Lone female cleric at synod on young people


By Luke Hansen, SJ

Rome, Oct. 28, 2018: A young priest in the Czechoslovak Hussite Church has been pleasantly surprised by the welcome and openness she has experienced at the Synod of Bishops on young people, she told America in an interview.

A fraternal delegate, Reverend Martina Viktorie Kopecká, 32, has the distinction of being the only female cleric at the Synod of Bishops, which is taking place from Oct. 3 to 28 in Rome.

Dressed in the liturgical vestments of the Hussite Church—a black robe with an imprinted red chalice and white stole—she delivered an address to the whole synod body on Oct. 11, emphasizing the importance of ecumenical relations, calling the synod a “sign of hope” and affirming the capacity of young people to be bridge builders.

“The true ecumenical movement must be lived and shared together,” she said.

Rev. Kopecká did not go unnoticed. She believes the cardinals and bishops “were surprised, maybe shocked” to see her clerical attire, she told America. “They recognized me as the girl at dinner and now as a priest. It takes some time, but they have accepted me.”

Rev. Kopecká believes the cardinals and bishops “were surprised, maybe shocked” to see her clerical attire.

“After my intervention, a lot of people came to me in the hallways, saying they listened to me and were inspired,” Rev. Kopecká said. “I was surprised that they even listened to me. I am quite young and a woman. I wore a white stole. They are not pushing me away. They accept me as a member of the family.”

The fraternal delegates who represent other Christian churches can make interventions in the synod aula and participate in small group discussions, but they cannot vote. The Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople has a delegate, as do ecclesial organizations like the World Lutheran Federation, the World Communion of Reformed Churches and the World Methodist Council.

Rev. Kopecká is representing the World Council of Churches, a fellowship of 350 member churches “seeking unity, common witness and Christian service.” Even at her young age, she has been entrusted with great responsibility at the W.C.C. She serves on their central committee and 20-member executive committee, and she moderates the ECHOS commission on youth in the ecumenical movement.

“I was surprised that they even listened to me. I am quite young and a woman. I wore a white stole. They are not pushing me away.”

“When a human being meets another human being, it doesn’t matter which denomination we belong to,” she said. “We believe in Christ and can find a way—as Pope Francis says—to work and pray together. We are from different cultures and societies, but we have something in common. Young people, through friendship, are learning how to move toward acceptance and respect.”

At the beginning of her experience in the eternal city, Rev. Kopecká was not certain she would receive a welcome, she admitted. She is staying at an international house for clergy and sat alone for her first three meals. “I said: This is a disaster.” On the second day, however, a bishop from Paraguay asked if he could join her. “I said, Yes, please!”

She described the encounter as the first major “turning point” in her experience. The bishop was “really interested in who I am,” she said. “Ecumenical circles are not about papers, documents and institutions. It is about meeting people without any judgment. Yes, I am the girl. I am ordained. But he was interested in my culture and church and, later, many others joined us.”

“We believe in Christ and can find a way—as Pope Francis says—to work and pray together.”

Another turning point happened in her small group. “At the first meeting, I felt very vulnerable,” she admitted. “I’m quite introverted, so it is not easy for me to talk in a group with people I don’t know.” But the leader of the group helped create an atmosphere where she felt comfortable, she said.

“I feel accepted. My voice is heard,” she said. “I can even turn the direction” of the conversation and influence decisions. “My answers are valued. We support each other.”

The moderator of the group is Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago. The relator is Auxiliary Bishop Mark Edwards of Melbourne, Australia. Several young people have spoken about their high regard for the welcoming and inclusive spirit of Bishop Edwards. On Oct. 15, Bishop Edwards invited Yadira Vieyra, a young auditor from Chicago, to read part of the group report to the entire synod.

Rev. Kopecká said the W.C.C. strongly supports young people, inviting many young leaders and speakers and “trying to be inclusive.” With the diversity of 350 member churches, she said, a consensus model of decision-making is “very, very difficult” but enriching. In fact, the Synod of Bishops has reminded her of the open-minded climate of the W.C.C.

“I feel accepted. My voice is heard,” Rev. Kopecká said.

“I feel we are touching very, very sensitive issues in the synod, like child exploitation,” she said. “People are speaking to each other very openly. I would not have expected the mutual acceptance, the variety of the topics, the richness and diversity. It is not about bringing divisions and differences but charity, which builds the Christian community.”

In her intervention to the synod, Rev. Kopecká referenced her conversion to Christianity at age 20. “When I heard the voice of God, I left everything and I followed that inspiration,” she told the synod.

In the interview with America,Rev. Kopecká described her native Czech Republic as a highly secularized society in which people generally do not want to be part of any institution, especially the church. She noted that her parents, who are both medical doctors, are “spiritual” but not Christians or churchgoers.

She could not have foreseen her conversion to Christianity or call to ordained ministry. She had been working as a highly paid manager in an international company and “had everything,” except for education. She decided to go to Charles University in Prague to study theology, simply because there were no entrance exams. She explained, “I had no knowledge of the Bible or Christianity.”

She started to take classes in Hebrew, Latin, systematic theology and biblical hermeneutics. In studying Hebrew, she said she discovered the values she had always been looking for. At first, she told herself it is only a science: “No, Martina, don’t believe in anything.” But she was being drawn into a mystery.

“For me, ordination is not a question of gender but human dignity and equal possibilities.”

“I could not help myself,” she recounted. “Day by day, I realized this is the way. I fell in love with Jesus. I realized this calls me to become a member of the church.” So she began visiting parishes and considering baptism. Later, the “amazing work” of priests inspired her to quit her job and pursue ordination.

She has studied theology, psychology and special education and has worked as a crisis counselor. She was ordained at age 30 and is currently working as a pastor. She is also pursuing a doctorate in ecumenical theology at Charles University, which involves attending seminars, teaching classes and writing a dissertation.

She feels strongly about the ordination of women but also understands the sensitivity of the issue in the Catholic Church.

“For me, ordination is not a question of gender but human dignity and equal possibilities,” she said. “Women do a lot of work in the church today and should be considered as spiritual leaders and servants of God. They are doing the hardest work, caring for people in miserable situations. They make the face of the church more human.”

“Women do a lot of work in the church today and should be considered as spiritual leaders and servants of God.”

She said her small group discussed the ordination of women deacons. “I understand it is not an easy question. It is sensitive,” she said. “Sometimes I can disagree but I am trying to accept the different contexts and backgrounds.”

The Czechoslovak Hussite Church, formally established in 1920 in Prague by members of the modernist reform movement of Roman Catholic clergy, draws from the tradition of the Czech reformation in the 15th century (a century before Martin Luther).

According to the website of the World Council of Churches, the Hussite Church has nearly 100,000 members and “occupies the middle ground between the essence of the Catholic Church (liturgy and the seven sacraments) and the principles of the Protestant churches (teaching and order).” Bishops are elected by a diocesan assembly. The church values dialogue, freedom of conscience and openness to a pluralistic world.

Jan Hus, a leading priest in the movement, sought to purify the church, Rev. Kopecká explained. He criticized indulgences, wanted to preach in the vernacular and asked for theological dialogue. Under pressure, he refused to renounce what he believed. He was burned at the stake in 1415 and considered a heretic for hundreds of years until 1999 when Pope John Paul II apologized and expressed “deep sorrow” for his “cruel death” and praised his “moral courage” as a true reformer of the church.

“My heart is really in Hussitism and the Reformation and the legacy of Jan Hus,” she said.

Rev. Kopecká said she first met Pope Francis in Geneva, when the pope visited the headquarters of the World Council of Churches on June 21. When she met him again at the synod, he remembered her.

“I expressed my gratitude [to Francis] on behalf of the World Council of Churches,” she said. “To be involved in the synod is a huge step in the ecumenical relationship between the Vatican and the World Council of Churches. It is an open door and a new era, a new dimension of sharing, of becoming a family.”

In the synod hall, she said, Pope Francis “is always very relaxed, ready to smile. He accepts fun, which is beautiful. When there is a joke, he smiles. He is not rigid in any way. We feel we are at home and can speak openly.

“He is really inspiring for many youth because he is not old,” she said. “He is incredibly young. He has openness, creativity and energy, and he also brings wisdom and experience, but not in the way that he is pushing anybody to anything. He just brings his values.”

(Source: This article first appeared in americamagazine.org on October 22, 2018)

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