Sister Elizabeth Davis has for decades been a principal figure in the Newfoundland and Labrador health-care system. Now, the Roman Catholic nun is about to undertake a new adventure that is close to her original calling.
Davis is set to travel to Rome to participate in October’s General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops led by Pope Francis.
Davis is one of just five members of a group called Women Religious who were invited to take part, with this synod marking the first in history that will have women in attendance and voting.
Before her trip, Davis sat down with On The Go host Anthony Germain to discuss the synod, the topics on the agenda and what she hopes will come from it.
While synods are common in other denominations, they have not been regularly held in the Roman Catholic Church.
“Pope Francis, though, really likes synods because he believes he needs to touch base with people right around the world,” Davis said. “He also believes that it should not just be bishops who attend the synod. So for the first time in our history, this synod will have laypeople, including women attending, who will be voting at the synod. So for the Roman Catholic Church, it’s quite a historic event.”
Here is the rest of their conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: It’s historic that you’re going. So how did you end up on the guest list?
A: I have no idea. There are 364 voting participants in the synod, of whom about 90 are not bishops. Fifty-four of them are women, and I’m one of those 54 women. I’m not sure why I am there. Women Religious are part of an international organization called the Union of Superiors General, and that international organization was given the right to name five women religious who would attend the synod. So I was named by them…
[Women Religious is] a religious organization of women. People call us nuns.
I think what’s interesting from outsiders, whether one is Catholic or not, are the subjects that are going to be discussed. Women deacons, priestly celibacy, LGBTQ outreach. As someone who grew up in a mixed Catholic environment, this seems quite significant to me. What’s your sense of it?
Pope Francis really has dared to name the issues that have marred the face of the Roman Catholic Church for centuries now, and still do in our time. And by naming these issues, he’s calling us together to see how we look at these things differently.
The very word “synod,” a gathering — Pope Francis has redefined that as walking together. And even the image he chose for the synod shows people of different colours walking together, led by a child and an adolescent, with the Pope in the middle, not at the beginning or at the end. Older people, younger people, and connected with Earth as well. So he’s been trying to call us into a more inclusive communion, and he thinks and believes, as I do, that that is the only way that we can help make our world better and more just. More peaceful.
And that image you refer to, Sister, the rainbow motif is already built through it. So it’s interesting that something that has been basically broadcast as the LGBTQ tolerance symbol is actually wired into what’s going to be happening.
The colours in this symbol are very telling, a beautiful image from nature of inclusion. And actually, the first time we hear about the covenant between God and Earth is in the book of Genesis in the Bible, in the Jewish and Christian tradition. And in Genesis Chapter 9, the rainbow God creates to remind that God has made a covenant with people and with all creatures of Earth. So that has a lovely history, and has a wonderful presence in our society today, always showing inclusion.
On the LGBTQ issue. What strikes me about it, and I’ve sort of watched this evolve over time, is that you know, for for certain generations of Catholics this is, a matter of sin. This is quite far removed from where we used to be, that the fact that the Pope is actually putting this on the agenda. Which of these issues is most significant to you if you were to rank them?
They asked us to rank them ourselves before going. My first interest is all of them, because I think unless we see that image that they have shown us as the stamp of who we are, we’re not going anywhere. So to become a one issue person will still get us back into the exclusions.
So how do we walk together differently? So whether I’m walking with you as a man, whether I’m walking with you, as bisexual, whether I’m walking with you as indigenous, whether I’m walking with you as a homeless person…the point is we should be walking together. Our Earth is terribly vulnerable right now.
The synod really holds the promise of us getting there. Our church does not have a good record of that. We’ve been quite exclusionary in our church, particularly in recent centuries. Quite defensive. And that’s not helpful for the church or the world.
WATCH | Sister Elizabeth Davis says divisions need to be undone and inclusivity needs to be embraced:
Sister Elizabeth Davis of N.L. is making a historic and holy trip to Rome
One of only 54 women who will participate in October’s General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, led by Pope Francis, Sister Elizabeth Davis says LBGTQ inclusivity is one of her top priorities.
With respect to women within the church, as you know, there’s been a lengthy debate about celibacy of priests, priests being the the true holders of power within the church. Is there much room at this meeting that you’re going to talk about that?
The documents that we’ve been given to work with��…all speak to the need to look at women’s place and role in the church very differently. To ensure that women’s voices are heard, where decisions are made. That has troubled our church for many centuries. It troubles our society still today. It’s not unique to our church, but we have been not among leaders in changing that…
If you go to a church today in anywhere in the world for mass and look at all the congregation gathered there, 80 per cent will be women. It’s consistent around the world. So women are the most active participants in church, but we have the least voice in the church.
And by the same token, I gathered from what you said earlier in this interview that — for people who happen to be gay men or lesbians or bisexual or …non-binary — is it your hope that some kind of opening will occur as as a result of this meeting you’re going to in Rome?
Absolutely, it is my hope that we become much more gender sensitive. We humans tend to create these dualisms all the time, don’t we? Good, bad, black, white, Catholic, non-Catholic. We always create dualisms and we did it with sexuality and gender. Male, female. And we’re beginning to realize that’s not the reality of lived experience. Until we recognize [and] name that, which Pope Francis has begun to do, and name the fact that we hadn’t been very wise in creating that dualism, that’s a good that’s a good first step. But it’s only a first step.
The Pope has publicly lamented a certain branch of belief that he has detected with very conservative American Catholics, who he says or suggests are fixated on abortion and on matters of sexuality instead of actually really thinking about the teachings of Christ and taking care of the poor and focusing on other aspects of what believers believe. Is there room for discussion within the church to do that without creating tensions that can divide the church between the conservative side of the Catholic Church, and perhaps, for lack of a better term, the more progressive side, which I think you represent and this meeting represents?
We have to find the way to bridge that divide. We will never all think the same, and we shouldn’t. That defeats the very purpose we’re talking about here. Our church was called Catholic at the beginning, meaning universal. Now, Catholic today often means exclusion and exclusionary, sadly. But when we first were named Catholic, it was because we were so universal, so inclusive. We need to get back to that vision of who we are.…We will have tensions, and if we don’t, it means we’re in denial. And if we’re not facing those tensions and contradictions at the meeting in Rome, if we don’t have voices speaking differently, we’re not getting to the heart of the matter.
WATCH I Women need to be more front and centre in the Catholic Church: Sister Elizabeth Davis:
Women need to be more front and centre in the Catholic Church: Sister Elizabeth Davis
Sister Elizabeth Davis is in Rome to participate in the General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops led by Pope Francis. Women’s voices in the church need to be heard more, she says, and the fact that women get to vote at the synod for the first time in history is a sign that Pope Francis believes it, too.
When this synod is over, what do you hope will be different?
The synod won’t end [then]. Next year, in October, will be the last session of the synod. But Pope Francis has been very clear. He says the synod is only a gathering, a meeting in time. He wants the church to change. The meeting is only going to be one opportunity and many opportunities to talk about that. So what do I hope? I hope when we come back after at the end of October, we have increased our willingness to name the differences among us. We’ll have increased our awareness that we need to change some things among us. That we’ll have increased our openness to listen to others who don’t agree with what we think. And we will have increased opportunities for ourselves to talk to others outside our church.
Hear the full interview:
On The Go14:26Sister Elizabeth Davis
Sister Elizabeth Davis will be packing a bag and heading to Rome to participate in October’s General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops.