At multiple points in my life now, I’ve crossed the border into another country. Most of the time this has gone smoothly. I’ve stood before the immigrations officer, been asked a few questions, and then got a stamp in my passport. Sometimes they haven’t even given me the stamp. Just waved me through.
A couple of times it hasn’t gone so smoothly. Once in West Africa when I neglected to offer a bribe there was talk of tossing me in jail. We’ll save the details of that story for another day. Once, crossing into England to visit a cousin, I was asked for my cousin’s address and didn’t have it. “How will you know where to go if your cousin isn’t here to pick you up?” the immigrations officer asked. “That is a good question,” I replied. “Do you have his phone number?” “No, and I really should have that, shouldn’t I?” Clearly, I need to think these things out better in advance and have some contingency plans.
The worst was crossing at the Canadian border when I was in the process of moving from St. Louis to Boston, but stopped first to make that trip to Flushing, Michigan that I wrote about earlier this summer. I had every last one of my earthly belongings stuffed into the back of my Toyota Camry. “Where are you heading?” the immigrations officer asked me. “Boston,” I replied. “Where are you coming from?” he asked. “St. Louis,” I replied. “You are traveling to Boston from St. Louis by way of Canada?” he queried. “Yes,” I said, beginning to get his point. “How long are you staying?” he asked. “Two days,” I said. “You do realize you have a lot of stuff in your back seat for a two day visit,” he noted. “That is true,” I admitted. “Do you have any sort of letter from this place you are going to work in Boston, confirming that you really are who you say you are?” “No, and it would be a really good idea to get one of those, wouldn’t it?” “Yes,” he replied.
A letter. Why had that not occurred to me before? Now each time I go to do a job that requires me to cross borders, I bring one with me bearing the letterhead of my client, saying who I am, where I will be staying, and the purpose of my visit. It’s been going better for me at the border of late.
Which is why my attention has been piqued by the opening lines of chapter 16 in Paul’s letter to the Romans that reference the journey of a woman named Phoebe:
“I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me.” (Romans 16:1-2)
There’s a good chance that Phoebe was making this trip at Paul’s behest, carrying his missive for the Roman community from Cenchreae, a port village on the edge of Corinth. If traveling across borders is complicated now, imagine what it would have been back then. Hence Paul sends her with an introduction on letterhead, so that when she shows up, she is treated as one of the family rather than with suspicion.
I am moved by this gesture because lots of times as a woman ministering in the Church, I find myself traveling without such a letter. And most of the time it is fine. Most of the time, when I move from one Christian community to the next, I don’t get stopped at the border (metaphorically speaking). But sometimes I’ll get asked hard questions. My credentials are challenged. My orthodoxy checked. My gender noted. And again, most of the time, I just try to build trust when I get there. I don’t mind going in and starting the relationship from scratch. I am decently good at what I do and, with time, am generally able to establish credibility. (So far, I’ve managed to avoid ecclesial jail.) But it does occasionally strike me how much easier my life and the lives of other Catholic women who serve the church in a leadership capacity would be if we were able to carry with us a "letter from an apostle". Something that recognized our ongoing permanent commitment of service to the Church and gave us a clear role. Something that indicated people should receive us and the gifts we bring with hospitality rather than suspicion. Something that asked people to help us when we need it, just as we have tried to help others.
Several years ago now Pope Francis asked the Church to actively engage in the process of discernment about the restoration of the diaconate for women—acknowledging the role that Phoebe once held in Cenchreae. The current Synod on Synodality process has escalated the conversation, noting the consistent comments heard during listening sessions around the globe begging the Church as a whole to pay attention to the gifts for leadership many women bring and consider how best to acknowledge those gifts and put them to use. This will be a significant topic of conversation when the Synod convenes in October. A whole section of the preparatory Instrumentum Laboris (B 2.3) relates to this topic and poses for discernment the question:
"What concrete steps can the Church take to renew and reform its procedures, institutional arrangements and structures to enable greater recognition and participation of women, including in governance, decision-making processes and in the taking of decisions, in a spirit of communion and with a view to mission?"
One specific area for consideration posed in this section: “Most of the Continental Assemblies and the syntheses of several Episcopal Conferences call for the question of women’s inclusion in the diaconate to be considered. Is it possible to envisage this, and in what way?”
True discernment isn’t wedded to a particular outcome, which I mention in my preaching for St. Phoebe’s Day on September 3rd. It could be that the women’s diaconate, for example, is a great idea. It could be that it raises numerous challenges and ongoing resistance. And, it could be that both of those possibilities are true at the same time and nevertheless shouldn’t deter us from moving in a particular direction. But whatever it could be and should be, we won’t know unless we take the discernment process seriously. This involves a deep listening in a most particular way to the stories women tell about their experiences trying to cross borders.
Entering into deep listening is not the same as engaging in debate. Discernment isn’t a question about “who’s right” and “who’s wrong.” It's not about advocating one's position. It is about listening to what the Holy Spirit is nudging in our midst at this moment in history. The process that will guide the discernment in Rome (picture that accompanies this newsletter is taken from pg. 16 of the Instrumentum Laboris) includes discussion punctuated by periods of silence to listen specifically for what the Spirit may be surfacing.
What could your community do this month to listen to the witness of women doing ministry in the Church and what their experiences have been? What would be helpful to them in their ministry? What woman could you yourself listen to this week to learn more about what her life in the service of the Church has been like and what her own sense of call has been? In the listening be sure to include moments of silence asking “Spirit, where are you at in the middle of all this?”
May St. Phoebe, the deacon from Cenchreae, be with us in this journey.