Ahead of a high-profile Vatican conference on collaboration among laypeople and clergy, several Vatican officials stressed the importance of empowering laity without “clericalizing” them or, in the case of women, trying to “stake a claim” or to fill gender quotas.

Speaking to journalists Tuesday, American Cardinal Kevin Farrell, head of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Laity, Family, and Life, spoke of “co-responsibility” between clergy and laity, saying, “Co-responsibility is exactly what it says…It does not mean that the laity in the church have to become clerics, and clerics in the church have to become laity.”

In terms of women, Farrell appeared to brush off the idea of women clergy: “The Holy Spirit gives us all a calling, and all our different gifts,” he said. “To some, he gives the gift of ordained priesthood, and to others he gives many other gifts.”

“There are many apostolates that priests are not qualified to undertake that the laity are,” he said, and cautioned against “reducing the work among the laity and or the great gift that laity bring to the church, to just some ministerial role within the church.”

A working document for the continental stage of Pope Francis’s ongoing Synod of Bishops on Synodality was published last October, based on broad consultations with laypeople throughout the world at the parish and diocesan level.

According to the report, laypeople lamented the lack of participation of women in key positions in the church as well as a mentality they said still views women as less than men. While there was no consensus on a clear solution, many voices called for more formal opportunities for women to participate “at all levels” of the church, including in ordained ministries.

In his remarks Tuesday, Farrell pointed to marriage prep courses as an area where laypeople generally would be more qualified to lead than priests.

“Personally, I think that the marriage preparation programs in many parts of the world and church are a total failure,” Farrell said, voicing his belief that marriage preparation programs “would be much better done by married couples.”

A priest giving couples a one-day retreat shortly before they are married, as happens in many places, does not help people “to grow in love for each other, nor does it help them to grow in the difficulties they face in life, as a married couple,” Farrell said.

Pointing to this as an example, Farrell said God calls everyone to participate in spreading the Gospel, “but he also gave us different tasks to perform.”

Similarly, Italian laywoman Linda Ghisoni, undersecretary of the dicastery’s section for laity, cautioned against trying to stake “a claim” on certain roles or functions in the church, saying, “Sometimes there is a bit of clericalism even amongst us laity, and clericalism doesn’t do anyone any good.”

Speaking to Crux, Ghisoni said this clerical attitude also affects laypeople “in our way of thinking, of wanting to claim quotas,” whereas the real discussion ought to focus on understanding “the nature of our vocation, our baptismal identity, which opens to us immense paths” within the church.

“This truly creates an ideal climate of working together as a church, from laity to priests,” she said.

Pointing to her own personal experience as a wife and mother who has worked in church circles for practically her whole career, Ghisoni said she has been able to participate in several decision-making processes, and that her contribution was valued not because of her position, but because of what she brings to the table.

Ghisoni said her contribution “is respected,” and she is able to engage with other curial officials with “the frankness and freedom of a discussion.”

“So, the ‘claim’ is asking for what we are. In the church, each one with different roles, gifts, and tasks, truly with this attitude, without this attitude of staking a claim, is able to live and do much more,” she said.

When it comes to women, Ghisoni said each baptized woman “is called to live in ordinary situations,” without making a distinction between Mass on Sundays and how they live their daily lives.

More space for women in the church is opening up and must continue to do so, she said, but cautioned that solutions might not be universal. While something might work “for a portion of the church,” it doesn’t necessarily mean it will work “for the universal church,” she said.

Farrell and Ghisoni spoke ahead of an international conference for presidents and representatives of episcopal commissions for the laity, titled, “Pastors and lay faithful called to walk together,” and which will take place in the Vatican’s New Synod Hall from Feb. 16-18.

Organized by the Vatican’s Dicastery for Laity, Family, and Life, the conference is expected to draw delegates from all over the world, who will discuss the “co-responsibility of laypeople in the synodal church,” as well as the formation of laypeople. Ample space will also be provided for delegates to share personal experiences.

Farrell said the idea for the conference came out of November 2019 dicastery meeting, and is an opportunity to “walk together, each according to his or her own vocation, without any attitude of superiority, uniting energies, sharing the goals of the mission, assuming the same responsibility for the good of the Christian community.”

“The aim is to make both pastors and lay people aware of the sense of responsibility that comes from baptism and that unites us all,” he said, noting that in many areas of the world, “it has not yet become normal to work side by side.”

According to Ghisoni, the conference is a direct response to Pope Francis’s reform efforts, and is “at the heart of the synodal journey underway in the universal church.”

Day one of the conference will focus on the nature and foundation of co-responsibility between laity and clergy, while the second day will center on the role of bishops and priests and the need for better formation on carrying out joint service with laypeople, “without any sectorial nature.”

The third day of the conference will feature a keynote address from Pope Francis, which will form the bulk of that day’s discussion.

Much of the interaction at the conference will also center around responses to a questionnaire sent out to registered participants in advance, however, the questionnaires themselves will not be published, Ghisoni said.

The conference will feature around 20 speeches and will draw participation of 210 people – 107 laypeople, 36 priests, and 67 bishops – from around the world, including Oceania, South America, Africa, Europe, and North and Central America.

Italian Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, archbishop of Bologna and head of the Italian bishops’ conference, as well as a favored papal contender, will also attend.

In addition to Farrell and Ghisoni, Canadian Cardinal Gérald Lacroix of Quebec, a member of the Dicastery for Laity, Family, and Life, and Andrea Poretti, an Argentine laywoman and member of the Sant’Egidio Community, also spoke at Tuesday’s press conference.

Poretti pointed to her work with the poor as an example of the contribution of laypeople in the church, while Lacroix said his keynote talk will focus on the role of pastors in promoting effective co-responsibility, and that “Our main role is to be pastors, not administrators.”

Rather, the job of a priest is to help laity “to encounter the lord and grow in a relationship with God,” he said, saying, “we as pastors need to be focused on that mission” and must be “more credible witnesses.”

“Co-responsibility is possible if we learn to walk better together” amid differences, Lacroix said, saying the topic of co-responsibility will require “a great deal of conversion on our part, our part as pastors.”

“Lay people are not there at our service, we are there at the service of the mission of the church,” he said.

Lacroix also stressed the need to hold greater respect for the roles that laypeople play outside of church settings, saying oftentimes when pastors see a young person who attends Mass frequently, they’ll ask the person to be a reader or join the parish council, or the choir, or some other group.

However, rarely are laypeople encouraged for what they do “in the world,” he said, saying it’s important to have laypeople participate in parish life, but many don’t have the time, and “we as pastors must also be very happy and encourage and recognize those working in all spheres of life.”

“It’s very important to recognize the role of the layperson in the world,” he said.

To this end, Farrell stressed that as pastors, “we not reduce [the] role of laity in the church to a mere functional position or involvement, but that rather they are truly part of the mission of the church.”

“Laity have a lot more to offer than a mere function they can perform, such as being the accountant of the diocese,” he said, saying there is still a need to arrive at “a much deeper meaning of what it means to be co-responsible in the church.”

To do this, he said, “implies a change of heart, a change of attitude.”