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A Promising French Nun Empowers Catholic Women: The Journey of Sister Nathalie Becquart

by Andrew Wright
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Catholic women empowerment

Sister Nathalie Becquart, a prominent French nun, is igniting hope and inspiration among Catholic women. However, the question remains: Can she truly bring about meaningful change?

During her tenure overseeing Catholic youth programs in France, Sister Nathalie Becquart often drew on her experience as an experienced sailor to encourage young individuals to navigate the storms of life. “There’s nothing stronger than witnessing the sunrise after a storm, the calmness of the sea,” she asserts.

This lesson holds particular relevance for Becquart as she charts the course of the global Church through an unprecedented period of reform, often tumultuous, as one of the highest-ranking women at the Vatican. In 2021, Pope Francis appointed the 54-year-old nun as the first female undersecretary in the Vatican’s Synod of Bishops office. Since then, she has traversed the globe, serving as the public face of the Pope’s pivotal call to listen to ordinary Catholics and empower them to play a more significant role in the Church.

This process, culminating in a crucial assembly in October, reaches a pivotal moment with the release of the working document for the meeting. It is anticipated to shape the discussion on the role of women in the Church in the third millennium.

Becquart, responsible for conducting surveys among ordinary Catholics to understand their needs and aspirations from the Church, affirms that the demand for change is resolute and universal. The central focus at the synod lies in women seeking greater decision-making roles, as they yearn to actively contribute and utilize their gifts and charisma in service to the Church. Becquart, in an interview with The Big Big News, stated, “It’s about how we can be men and women together in this society, in this Church, with a vision of equality, dignity, reciprocity, collaboration, and partnership.”

The prospects of change within a 2,000-year-old institution that traditionally excludes women from its highest echelons have sparked an extraordinary sense of optimism among women who have long felt marginalized in the Church. As expected, conservative elements opposing the synod perceive it as a threat to the all-male, clerical-based hierarchy and its underlying ecclesiology.

Nevertheless, Becquart and Pope Francis remain undeterred, viewing criticism, fear, and alarm as signs that a significant and momentous movement is underway. “Of course, there is resistance,” Becquart remarks with a chuckle. “If there is no resistance, it means nothing is happening or changing.”

However, she puts it into perspective: “Throughout the history of Church reform, the most intense resistance or contentious issues have often marked crucial turning points.”

At 86 years old, Pope Francis has already undertaken more efforts than any recent Pope to promote women’s involvement in the Church. He has modified church law to allow women to read Scripture and serve as eucharistic ministers, while reiterating their ineligibility for ordination as priests. Moreover, he has amended the Vatican’s founding constitution to enable women to head Vatican offices and made notable female appointments, none more symbolically significant than that of Becquart.

As the undersecretary in the Synod of Bishops, Becquart has been de facto granted the right to vote in the upcoming October synod—a privilege previously reserved for men. Addressing longstanding grievances voiced by women, who were previously permitted to participate in synods only as nonvoting experts, auditors, or observers, Pope Francis not only assigned Becquart a voting role but also expanded the voting rights to encompass laypeople in general.

In April, the Vatican announced that 70 non-bishops, expected to include half women, would be voting alongside the apostolic successors during the October synod. While this represents less than a quarter of the bishop votes, it signifies a historic reform and reflects Pope Francis’ conviction that church governance stems not solely from priestly ordination but from specific responsibilities entrusted to the baptized faithful.

Becquart has held leadership positions in the French Church for a considerable period, having overseen the bishops’ youth evangelization program. A graduate of Paris’ esteemed HEC business school, she draws strength from the women who have preceded her at the Vatican and within her religious community, the Xaviere Sisters—a Jesuit-inspired, Vatican II-era missionary congregation she joined at the age of 26.

From these women and her widowed grandmother, who persevered through the challenges of life, Becquart imbibed the belief that “life is stronger than death” and that even in the face of adversity, crises, and suffering, a viable path emerges, particularly when one is not alone.

This philosophy extends to her sailing expeditions and leadership of spiritual retreats at sea, where she imparts, “There will be good weather and bad weather, calm seas and daunting waves.” Eventually, the storm subsides, much like in life and within the Church.

Chiara Porro, Australia’s ambassador to the Holy See, commends Becquart’s leadership style, recalling her adeptness in managing a room full of bishops during the Oceania phase of the synod consultation process. Becquart’s role as a female Vatican envoy, traveling to Fiji to brief Pacific bishops on the Pope’s agenda, signified a paradigm shift, according to Porro.

“She has no preconceived objectives or outcomes. People feel they can bring up any issue they wish to discuss,” Porro states, highlighting the importance of this quality.

Nevertheless, seasoned Vatican observers caution that despite women assuming prominent positions and gaining the right to vote at the October synod, men still hold the reins of power.

“In my opinion, all the reforms made thus far regarding governance at the Vatican are merely superficial,” opines Lucetta Scaraffia, a church historian who participated in a 2016 synod and chronicled her marginalized experience in “From the Last Row.” Her encounters, where she was subjected to daily security checks while bishops enjoyed unhindered access, epitomize the predicament.

“It made me realize how the Catholic Church truly exists in a different world, and what it means for women to be rendered nonexistent, to not truly exist,” Scaraffia laments.

Jean-Marie Guenois, Le Figaro’s chief religious affairs correspondent and a longtime acquaintance of Becquart, asserts that her Vatican role and involvement in the synod process could be revolutionary “if it signifies a paradigm shift within the Catholic Church, where women attain an equal share of power in governance.”

He adds, “We are far from that point.” Nonetheless, he describes Becquart’s position as “prophetic.”

“Prophets are often unassuming yet steadfast, opposed but determined to progress,” explains Guenois, author of the forthcoming book “Pope Francis: The Revolution.”

“The patriarchal culture of the Catholic Church stems from theological and historical factors spanning thousands of years,” he notes. “Changing centuries-old practices takes more than 20 months.”

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Catholic women empowerment

Q: Who is Sister Nathalie Becquart and what role does she play in the Catholic Church?

A: Sister Nathalie Becquart is a French nun who holds the position of the first female undersecretary in the Vatican’s Synod of Bishops office. She is a high-ranking woman at the Vatican and has been actively involved in advocating for reform and empowering women within the Catholic Church.

Q: What is the significance of the October synod mentioned in the text?

A: The October synod holds significance as it serves as a crucial assembly where discussions and decisions regarding the role of women in the Catholic Church take place. It is considered a pivotal moment in the ongoing process of reform and determining the participation and decision-making roles of women within the Church.

Q: How has Pope Francis supported women’s involvement in the Church?

A: Pope Francis has taken steps to promote women’s participation in the Church. He has allowed women to read Scripture and serve as eucharistic ministers, changed the Vatican’s constitution to enable women to head Vatican offices, and made high-profile female appointments. He granted Sister Nathalie Becquart the right to vote at the synod, expanding voting rights to include laypeople as well.

Q: What challenges and resistance does Sister Nathalie Becquart face in her efforts?

A: Sister Nathalie Becquart encounters resistance from conservative elements who view the synod and calls for women’s greater participation as a threat to the traditional hierarchy of the all-male, clerical-based Church. The deep-rooted patriarchal culture and historical reasons within the Catholic Church pose challenges to her advocacy for change.

Q: How optimistic are women about the prospects of change in the Church?

A: Many women within the Catholic Church feel optimistic about the prospects of change due to Pope Francis’ reform initiatives and the appointment of influential women like Sister Nathalie Becquart. They see an opportunity for greater empowerment, participation, and recognition of women’s gifts and contributions within the Church.

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