ROME — Marking the United Nations-sponsored International Women’s Day, the Vatican opened its doors for a conference Sunday to ponder the role of women, both those who work at the grassroots fighting poverty and slavery, and those pushing for greater gender equity within the Catholic Church.
In the words of the organizer Chantal Gotz, the storytelling event organized by Voices of Faith wanted “to tell some amazing stories from some amazing people.”
Notably, the event did not mention the female role as mothers, usually a hallmark of Vatican activity on women’s issues.
One example of the focus on women’s role in the wider world was Syrian Orthodox Christian Sister Hatune Doga, who works with persecuted Christians in the Middle East. She’s currently trying to rescue the more than 5,000 girls she say are in the hands of ISIS in Iraq, waiting for their families to pay a ransom they can’t afford.
In the early 1980s, when she was 15 and after almost being abused four times because of religious reasons, her family was forced to flee from Turkey to Germany.
“After realizing that other Christians were being exposed to ethnic cleansing, I couldn’t stay in Germany, sitting on the couch, waiting for information,” Dogan said. “I knew I had to go there because I personally knew what it was to be persecuted.”
As far as the Church is concerned, male/female equality surfaced during a round table including Austrian journalist Gudrun Sailer, who works for Vatican Radio; Peruvian theologian Rocío Figueroa Alvear; former Swedish ambassador to the Holy See Ulla Gudmunson, and Indian doctor Astrid Lobo Gajiwala.
Deborah Rose-Milavec, a spokeswoman for female ordination advocacy groups, began by asking, “Where are the women in the Church?”
She then pointed out that women are, in fact, now being appointed to decision-making positions in Catholicism.
In 2014, Italian Franciscan Sister Mary Malonewas named the first female rector of a pontifical university. The Vatican’s Commission for the Protection of Minors has eight women among its 17 members, and almost 20 percent of the Vatican’s international theology commission members are women after Francis appointed five in 2014.
Yet, Milavec said, “You need one hand and two fingers to count the number of women in positions of power in the Vatican.”
Gudmunson, the only non-Catholic on the panel, said that in the five years she made appointments with the Vatican’s Secretary of State or any of the Pontifical Councils or Academies, she’d met only one woman.
“Women at the Vatican work in Vatican Radio and the museums,” Gudmunson said.
According to numbers released on March 6 by the Vatican, 18 percent of the employees of the Holy See are women, up only one percentage point from four years ago. In the separately administered Vatican City State, which runs the Vatican Museums, the Vatican supermarket, pharmacy, and a tax-free department store, the female presence went from 13 percent in 2004 to 19 percent in 2014.
Gajiwala expressed her gratitude to her country’s bishops’ conference for letting her help pen a first-ever gender policy document. But she also expressed her frustration with the fact that, despite serving as vice president of her parish’s council, she has no vote because the body is for consultation only, which means all decisions are made by priests.
When asked what was her dream for the Church, she said one in which women can be ordained deacons and preach a homily. At present only men, both married and single, can be ordained deacons.
For Sailer, who works for the Church as an employee of Vatican Radio, a change of mentality is needed and it will be possible by only changing the Code of Cannon Law. But, she said, it needs to be more inclusive to the laity as a whole, not only toward women.
Chantal Götz, host of the event, said that the idea was born with the election of Pope Francis, and his call to “broaden the space within the Church for a more incisive, feminine presence.”
Yet despite being the inspiration, Francis didn’t participate in the encounter nor did he mention it during Sunday’s Angelus while he prayed for women on their day, urging the world to celebrate the “more creative, more patient, tenderer” role played by women.
There was no high-ranking Vatican official among the participants.
Some attendees noted that not even Argentinian Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, who heads the Casina Pio IV where the meeting was hosted and a regular to the meetings held there, was in attendance.
Francis’ track record with women has, in the eyes of many, proven uneven.
He ruled out female ordination early on when, in July 2013 coming back from Brazil, he said that “the Church has spoken and says no — that door is closed.” During that same press conference aboard the papal plane, he called for women to have more leadership roles in administrative and pastoral activities.
The role of women in the Church cannot be limited “to altar girls or the president of a charity; there must be more,” Francis said.
He has requested broader support from society for women in the professional arena, and has praised the parishes that allow women to share pastoral responsibilities with priests in looking after families or individuals in need, and running prayer groups and outreach programs for the poor.
The pontiff has also insisted that a broader presence and activity of women “cannot make us forget the irreplaceable role of the woman in a family.”
“The qualities of delicacy, peculiar sensitivity, and tenderness which are abundant in the female soul, are not only a genuine force for family life, but also a reality without which the human vocation would be unfeasible,” Francis said Feb. 7 while addressing the plenary assembly of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture.
This description of women is one Gudmundson said she’s heard countless times, and feels it doesn’t represent who she is.
“I think those qualities are urgently needed in the world today,” Gudmundson said, “but I find that there’s something wrong when they’re used to address a collective of human beings.”
Organized by Voices of Faith, an initiative of the Liechtenstein-based Fidel Götz Foundation, and sponsored by the US Embassy to the Holy See, the Catholic charity Caritas Internationalis and the Jesuit Refugee Service, Sunday’s event invited women from all around the world to share their work on the margins of society.
Before delving into the issue of gender equality, the conference was a reminder that in the developing world, many of the Church’s 702,529 nuns and female missionaries are at the forefront, with efforts to empower local women by providing health care, education, and professional training; fighting human trafficking and slavery, and assisting refugees.
One such woman is Argentinian Sister Marta Pelloni of the Congregation of the Carmelite Sisters. A Nobel Prize nominee in 2005 for her work against human trafficking in her country, Pelloni proclaimed that “women’s rights are trampled and violated.”
Generating $1.5 billion a year, human trafficking is the third largest black market industry, after drugs and weapons. It affects an estimated 30 million people, 55 percent of whom are women and 26 percent children under 18.
In the United States, there are an estimated 60,000 people being forced to work without pay, under the threat of violence, and unable to walk away. In India, the number is 14 million.
As Pelloni noted, more people are enslaved today than ever before in history.
The Rev. Agbonkjaianmeghe Orobator of Nigeria, said there are millions of girls in Sub-Saharan Africa who aren’t allowed to attend school.
Talking about the more than 200 young girls kidnapped by Boko Haram because they wanted to be educated, Orobator said they were taken because they were girls, “people who society and culture consistently conspire to downgrade their social premium and human dignity to that of second-class citizens.”
“Unless and until we confront the misguided belief that the girl child simply does not count,” Orobator said, “the brutality of groups such as Boko Haram, the Taliban, [and] Al Qaeda will continue.”
There are millions of girls whose dreams of education have been truncated by an attitude that considers women currency, the Nigerian priest said; the singular gift of millions of girls will be forever lost to society because of terrorism.
“These are the girls we need to bring back,” Orobator said. “We still remain uneducated in the act of honoring the dignity of women.”
US Dr. Mary McFarland, international director for Jesuit Commons: Higher Education at the Margins, talked at the conference about the importance of educating those living in refugee camps, “where the hunger for education and the resilience is stronger than war.”
Since 2010, more than 1,400 students from Kenya, Malawi, Syria, Jordan, Chad, Thailand, and Afghanistan have received education through this project.
McFarland said that in every place in the world where there’s an outbreak of conflict, rape becomes a weapon of war. She said it’s not a surprise, since it traumatizes the woman, demoralizes the husband, and destroys the family — and thereby the community.
Speaking to Crux, McFarland said that she valued the perspective the testimonies had: Women not looking for “a place at the table,” but working in the field.
“We don’t need more people at the table; we need for those who are there to focus on the social premises of people,” she said. “I know they can’t solve all the problems, but governments will listen to the churches if they spoke up in favor of education.”
McFarland also said she hopes to see women helping change the dialogue of their role in the Church so it focuses on the real social issues of those in the margins, like the 50 million people currently forced to migrate because of armed conflicts. “Men care about this, too, but we have a different perspective from a gut level.”
During the conference, Caritas Internationalis and Voices of Faith presented the “Women Sowers of Development” prize, granted to two organizations, one from the Caritas network and one from outside. Each was awarded $10,000 to continue their work.
The organizations were Caritas Nicaragua, which works with female farmers, giving them training, seeds, and irrigation systems that allow them to grow food for their families. Basmeh and Zeitooneh, an association helping refugee women who live in Lebanon through an embroidery program and other projects, received the second award.
“These women are brave,” said Reem Alhaswani, a Syrian refugee herself who started Basmeh and Zeitooneh with other community leaders, moved by the story of thousands of female refugees who had lost their husbands — and their means of support — in war.
“We know that we cannot end this war, but we can prepare ourselves in order to be able to rebuild our country in the future,” Alhaswani said when accepting the award.