New female 'episcopal vicar' in Switzerland says women's diaconate should be priority for Church

New female ‘episcopal vicar’ in Switzerland says women’s diaconate should be priority for Church

The women’s diaconate should be priority for the Church, a new female ‘episcopal vicar’ in Switzerland has said.

– ‘Bishop’s delegate’ responsible for personnel management and Church oversight

Marianne Pohl-Henzen made history May 19 when she became the first woman to rise to a position equivalent to that of ‘episcopal vicar’ in the Swiss diocese of Lausanne, Geneva and Fribourg.

Since that position of ‘bishop’s deputy’ is linked in Church law to ordination – and hence reserved only to men – laywoman Pohl-Henzen has received the title of ‘episcopal delegate’ instead, though she will have much the same power as an episcopal vicar – in her case, in the German-speaking vicariate of Fribourg.

Pohl-Henzen spoke to Swiss Catholic news agency kath.ch about her appointment as Bishop Charles Morerod’s ‘right-hand woman’, which she will take up August 1 after a four month sabbatical and eight years’ experience as adjunct to the three previous Fribourg episcopal vicars.

The 60-year-old married mother of three and grandmother of four explained that although she will not be an episcopal vicar, she will nonetheless be able to “do many things, such as managing personnel, including priests, and directing various ecclesial entities”.

Pohl-Henzen said that she will also be a contact point for the Church in the canton of Fribourg and will have a seat on both the Bishops’ Council and the Presbyteral Council.

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– “I no longer climb the barricades and call for the female priesthood, even if I think that is fundamentally good”

Asked what should be read into her appointment in terms of the struggle of Catholic women for equal rights, the new episcopal delegate celebrated that Bishop Morerod “is doing everything he can to promote women in the Church”.

It’s clear that vote of confidence is encouraging to Pohl-Henzen, who revealed that she wouldn’t back down to a priest who challenged her new authority, but instead would tell him: “Please go to the bishop”.

“But the bishop will probably send him back to me and say: ‘You have to discuss this with the person in charge'”, Pohl-Henzen admitted.

Asked where she would situate herself on the spectrum of Church politics, episcopal delegate-elect Pohl-Henzen said: “Pretty much in the middle”.

“I used to be more combative, but as one gets older, one views things differently”, she acknowledged.

“I no longer climb the barricades and call for the female priesthood, even if I think that is fundamentally good”, Pohl-Henzen explained.

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She acknowledged that on the issue of women’s equality, “for the good of the Church we have to take small steps, otherwise there will be a split”.

“First we need the women’s diaconate”, she insisted.

In the new episcopal delegate’s opinion, besides, the local Church is facing equally dire problems, such as a lack of male priests and laypeople.

In Fribourg, “the youngest priest is as old as I am, 60 years old”, Pohl-Henzen explained to kath.ch.

“It doesn’t look much better with lay theologians. Most of the Sense district is my age. The younger ones have moved”, she lamented.

– Priority: bringing the “different view” of a woman to the issue of clerical sex abuse

But just because Pohl-Henzen will be busy in her new position with other issues apart from women’s ordination, that doesn’t mean she won’t be able to bring her woman’s gaze to her work.

As an example, she pointed to the issue of clerical sex abuse, which hit hard in Fribourg after a cathedral priest, Paul Frochaux, was suspended in February over allegations he abused a seminarian and an under-age altar boy.

“As a mother and grandmother, I certainly have a different view on the subject of assaults”, Pohl-Henzen said, admitting that the Frochaux affair “shook us all very deeply”.

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But in an effort to prevent a repeat of such cases, the new Lausanne, Geneva and Fribourg episcopal delegate affirmed that in the diocese “we are in the process of developing a protection protocol” for the safeguarding of minors and vulnerable adults.

“In this protection protocol we want to include not only sexual assaults, but also abuse of power and spiritual abuse”, the new episcopal delegate explained.

More stories on Novena on female role models in the Church:

Grandmother of 4 makes history to become ‘episcopal vicar’ in Switzerland

German Catholic women take to pulpit to fight against gender injustice, clericalism

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Mada Jurado

Reporter and community manager at Novena
Progressive Catholic journalist, author and educator. Working on social justice, equality and Church renewal.