Women to lead Parishes — A new leadership model?

Frank Caggiano, the bishop of Bridgeport, Connecticut, announced earlier this week that he is establishing a new leadership model in the diocese. He is appointing a woman to serve as the parish life coordinator in one of its parishes.

The bishop appointed Dr Eleanor W. Sauers to lead the parish of St Anthony of Padua in Fairfield. She is well equipped for the task, and dare I say, probably more qualified than most priests who leave the seminary and are sent to head-up parishes. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Emmanuel College in Boston as well as a master’s degree and a Doctor of Philosophy from Fordham University’s Graduate School of Religion and Religious Education

Caggiano believes that by appointing Dr Sauers he is beginning to implement, in a concrete way, the recent call at the Synod on Youth, the Faith and Vocational Discernment for the inclusion of women in Church leadership. The final document of the Synod acknowledged that women have been excluded in the decision-making processes of the Church, which impoverished the Church. The document went on to say that everyone needs to be “more aware of the urgency of inescapable change”. It called for a “cultural conversion” and says that the inclusion of women is a “duty of justice”.

When announcing the decision, Caggiano said that as he travelled through the diocese, it became clear to him that “many lay women and men are seeking new ways to serve their parishes, and, in collaboration with the clergy, to create vibrant and thriving communities”. He said that he had decided to do this after a period of discernment, which included meetings with that parish.

Many people say that Caggiano’s move is nothing new. In different parts of the world lay people have led priest-less parishes for years — this has even been done in South Africa. But there is a difference: Bishop Caggiano has appointed Sauers, not only as coordinator of the parish, but he has given her authority over a team of priests who will be responsible for sacramental ministry. In other words, the buck stops with Sauers.

This model is one we should consider here in Southern Africa. Many of our lay people can competently administer parishes. They also know the needs of people and are more in touch with their daily reality, than priests are. Such a model could potentially assist us to ensure that the Church offers better and more effective pastoral care to the people of God.

It could also be a good antidote to exclusionary clerical attitudes which, these days, we are more conscious of. It is a way in which the whole people of God can, complementarily, take responsibility for the life of the Church. It could revitalise overstretched priests by giving them the opportunity to focus on the essentials of the ministerial priesthood, rather than pulling them into administrative tasks that other more competent people can do. It is a way of ensuring that there is a more accountable and equitable power structure within the Church.

It would be sad if this is seen simply as a way of dealing with the shortage of priests, or the fact that many priests are overstretched. The BIG question: Are there other bishops who will courageously follow Bishop Caggiano’s example?

Fr Russell Pollitt SJ
B.A. (UKZN) M.Th. (UKZN)

Fr Russell Pollitt SJ is the Director of the Jesuit Institute and is interested in the impact that communications technology has on society and spirituality. He regularly comments on South African Politics and various issues in the Catholic Church.

r.pollitt@jesuitinstitute.org.za @rpollittsj
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