Sister Alessandra Summerelli is the most powerful woman in the Vatican. She encourages women not to hide. However, women in the priesthood currently maintain the clericalism criticized by Pope Francis. Interview about economics, change in the church, and women in leadership positions.
The Synod is currently being held in Rome. How do you look at this?
Alessandra Summerelli*: With a lot of hope. I believe that the Synod can be an experience of Christian hope. I also hope that He will be filled with the Holy Spirit so that we can be transformed into what Jesus Christ asks of the Church and of all God’s people today.
“Now he’s on the world stage.”
What hopes and expectations do you have for the Synod?
Smirelli: It won’t just be a meeting. The Synod is the procession of the Church. The Synod’s journey began at the local level. Now he is on the world stage. Then it will continue. I hope that the Synod will be a real moment of recognition.
How does this appear?
Smirelli: The difference is that people can come in with ideas and come out with different ideas. If this is a time of discernment, then everything that comes out of it is a way and a sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit in the church.
What are your concerns?
Smirelli: Different positions don’t communicate well with each other.
Do you think the Synod will bring about structural changes in the Catholic Church?
Smirelli: Change happens when there is a critical mass of people who want that change. If the Synod succeeds in putting us on this path of repentance, it can, as Pope Francis says, begin a process that can lead to change.
“I’m glad I can make a contribution here.”
You participated in the Youth Synod in 2018. What has changed?
Smirelli: The number of women invited to the current Synod Assembly is greater than in other Synods. Women are not only listeners, they also express their opinions. There was already a demand for greater equality at the Youth Synod – and now again. This is good.
You are number two in the department to serve the comprehensive development of man. How’s this for you?
Smerelli: It is very nice, very wonderful and also very demanding, because there is freedom in the work and at the same time there is a lot of work in our department and therefore it is also necessary to work well with everyone. I am pleased to be able to make a contribution here.
You are the highest ranking woman in the Vatican. What message would you like to send to other women?
Smirelli: Anything or almost everything is possible. Women should never be discouraged. In addition, women do not have to hide their abilities. Sometimes women hide a little. But the church needs women’s talents.
As one of the few women in leadership positions in the Vatican, you are certainly a projection surface.
Summerelli: I am very prominent in the Vatican – precisely because there are currently very few women in important decision-making positions. But I am sure that it is not impossible that many other women will work in such positions in the future.
“But at the same time we see that our work to accompany local churches gives hope.”
I have been an employee at Curia for two years. Have you secretly dreamed of such a position?
Smerelli: I previously worked as an economist and was not interested in working for the Vatican. I couldn’t imagine it either. But then I got a call from Pope Francis. It was clear to me then that I could not refuse. That I have a commitment to the church and people.
You work in the development department. What exactly are your tasks?
Smirelli: Our department has a broad mission. Our mission is to be in dialogue with local churches and various officials working to promote development within their scope of work. We are looking for answers to challenges. In doing so, we step back from the social honor of the church. Our goal is for people or communities to develop well. We always feel like we’re not doing enough. But at the same time we see that our work in accompanying local churches gives hope.
Pope Francis issued the Laudate Deum on October 4th. Are you happy with that?
Smirelli: There is still an urgent need to protect our planet. I am therefore pleased that Pope Francis is once again putting this topic at the heart of his declaration.
Is a Laudate Deum needed?
Smirelli: There are many efforts on the part of the Church – as well as communities and politics – for a real ecological transformation. But there is still a lot to do. The papal exhortation now published aims to be a new beginning on our path by highlighting everything that has changed since 2015. That is why I believe we need this writing, especially to re-energize the path we are on.
“The words of Pope Francis are therefore truer than ever,” he added.
I was a professor of economics and an expert in this field. What do you think of Pope Francis’s saying, “The economy kills”?
Smirelli: I think we’ve seen in recent years that the current economic system creates exclusion. Inequality in the world is increasing at all levels. Pope Francis’s words therefore ring truer than ever. This does not mean that we reject the economy or markets, but rather that we want to return markets and the economy to their original purpose.
Will that be?
Smirelli: An economy that focuses only on profit is a problem, because it comes at the expense of many dimensions and many needs of people, especially the most vulnerable. Just think about the health sector. If profit were to set the tone there, there would be no research into medicines for unprofitable diseases. This is the drama we are experiencing today. We have to work on it.
Pope Francis has repeatedly denounced this exclusion.
Summerelli: Exactly. He has specific positions, faces, and names in mind. I think this is a collective cry from almost every corner of the world. There is exclusion, there are people dying because of the economy. Let’s think about all forms of exploitation, including natural resources.
Pope Francis not only denounces wrong moves in the economy, but also criticizes bad qualities within the Catholic Church, such as the clergy.
Smirelli: I believe that the first step that must be taken in the Church is to return the priesthood to its original vocation. Priesthood should not be a discriminatory factor.
So there is a need for a culture change.
Summerelli: Until Pope Francis appointed me secretary of the Vatican’s Department of Development, my position was not open to women. He was always going to be a bishop. So the first step is to change this culture and these norms that only priests can do.
What does the second step look like?
Smirelli: Restoring the same dignity that we have as baptized persons in the Church. This means recognizing that there is a diversity of positions, but that does not mean inequality or the exclusion of anyone.
Does this mean opening the way for women to take over the designated ministries?
Smirelli: If a woman became a priest today, it would not change the structure of the clergy and thus preserve the characteristics of the privileges of the priesthood. This means that the priesthood will once again be placed above other offices.
“That is why we also have a responsibility to take change into our own hands.”
Do you feel a change in the church?
SMIRELLI: Pope Francis is all about opening windows. This is how I read his entire papacy. An economist once gave an example: In an abandoned building there are many intact panes of glass. If someone starts throwing stones at the windows, all the windows will be broken within a very short period of time. I think Pope Francis does that. That’s why it’s our responsibility to take change into our own hands.
*SR. Alessandra Summerelli (49 years old) is Don Bosco’s sister and economist. She is a professor at the Pontifical Auxiliary University of Political Economy and Statistics. Pope Francis appointed her as Undersecretary of the Department for Integrated Human Development in March 2021. In August 2021, she became interim Secretary of the Department and was confirmed in April 2022.
© Catholic Media Center, October 12, 2023
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