By Christopher White, The Tablet’s National Correspondent
ROME — Nearly a decade before Pope Francis launched this month’s Synod of Bishops on Young People, Faith, and Vocational Discernment, the Church in France was already attempting to address those same concerns by combining its separate national offices for young people and vocations into one powerhouse department.
At the helm of that office, up until last month, was Sister Nathalie Becquart, who during that time emerged as not only one of the most important voices in the French Church, but a globally sought-after expert on young people and, for many, proof that the Church is at its best when women are given the chance to lead.
Sister Nathalie, who is a member of the Congregation of Xavières, was the first woman to serve as the Director of the National Service for Youth Evangelization and Vocations. While the French bishops were among the first in the world to have a national office for vocations — dating back to 1959 — all her predecessors were priests.
In 2010, the separate offices were merged with “the idea that youth pastoral care must be vocational pastoral care, because every young person needs to discern their own vocation.”
In an interview with The Tablet, Sister Nathalie — who is serving as an auditor during the synod — said that the mission of her office has been “to help young people have a personal relationship with Jesus.”
“It’s exactly the point of the synod, too,” she added.
While France has long been known as the eldest daughter of the Church, rapid secularization has forced the country to recognize that it is, in the words of Sister Nathalie, “a missionary Church,” in need of influence and inspiration from the outside.
She describes the 1997 World Youth Day in Paris — the Vatican-organized global gathering of young people that takes place every two to three years — as a turning point that planted the seeds for a new focus on young people.
“We still get the fruits of it,” she maintains.
Prior to World Youth Day, Sister Nathalie said, many ministries and programs throughout the country were uncoordinated or lacked focus. Twenty years later, she believes the event helped the Church come together to work with clearer purpose — and for many in the French Church, they’re keen to play host again in the near future in order to punctuate the renewal unleashed 20 years ago.
Inside the Synod Hall, where Sister Nathalie is joined by nearly 300 representatives from around the world, she believes there is a “very good spirit” among participants who are on hand to help the pope discover how the Church can offer greater witness.
For Sister Nathalie, who has been involved in the process since before last week’s kick-off, she says the Vatican’s consultation with bishops’ conferences and its direct consultation with online surveys have prepared synod delegates well.
“What has struck me is that what I hear in the voices of bishops is almost exactly what I have heard in the voices of young people,” she said.
For many monitoring the synod process, bishops and young people have been the star attractions — with women, however, lacking adequate representation.
Sister Nathalie is part of the ten percent of women taking part in the process, and while she views the fact that women are taking part at all as an improvement, she, too, is sympathetic to those who believe it’s not enough.
While the bishops, priests, and even religious brothers are allowed to vote on the synod’s documents, religious sisters do not.
Women’s Leadership in Church
Sister Nathalie, however, is not interested in obsessing over rules and regulations. For her, collaboration is the key word when it comes to discussing women’s leadership in the Church.
“It’s not a question of women’s ordination, but a question of giving women places to collaborate, to be involved in the decision-making process,” she told The Tablet.
Drawing on her own experience, of the ten national offices for the French bishops, three are headed by women, and within her office, she had two priests who reported to her.
“For them it was not a problem, and I think it’s important to show that,” she said.
In addition, she previously served as a member of the bishop’s council of the diocese of Nanterre under Bishop Michel Aupetit, who was named Archbishop of Paris last year by Pope Francis.
During his time in Nanterre, a council of four women and four priests advised Bishop Aupetit, and Sister Nathalie said it was a very positive experience for her and the bishop alike — and a model Aupetit is looking to replicate in Paris.
Similarly, she added that she thinks it could benefit Pope Francis to have a council of women to advise him on Church matters, like his “C-9” group of cardinal advisors with whom he meets on a quarterly basis.
“For young women and even young men, if you only see a clerical Church, it’s unbelievable in our current society,” she insists. “It’s always more fruitful to be diverse.”
“I think things will change for the next synod,” she said, noting that inside the Synod Hall, “the question of women is not only a question from women but it’s a question supported by men and by the bishops.”
Very Humble Church
Those discussions, she told The Tablet, are taking place by “a very humble Church,” one that is very aware of its failings, particularly on the issue of sexual abuse, but also on a range of other issues including a humility that the Church hasn’t always shown on the topic at hand: reaching young people.
As for her own strategy for correcting that, she believes it’s more important to focus on what the Church does rather than what it says.
In fact, she insists that in order to reach young people outside the Church, “the first thing is not to say something.”
Drawing on her first field assignment working with university students in Paris, she recalls that after weeks of talking and listening to young people, what they needed most was affordable student accommodation as many were forced to live on the streets.
“I decided our first program for campus ministry was to help secure affordable accommodations for students. Then, you go from there,” she said.
For Sister Nathalie, that’s the lesson that she hopes to impart to the synod participants and the Church going forward.
“It’s a long process of being silent, listening to young people, and understanding their realities. Then you can speak.”