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Jo Wells Addresses Pope & Cardinals on Women’s Ministry

The Rt. Rev. Dr. Jo Bailey Wells made headlines in the worldwide Catholic press this week when she addressed Pope Francis and his Council of Cardinals in Rome, speaking about women’s ordination in the Anglican Communion. Though she described the meeting as “a beautiful experience,” and expressed admiration for the pope’s openness to different perspectives, in another sense, Wells said, it was just another day on the job.

“The sheer normalness of consulting with other brothers and sisters in Christ, other leaders” is what Wells says she will remember most. “I realize that for many in the Catholic Church, there was utter surprise that it happened. But we engaged around a table, just like I do with colleagues here. It was a fruitful conversation. At one level, it’s a surprise that it’s so shocking.”

The deputy secretary general of the Anglican Communion said that she spoke for about 45 minutes on “the experience and journey of the ordination of women in the Church of England and the Anglican Communion.” She expects that the text of her address will be released by the Vatican in due course, like those of presentations made at a similar session in December 2023.

“Listening is primarily what was going on on Monday — to some very different voices — and [Pope Francis] is unafraid to suggest that the Holy Spirit might move in a meeting with people that are not from the Catholic Church, and for some, that’s radical.”

The pope, she added, “was not in the least bit defensive. There’s this warm welcome and gentle curiosity, and attentive listening for the whole morning.”

The Council of Cardinals, a consultative body started by Pope Francis shortly after his election as pope in 2013, meets for several days every other month, and has a tradition of welcoming outside experts.

The February 5 session at which Wells spoke was the second of four focused on women’s ministry planned during the year between the two sessions of the Synod on Synodality. The first session of the synod in October 2023 identified the ordination of women to the diaconate as a subject for further study.

Though Wells said she has met Pope Francis several times, the decision to invite her to address the council was made by Linda Pocher, an Italian Salesian sister who teaches at the Pontifical Faculty for Educational Sciences (the Auxilium). Pocher, who has written extensively on Marian spirituality and women’s roles in the church, will chair all four sessions on women in the church.

“She’s had a lot of freedom to work out what would be best,” Wells said of Pocher. “I think it was her call to invite someone from another church to tell their story.”

Pope Francis, she said, “trusted [Pocher] with whatever she thought was the best call. If there’s something significant, it’s the degree to which he trusts her to run these mornings.”

Giuliva di Berardino, a consecrated woman from Verona, Italy, also spoke to the council about her ministry experience. Di Berardino teaches spirituality and liturgy, a ministry for which she was commissioned by her bishop, in what Wells described as “the closest thing to what might be envisioned as a diaconate for women” within the Catholic Church. The cardinals, Wells said, “warmed to the model she was offering.”

Wells said that the pope’s cordiality toward Anglicans, which was also evident during the recent IAARCUM summit of Catholic and Anglican bishops in Rome and Canterbury, reflects his gracious approach and commitment to church unity. “The poise of his heart, his whole being, is to recognize brothers and sisters, to be unafraid of those who may differ, but in whom he clearly recognizes the face of Jesus, and then he gets on with it,” she said.

“He and Archbishop Justin have clearly established a friendship that presumes an assumption about a working relationship. Anglican-Catholic relations at that personal level are strong.”

“I don’t think this is unique to Anglicans. He’s doing the same thing with the Orthodox — most of all, probably. If they are Christians, why wouldn’t you do that? It’s a complete reflex for him.”

Wells noted that another compelling experience of the trip was being hosted during her stay in Rome by the Salesian community to which Pocher belongs.

The group of 50 sisters, she said, included women from about 25 countries, many of whom have advanced degrees in theology, psychology, or education.

“Those women are just a phenomenon. They are doing so much that is formative and foundational in the Catholic Church. They are not recognized as leaders. They certainly are not ordained, though they have taken vows. Let’s not suppose that there aren’t women serving the Catholic Church in really significant ways.

“I realize that if I had been born in a different time and place, I possibly would have found my vocation there — which is about teaching and pastoral ministry. I probably could have ended up as a Salesian sister. And I said the same in reverse to them — if you had been born in England with the ability and commitment I see in your devotion, I think you could have been in my place.”

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