Creating a Change

January 03 2022 | by

UNLIKE some of the other women whom Pope Francis has appointed to key Vatican posts over recent months, Professor Myriam Wijlens is not a particularly well-known name or familiar face in Roman circles. But though she may not feature prominently in the Catholic press or on social media platforms, she is nevertheless one of the key players in the Pope’s synodal process, which is shaping up to be the defining legacy of his pontificate. A theologian and canon lawyer, with a passion for the implementation of the Second Vatican Council, she shares his vision of a reformed and renewed Church in dialogue with the modern world.


Dutch theologian


Originally from the Netherlands, Wijlens is a professor of canon law at the University of Erfurt in Germany. She served as vice-president of the University from 2008 to 2011, and has specialised in the canonical dimensions of ecumenism. Her expertise was called on by the Church in her home country to explain to the bishops and to the public the canonical aspects of the marriage of the current king, Willem-Alexander, a Protestant, to his Catholic wife, Máxima Zorreguieta, in 2002.

As a canon lawyer, Wijlens has spent a lot of time over the past two decades advising churches dealing with the clerical sex abuse crisis, and in 2018 the Pope recognised this expertise by appointing her to the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. In June last year, he named her as a consultor to the Synod of Bishops, and in September she was one of the experts in the Vatican press office presenting the preparatory document for the synodal process, which kicked off its preliminary phase the following month on October 9 and 10.

Wijlens’ career began with a Theology degree at the Catholic University of Nijmegen in the Netherlands, where she learnt about the Second Vatican Council and its revolutionary vision for a Church where every baptised believer had a vital role to play alongside (rather than subservient to) the ordained clergy. “I realised immediately that producing the documents [of Vatican II] was not enough and I asked myself, what does it take to implement that vision,” she recalls. She also understood that canon law was an important part of the implementation process, and embarked on a Licentiate and Masters’ degree in that subject from St Paul University in Canada, in the mid 1980s.


Hungarian mentor


On the plane journey over to Ottawa, she read articles by the Hungarian Jesuit and canon lawyer Ladislas Orsy, who had been hugely influenced by his experiences in Rome during the Council from 1962 to 1965. Wijlens knew she had found a kindred spirit and wrote to Fr. Orsy, asking for a meeting, which took place the following year in Munich. He became her mentor and supervisor, helping her to develop her intuitions about the need for lawyers to have an attitude of interior conversion before they could begin to implement any kind of structural reforms. She explains her theory through the metaphor of a pair of reading glasses: if the lawyer is wearing the wrong type of lenses, he or she will never be able to see properly or produce the right kind of legislation to implement the outcomes of the Council. Only by “wearing a pair of Vatican II glasses,” she says, “can an individual see clearly the kind of Church that the world’s bishops had in mind as they wrote their ground-breaking documents, including Lumen gentium, Dei verbum, Sacrosanctum Concilium and Gaudium et spes.


Sharing the Eucharist


As Wijlens delved deeper into the treasure trove of Vatican II documents, she also discovered the importance of ecumenical relations in the working out of the Council. No longer could it be seen as “an add-on” for priests with time or interest in other denominations but, instead, she realised, “it must be everywhere, at the heart of everything we do.” She went on to write a second doctoral dissertation (Habilitation) on sharing the Eucharist with other Christians, based on the changes introduced by those documents. Since then, she has represented the Catholic Church on the World Council of Churches’ Faith and Order Commission, currently serving as co-moderator of its task force on moral discernment. She is a member of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission discussing similar issues of authority and moral discernment, and she is part of the Receptive Ecumenism process at Durham University in northern England, which asks what the different Christian Churches are able to learn from each other.


The reset button


All these varied experiences come together in her current role as consultor for the Synod of Bishops, which has embarked on a process of rediscovering the original purpose that Pope St. Paul VI had in mind when he set up the structure during the last session of the Council “to keep alive the positive spirit engendered by the conciliar experience.” Far from the kind of bishops’ meetings that have taken place during the past two pontificates, Wijlens explains, Pope Francis is “pressing the reset button,” not introducing new ideas, but returning to the radical vision of a less hierarchical and more synodal Church. She points to the opening of the preparatory document which spells out that it is no longer just the bishops, but rather the whole “Church of God [which] is convoked in Synod. “Not just for a two- or three-week discussion, as happened in the past, but rather for a three-year process and beyond, as the Synod logo itself makes clear. Quoting from the Vademecum, designed to help local Churches prepare properly for this process, Wijlens continues: “The Second Vatican Council reinvigorated the sense that all the baptised, both the hierarchy and the laity, are called to be active participants in the saving mission of the Church [….] Thus, the teaching authority of the Pope and the bishops is in dialogue with the sensus fidelium, the living voice of the People of God.” That, she says, is “the great revolution that this process aims to promote.”


Huge challenges


In her dealings with bishops coping with abuse cases that have swept through their dioceses over recent decades, Wijlens herself has been promoting this model of Church, in which every person – especially those least likely to be heard by the hierarchy – have a key role to play in the decision-making process. “People have their own experience and their own knowledge, they have a very good sense of what is right and wrong and of where all this should go,” she explains. “They discover that if they are invited into the conversation, their faith comes to life.” She cites stories of prelates whom she has persuaded to listen to lay members of their communities, pointing out that decisions taken in a participatory way “are more likely to be well received” than those handed down from on high. “It is really sad,” she adds, “that 60 years on from the Council, we still have the idea that we are not the protagonists in our Church.”

Wijlens is the first to admit that the stakes are high and the challenges are huge, with many people confused or concerned about where such a listening process could lead. “We are too young to remember,” she says, “but just think what fear there was in the Roman Curia in 1962” at the outset of the Council. “We have to trust and to ensure that everyone can participate so that this is not just the agenda of a few.” Some of the key challenges she identifies include questions of how to ensure that all voices are heard; how to include those outside the traditional boundaries of the Church; and how to handle divisions and conflicts that will arise. Here again, Wijlens points to the experiences of other Christians, noting that the World Council of Churches adopted a ‘consensus’ model of decision making back in 2005 as a way of overcoming competing interests. This model, as the guidelines for WCC meetings explain, “allow more room for consultation, exploration, questioning and prayerful reflection, with less rigidity than formal voting procedures. By promoting collaboration, rather than adversarial debate, consensus procedures help the assembly to seek the mind of Christ together.” Cardinal Mario Grech, who leads the synodal process, has raised the question of moving to adopt such a method during the bishops’ meeting in 2023.


An exchange of gifts


The Vademecum and preparatory document for the Synod also insist on the importance of including, listening and learning from other Christian denominations. A letter from Cardinal Grech and Cardinal Kurt Koch, head of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, to bishops conferences around the world speaks of ecumenism as “an exchange of gifts,” noting that “one of the gifts that Catholics can receive from the other Christians is precisely their experience and understanding of synodality.” The letter includes a series of concrete proposals for contacting leaders of other Churches, inviting them to participate in pre-synodal meetings and send written reflections on the questionnaire to be circulated as widely as possible within each diocese. Wijlens adds, “We must be aware that whatever we do must be conducive for furthering ecumenical relations – not just by inviting an Anglican or an Orthodox to sit in the room, but by truly listening and discerning together.”


The right direction


Most significantly, Wijlens concludes, “This synod is about creating a change which won’t be terminated when the last synod father walks out of the hall.” As Pope Francis has insisted, she notes, this process is “not a parliament or an opinion poll,” but rather a way of discerning where the Holy Spirit is leading the Church in the 21st century. Isn’t she worried that people’s expectations are being raised too high, that many will be disappointed if no major changes emerge when the doors of the Synod Hall close in 2023? Wijlens smiles as she recalls the words of her mentor, Fr. Orsy, now 100 years old, but still teaching and writing. “I’ve seen seven popes,” he says, “and although each one focuses a bit more on this or that aspect, the Spirit keeps on moving the Church in the right direction.”


Updated on January 03 2022