan Wrappe is a practicing Catholic who works at a nonprofit newsroom in New York City. She’s also the spirituality committee co-commissioner of the Notre Dame Club of New York, an organization for alumni of the Catholic school with about 8,000 members. When she heard the news from the Vatican, she immediately thought of all the women she knew when she was younger who would have played a greater role in the church had they been given the chance.
“When I was growing up, I went to a Catholic school. All the teachers were women. I’ve been around women in leadership within the church my whole life. I have nuns on both sides of my family,” she said. “I know women personally who would love to be more involved in the church, whether that be as a deacon or a priest, and they can’t. … This is a great step in the right direction.”
Wrappe knows it’s rare to come across a millennial woman who still makes it a point to go to church every week. When she moved to New York from North Carolina, finding a church was her first priority. She has friends from school who stopped going to church for many reasons, some because they felt disenfranchised.
At the two churches she attends in New York, the membership is more liberal than what she’s used to. For one, they’re both very LGBTQ+ friendly, which she likes. She hopes Pope Francis is moving the church in a direction that will make more young people feel welcome.
“There are quite a few people my age who look at him and go: ‘This is not the Catholic church that I grew up with. Maybe I should consider coming back,’” she said. “This is a more accepting church. To be moving in that direction, I think, signals to people it’s okay to come back: ‘We’re not perfect, but this may be a good place for you to come back to.’”
Wrappe thinks the lack of roles in the church for women contributes to a lack of engagement with the church in her cohort.
Her views are borne out in research. A 2017 survey of American Catholic women from America Media and Georgetown University spelled out the disengagement of millennial women. Millennials are less likely than older Catholic women to attend Mass at least once a week. Just 17 percent of millennials reported attending Mass at least once a week, compared with 31 percent of women born between 1943 and 1960 and 53 percent of women born before 1943.
“We are at a crisis point. For centuries, as long as we’ve been tracking these things, it’s always been the women who are more engaged. Historically, it’s the mothers who bring their children [to Mass]. If you lose the women, you lose the children,” Kathleen Sprows Cummings, a University of Notre Dame professor, said when the survey was released.
In contrast, Cummings noted that young Protestant women remain more engaged with their church than their male counterparts, indicating that the issue was specific to the Catholics.
When she heard about the recent changes in Vatican policy, Wrappe thought of her grandmother.
“My grandma went to church every morning with her sisters at 7 a.m. They centered their lives around the church. My mom’s family growing up went to church every Sunday, and they went to Catholic school. That was their life,” she said.
With all the changes in the church, she said, “my grandma would be so happy. Because I know some of them wanted to be more involved in the church when they were alive. But just because of their stance in life, they couldn’t.”
It’s not just the recent moves in the church that make Wrappe feel hopeful about its direction. Coming from a long line of Irish Catholics, the recent apology from Irish leaders and church officials for their cruel treatment during the 20th century of unwed mothers in Ireland went a long way.
“For them to say that, it’s a huge step,” she said. She says the first time she visited Ireland with her family in 2002, there were only about 20 other people at the Mass they attended. In contrast, during a 2018 visit, she says there was palpable excitement about an upcoming visit from Pope Francis, even though it was months away.
Such gestures have brought comfort to those who felt forsaken by the church in the past, theologians say.
In 2013, Pope Francis shocked the world when he called for more inclusion of gay people. “If they accept the Lord and have goodwill, who am I to judge them?” he said. To many observers, the words marked a seismic shift in the church’s stance on homosexuality.
“I have friends who are gay and Catholic. For them, this was a big deal when he said that. It didn’t change church teaching, but it meant a lot to them. It was like something they had waited to hear all their lives,” said Sandra Yocum, a professor of faith and culture at the University of Dayton.
Yocum notes that while Becquart is just one woman on an otherwise all-male committee, her degree of expertise and her work with young people signifies that she’s being brought in as an expert.
“She’s not just an administrator,” Yocum said.
For Christianna Elizabeth Triolo, the movement of the church in a more progressive direction under the pope is just what she thinks the church needs. She grew up Catholic and loved going to church camps in the summers.
She comes from a line of Catholics going back four generations and intimately understands the influence the church can have on families.
Her great-grandparents were Catholic, but her great-grandmother was divorced, so the Church wouldn’t recognize their marriage. The couple left the church for a while but eventually returned. Triolo’s grandparents were married in the early 1950s, but her grandfather’s drinking took a toll, and the priest they went to for help blamed his drinking on her grandmother, she said. Her grandmother left the church and the marriage. Years later, when Triolo’s mother also sought a divorce, she was met with a much more sympathetic priest.
She now considers herself a more spiritual person and is not a practicing Catholic, yet she watches what’s going on in the church, including its response to rampant sexual abuse within its ranks.
“I love Pope Francis. He is what the Church should have started to look like long ago, more humble and forward-thinking. He allows for more discussion and openness. His steps toward confronting the church’s role in the sexual abuse that ran unchecked is the right thing to do,” Triolo said.
“I can only hope that having more feminist influences in the organization can help heal a lot of problems that are there,” she said. “While I don’t agree 100 percent with everything the Church stands for, particularly reproductive rights, I’m just pleased to see that change is continuing.”