From her ‘parish’ without a priest, a German abbess is hoping for “radical changes” on gender equality in the Church.

– On “sore spot” of lay, female exclusion, Church “could learn a lot” from Benedictines

On the current debates about the equality of men and women in the Church and about lay-clerical co-responsibility, “we are aware of current developments, discussions and arguments. All these topics do not stop at the cloister door, of course”, Sister Franziska Lukas, abbess of Dinklage Monastery and administrator of the associated parish, told Kirche + Leben in an interview July 31.

Despite the ongoing controversy over a recent Vatican document from the Congregation of the Clergy that bolstered priestly power in parishes and limited that of laypeople, “fortunately, the cooperation between priests and laity in the congregations is in many places better than the big discussions suggest”, the nun opined.

Still, the limits on lay and female involvement that the Vatican continues to impose “are a sore spot for many”, Sister Franziska admitted.

To overcome that disappointment and frustration, the nun affirmed that “congregations, or ‘Church’, could learn a lot from Benedictine monasteries”.

– The abbess, a different kind of Church leader

Exactly what did the abbess have in mind when said the wider Church could learn from religious houses?

In the first place, the religious extolled the virtues in terms of “liberation from one’s own selfishness! of turning over to the community the ownership of goods and possessions, “according to the model of the Acts of the Apostles: ‘They had everything in common'”.

But in the second place, Sister Franziska recommended that the Church in general learn from the Benedictine model of leadership, where a sister is chosen from among the ranks of nuns “who then – for a limited period of time – ensures that the community, under the guidance of the Gospel, follows the paths shown by the Lord, as the Prologue of our Rule of Benedict states, naturally listening to those entrusted to her”.

The Dinklage nuns have been following the actions of the Catholic women’s rights protest group ‘Maria 2.0’ “with interest”, in Sister Franziska’s words, joining as they have been many religious groups and congregations in Switzerland, Germany and beyond in praying every Thursday for “radical changes” that can lift the Church out of the “status quo” in which it is mired on the issue of women’s involvement in Catholicism.

But even more “radical changes” to the Church at large could come out of the Dinklage abbey, where the sisters participate in refreshingly liberating models of leadership, decision-making and liturgy.

– Not your traditional “Mother” with pastoral staff

When Sister Franziska was first elected abbess in 2007, for example, she refused the title of “Mother” that is traditional in Benedictine convents. She has also done away with what was formerly one of the most important signs of her abbatial authority – that of the crosier analogous to the one used by bishops – in favour of a simple pectoral cross.

Those protocolary decisions were motivated, the abbess said, by “an important aspect of my understanding of service and leadership in the Church in the 21st century”: that “the authority of the abbess does not derive from the insignia, but from her election by the community and from the Rule of Benedict”.

– Decisions made all together

Another facet of Sister Franziska’s leadership, as she explained it, consists in “listen[ing] to what is going on in the community, tak[ing] up topics in a timely fashion and bring[ing] them into conversation, seek[ing] unanimity in discussions in common and translat[ing] that into concrete decisions”.

“Important decisions are discussed in the chapter with all the sisters and personnel decisions (e.g. the election of an abbess, professions) are made democratically in a secret ballot”, the abbess added.

– Sisters hire expert to help them with their preaching

In terms of the conventual liturgies, Sister Franziska said that although the nuns can normally count on friendly and able priests to say Mass for them, “in recent years it has also increasingly happened that no priest could be found for the daily Eucharist”.

In the face of that occasional shortage of priests, the abbess revealed that she and her sisters have begun “to organise our Liturgy of the Hours in such a way that the texts of the Holy Mass are integrated” into that rite.

The community has also decided to switch to celebrating Masses only on Sundays, on feast days and on Thursday evenings – that last “in commemoration of the Eucharist on Holy Thursday”, Sister Franziska explained.

“As one Sister put it: ‘We were over-saturated with the Eucharist!'”, the abbess revealed, adding that “in the less now lies the chance of the more! Our task of celebrating the liturgy, our joy in celebrating God, has once again gained new momentum”.

Even with the change in their Mass schedule, the Dinklage abbess said she and her sisters will continue to give homilies at the evening vigil and in the celebration of Terce which are about “listening to the Holy Spirit, the dialogue with God”.

“We would like to intensify our sermon practice even more and have already invited a homiletician, i.e. a sermon expert, for further training”, Sister Franziska explained.

More stories on religious life, on Novena:

Women religious support German bishops critical of “ridiculous” Vatican instruction on parishes

Vatican cardinal backs German abbess prosecuted for sheltering refugees: “God bless her!”

Nun speaks out for more leadership for women in Catholicism: “The Lord wants a change in the Church”

German nuns denounce “dependence” on priests “takes away our dignity”


Progressive Catholic journalist, author and educator. Working on social justice, equality and Church renewal.