A religious sister shares her experience of Germany's synodal process
By Sr Katharina Kluitmann*
A woman religious in Germany, in the midst of the synodal journey. In 32 years of religious life, this reality has formed my greatest adventure and the greatest challenge to my vocation. It has changed my love for Jesus. It has made me experience the Holy Spirit. I have never loved my Church as much as I do now; nor have I ever suffered so much because of her.
From 2000 to 2004, when as a theologian I was still studying psychology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, the phenomenon of sexual abuse in the Church was beginning to be known in other countries. In 2010 it was Germany’s turn. I was working as a therapist at the time. The survivors’ suffering gnawed at me and would not let me go. In 2018, I became President of the German Conference of Superiors General, in which both men and women are represented. That moment coincided with the publication of a study carried out in Germany demonstrating that abuse in the Church has systemic causes that are different from those in other systems.
Our bishops decided to face this situation together with a large alliance of members of the People of God, the so-called “synodal journey”. Ten members of completely different religious orders are part of it. The starting point of our process is and remains the abuse crisis, and the vision is and remains evangelization.
Along this synodal journey, the perception of my consecrated life, my vocation, my relationship with God and my love for the Church, has changed. And with the synodal journey, consecrated life and its perception within the Church have changed. For a long time now, we have been having a crisis in vocations, with some communities essentially comprised of elderly people — communities on the way to extinction. Some years ago, a theologian had been given the task of writing an article on the prophetic dimension of consecrated life. He stated that at this time, this dimension does not exist among us. And he did not write the article. On the synodal journey, we are currently going through a new experience because there are many who say that precisely we religious are important: why? I only know part of the answer:
There is a long tradition of synodality within religious orders. We have developed ways of making decisions together, to choose our guide — for a limited time. The General Chapters represent the highest authority when they gather together. This has to do with power — and abuse is always also an abuse of authority. This means that alongside the hierarchical model, there can be other models, even within the Church, with which to exercise power.
In women religious congregations, women basically live in a regime of self-determination. For a long time, women religious were not taken seriously. They were considered solely as a cheap labour force. Today, as has often occurred throughout the course of history, women religious are once again interlocutors on equal footing. The fact that, at a time of crisis, the Episcopal Conference (of Germany) asked the external opinion of a woman religious was certainly not by chance. For some clerics it is easier to turn to religious women. The issue of women, which is discussed in our country, is in good hands with women religious, perhaps also because we are often more frank. Personally, I am grateful to my community because it always supports me when I engage publicly for women’s equality. One of the topics that greatly matter to me is to have women confessors, especially for women who survived abuse, but not just for them. But we will address this another time…
We are unmarried. The synodal journey is discussing whether — as occurs in Oriental Churches — married men could be ordained priests also here. We ourselves experience that voluntary celibacy can be a convincing witness: we live it joyfully and the people believe us.
There is so much I could say, and I would do so gladly because I know that sometimes there are reservations with regards to our synodal journey. We have our German way of doing things. On an intercultural level, we still have a lot to learn for the future: we are too rational for some, too emotional for others. Others still are irritated because we began before the shared synodal process desired by the Pope: forgive us, we did not know that that would also begin.
We have many things to talk about: indeed! This is what synodal processes are for. The Church has always been synodal. And for too long, she has not been synodal enough.
Yesterday I read a document in the works for the continental stage of the global synodal process. I have never felt so understood by my Church as when I read this document. We don’t yet have solutions to the problems, but we finally have the capacity to openly formulate our questions. And this is what especially we religious, men and women, are doing in Germany. And I am happy that we will be able to do so as a universal Church.
*Franciscan Sister of Penance and Christian Charity, from the Province of Lüdinghausen, Germany