Early morning in February I walked into the beautiful conference center of the Divine Word Missionaries in Nemi, Italy, a small city about an hour outside of Rome. The center is perched overlooking a glistening crater lake in the mountains that, if your room is on the lucky-side, you can see the great city. Day and night the view is spectacular. It was a chilly day with light rain turning to snow, but this did not deter the 44 sister delegates arriving with enthusiasm from Africa, Asia, Europe and the United States.
These women religious leaders represented 29 regions of the world and 80 percent of religious worldwide. Their goal was to find common issues that they could address together, believing that global solidarity is the way forward to making significant changes in systems of society and the church.
Global solidarity is not easy to animate and navigate. Most of us pretty much focus on local issues while global ones can seem far away. It takes a strong commitment to keep the global in mind each day and connect it to the local. Sr. Rosa Olaerts of the Netherlands confirmed this. She came focused on problems at home but was jolted out of her malaise as she listened to “the [stories and] symbols [brought by sisters from their countries and regions], many describing the trauma of “tragedies and war.” They helped her “to understand better how needed the global solidarity is.” Discouragement was transformed into joy in solidarity with others.
Sr. Roseangela Sala of Italy reflected: “In the meeting [through prayer and sharing] emerged the wounds that need to be healed, along with a deeper understanding of the lack of humanity and spirituality in the countries we come from [and] increasing the desire for a stronger commitment to heal.” She also praised the progress UISG is making in facilitating collaboration and understanding among sisters worldwide – a blessed gift that “comes from the Gospel and from courageous women.” Her word “courageous” struck me forcefully because anyone who reads the stories of Global Sisters Report witness that courage, strength, intelligence and resourcefulness of the sisters worldwide.
Three specific moments brought about the awareness of the need for solidarity among sisters to promote equality and human dignity for women, whether in society or church. Three sisters from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Lebanon and South Sudan shared experiences of conflicts, war and violence that primarily affect women and children. On International Day of Prayer and Awareness Against Human Trafficking, three women shared how they had been tricked into sex trade; two were from Nigeria, and during the days we heard about the rape of the young woman university student in New Delhi, India. We all know that day after day women are being violated.
All these stories resonated with those described in an NCR report March 9 by Joshua J. McElwee on Voices of Faith held in Rome: Jesuit Fr. Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator commented on the impact of discrimination and violence against women and girls, particularly in Africa, but can be applied to any institution that keeps women in second place:
Any society that relegates women to a secondary status and allots them menial tasks, creates propitious conditions for gender-based violence and morally depraved ideologies to emerge and thrive. In the final analysis, I find it profoundly disturbing not only the fact that the educated woman is perceived as a threat to such ideologies, but also the sad realization that such ideologies render the educated independent and competent African woman an endangered species.
Under-Secretary-General Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka of the U.N. office of Gender Equality and Empowerment of Women in a recent NPR interview confirmed this saying that in some countries it is more dangerous to be a woman than a soldier! We do not often think about the connection that keeping women as second-class citizens unwittingly escalates violence against them and supports “depraved ideologies.”
Sisters also shared personal stories of gender bias and discrimination in their own dioceses and parishes. They questioned why, when sisters make up 80 percent of all religious worldwide, that they have no decision making voice in forming policies, structures and practice about religious life. It was explained that the link between ordination and governance in church law allows for only men who are religious priests to have this determining voice and decision making power. We learned however that this may change. Some women may be appointed to the council that advises the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. There is no law that requires this council to be only male.
Because the systems of the church are primarily cleric-dominated, it raises questions about what restrictions will apply to practice of authority given to a woman religious elected to the presidency of a recognized organization that combines women and men/cleric religious congregations. Such is the case for Sr. Sidonie Oyembo from Gabon. In January she was elected president of COMSAM, the pan-African confederation of major superiors of women and men religious. Are the men religious who elected her willing to work with changing the clerical systems to make sure she can exercise whatever full authority is needed?
A visual of the place of women religious in the church was apparent at the final liturgy of COMSAM where Sister Sidonie was to be celebrated as the new president and to address the congregation with her vision for COMSAM – a congregation that was a primarily women religious dominated one. However, seated in the congregation she was not visible until the end of Mass when she was invited to speak. However, her vice president, a priest, was highly visible in the sanctuary among other concelebrants, mostly guests. As a non-cleric, will restrictions keep her from access to developing necessary Vatican relationships with COMSAM?
So, how did the 44 religious leaders, delegates from 29 regions of the world access the ears of the Vatican at this meeting in Rome? They were given an hour with João Bráz de Aviz, Prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, to listen. He responded to questions crafted and sent to him prior to the meeting with explanations and opinions and sometimes nods in agreement at some of the injustices sisters noted in their questions.
It was a surprise when a sister from India broke protocol and asked a question spontaneously. Bráz de Aviz was not fazed, as he is a consistently personable and open person. But, although he hears the pain, he cannot really give satisfying answers except to repeat the message that the Vatican is now more open and that small steps of change are being taken. The sisters were happy to meet Bráz de Aviz, but they also returned home more than disappointed that after many attempts UISG leaders were unable to get an appointment with Pope Francis.
Sisters’ solidarity to change society and church systems that keep women subservient, submissive and vulnerable to discrimination and violence is a huge mission. The sisters recognized the need to commit to working with all women to achieve this common goal. They also realized they need to encourage men who recognize women as equally strong, intelligent and courageous to actively join them in solidarity. The men’s sacrifice is to share voice and power; it is the way of the cross of Jesus that we are all invited to embrace to bring about a community of equals. As Gudrun Sailer was reported to have said at the Voices of Faith meeting: “It’s about recognizing, realizing that excluding women from the church [decision-making processes] . . . [does] not conform to the Gospel. It’s not what the Gospel wants.”
The meeting ended in sunshine, warm temperatures, joy and hope for the future. Sr. Maureen Geary, a United States delegate shared her thoughts on the gathering: “I heard women religious who are animated with love of the Gospel and for consecrated life, who eagerly look forward to animating those two loves in their sisters and all people. I heard a desire to walk together in solidarity, to pray and act and be together, to put vows and values in dialogue across cultures and faiths, to grow together in interconnectedness that bridge our cultures, grounded in theology and Scripture. And most loudly I heard a voice from heaven saying: These are my beloved daughters, in whom I am well pleased.”
[Joyce Meyer, PBVM, is international liaison to women religious outside of the United States for Global Sisters Report.]