ROME— Pope Francis has called for greater leadership by women in Catholicism in the future, but already in the here and now there are multiple arenas in which women are the vanguard of implementing his agenda, including the Church’s response to forced migration, modern-day slavery, and war.
All, of course, are signature social and humanitarian priorities for the “Pope of the Poor.”
In 2015, forced migration saw 60 million people fleeing their homes to escape violence, persecution, or hunger; in 2014, human slavery affected 35.5 million people and generated an estimated 1.5 billion dollars in profit, forming one of the world’s largest illegal industries; several violent conflicts form what Francis repeatedly has called a “piecemeal Third World War.”
It’s impossible to move around the Catholic world today without noticing that the foot soldiers of the Church, those on the front lines of responding to these calamities, are disproportionately women, especially nuns.
On May 9-14, close to 854 religious women from 80 countries and every continent are gathered in Rome to participate in the XX Plenary Assembly of the International Union of Superior Generals (UISG), where their activism in response to the world’s traumas is a front-burner topic of conversation.
According to the press statement released earlier in the week, “Some are from countries which are well known areas of conflict and where people endure suffering and deprivation on a daily basis. Others are from countries where to be Catholic is seen by some as a threat and a reason for their persecution.”
Their gathering is living proof of the impact of women on the Church’s missionary role, made clear on Tuesday during a panel of four religious sisters who presented inter-congregational projects from around the world.
“Inter-congregational” being the key word.
“This is the future of religious life,” said Sister Yudith Pereira Rico, a Religious of Jesus and Mary from Spain, with 17 years of mission life in Africa, and head of the project Solidarity with South Sudan, a collaborative platform that offers a new way of serving to promote life among the most vulnerable people.
“Experience proves that this collaboration is possible, presenting a change in the paradigm,” she said.
“Solidarity with South Sudan” is a project inspired by a meeting that took place in Rome back in 2004, and since 2008, five groups that include contributions from multiple religious orders have been working in the predominantly Catholic country, which gained its independence in 2011 and has been suffering internal conflict ever since.
The project, which includes men and women, currently compromises 31 clergy and religious from 18 countries and 19 congregations. Their aim is to create self-sustainable educational, health, and pastoral institutions that will help empower the South Sudanese people.
According to Pereira, the idea is for this self-sustainability to be accomplished in the next 10 to 15 years, with the support of the Church in South Sudan and the Sudan Catholic Bishop’s Conference.
“What comes from God is real, but it needs for us to be on alert and attentive to what God puts in our way,” she said. “Sometimes, we don’t see it, we’re too busy doing what we’ve always done.”
“God uses our imagination to create new projects,” Pereira said.
Her argument for the change of paradigm is also rooted in the results of the project: over 3,000 new teachers have been formed in the last 8 years, there are 250 new nurses who graduated from one of the projects of Solidarity with South Sudan, and their workshops of formation for pastoral agents have reached every diocese in the country.
“None of this would have been achieved with the efforts of only one congregation,” Pereira stated. “The charisms of each one of our congregations [have been] put to work in a common project, to create a new charism so needed in our time: A solidarity capable of creating the impossible.”
Also on Tuesday’s panel was Sister Gabriella Bottani, an Italian Comboni Missionary Sister, head of the project Talitha Kum.
As with Solidarity with South Sudan, Talitha Kum is an inter-congregational project, born under the aegis of the International Union of General Superiors, and focused on the fight against human trafficking and the many forms of modern-day slavery that include prostitution, slave work, organ trafficking, illegal adoption, debt bondage, and forced marriage for girls.
For over 35 million people, “their freedom is denied, their dignity wounded, sold as a commodity and exploited for prostitution,” Bottani said.
Statistics show that the number of people living in slave-like situations today is more than double the number of men and women taken from Africa during the transatlantic slave trade.
According to Bottani, it was the complexity of the phenomenon, the violence of the organizations behind this industry and the multiplicity of structural causes that sustain it, such as war, poverty, and migration, which “made it evident from the beginning that we needed to join forces to fight it.”
The project has a decentralized structure, acting largely as an umbrella group that coordinates networks working at the national, regional, continental and global levels, and is largely perceived as the most important organization, governmental or not, working against this illegal industry, considered the third most powerful in the world after the drug and arms trades.
Though usually perceived as a “developing world problem,” in a recent Crux interview Cardinal Daniel DiNardo described his city, Houston, Texas, as a “huge city for trafficking.”
Since 2004, when the idea of this international network was first explored, the project has grown to include 1,500 religious women, some 50 religious men, and an “innumerable” amount of lay people, working in 17 networks, in 70 countries, in five continents.
Going beyond its inter-congregational scope, Talitha Kum also works with several Vatican offices, embassies accredited to the Holy See, the International Organization for Migrants, and the United State’s Secretary of State.
“Despite Pope Francis’ numerous appeals to put an end to human trafficking, we can confirm that it continues to grow,” Bottani said on Tuesday.
She also said that Asia and the far East are still the main places of origin of people commercialized as goods, yet the phenomenon is growing rapidly in the Middle East and Africa, a principal reason why Talitha Kum is focusing much of its resources on these regions.
“Human trafficking is a chameleonic evil, hard to identify because it mixes with some of today’s tragedies, at times masquerading as illegal immigration,” she said, adding that according to estimates, half of the people that fall into these networks are recruited during the migratory process.
This was confirmed by Italian Sister Elisabetta Flick, of the order Ausiliatrici delle Anime del Purgatorio.
Flick presented the project “Migrants,” born in 2013, after the first tragic shipwreck in Lampedusa, the southern Italian island Francis visited in the same year to bring attention to the European refugee crisis.
The project, which she defined as a “baby reality,” brings together 10 religious sisters from eight countries, including Argentina, Eritrea, India and Poland, and from eight different congregations, with the aim of building “a bridge” between the thousands of refugees arriving in Sicily by sea and the local community.
She said that often the women and the children among the refugees, many of whom arrive alone, often disappear overnight, allegedly taken by organized crime for forced labor or sex trafficking.
“Once, we had 178 children arriving in a camp. The next day, there were only 140. Where did the other 40 disappear to?” Flick said.
The work of these religious sisters, she added, is to care for “the throwaway of the throwaways,” a term Pope Francis often uses to refer to those living “on the outskirts of society.”
From the beginning of his pontificate, Francis, a son of immigrants himself, made the care of migrants, together with the fight against human trafficking, a key social concern. Last month, he traveled to the Greek island of Lesbos to bring attention to the thousands of immigrants who arrive on European shores every week, and in a surprise move, took 12 Syrian refugees back to Rome.
Sister Judith Aaron from Lebanon, didn’t present a particular project, but spoke about the situation facing Christians in the Middle East, whom she said are at risk of disappearing.
“The West has to realize that the survival of Christians in the Middle East is under threat. Our situation in these countries is tragic: In Jordan it’s precarious, in Syria catastrophic, and in Egypt it’s worrying,” Aaron said.
As a result of ongoing and seemingly never-ending conflicts, she said, religious congregations in Lebanon – the only country in the region where, according to her, Christians enjoy “full human dignity and freedom” – inter-congregational work has been the norm for quite some time.
“The tragedy of Christianity in the Middle East today can no longer be ignored, it has to shake up the conscience of all nations, particularly that of Christians of the whole world,” Aaron said.
“Our situation is really dramatic,” she decried, warning that a Middle East with no Christians would be “a disfigured one.”
According to the International Organization for Migrants, one quarter of Lebanon’s total population today is made up of Syrian refugees.
“Jesus Christ lived in these lands, Mary is from the south of what today is Lebanon,” Aaron said. “It’s been a land of exile for the persecuted for centuries, first the Christians of Antioch, then the Druze, the Palestinian Christians, and today those fleeing Syria and Iraq.”
She warned against the rapid growth of Islamic fundamentalism, calling it a “deformation of religion where God is turned into a shield so that people can commit acts of violence, with people losing their freedom and becoming victims of torture.”
She also said that a succession of conflicts “initiated with false pretexts” demands a response from the United Nations, and called for countries responsible for the current crisis, of which she only named the United States, to take ownership of their past mistakes.
Among the top priorities for religious women and men in the region, she signaled the need to find stable places where refugees can resettle on a more permanent basis, living in bungalows instead of tents.
“If we can’t promise they’ll be able to return home, we can at least work to make sure they have one,” she said.
She also called for the international community not to consider the situation of the region as “hopeless, condemned to last forever,” and instead to focus on finding solutions and in helping the several parts involved in the conflicts to achieve peace.
Quoting Pope Francis’ address to the European Parliament, she urged a global response to Europe’s migrant crisis: “We cannot allow the Mediterranean to become a vast cemetery!”
“The international community has to realize that welcoming refugees is not a responsibility of the countries at the borders, such as Lebanon, but a global one,” Aaron said.
“We need to take action against the causes and not only the effects,” she added.
Last but not least, she also called for Muslim leaders from around the globe to condemn fundamentalism and radical interpretations of the Quran.
Going back to what the religious communities have to offer to those in need, she said that beyond basic material help, what they can give is the “solidarity of martyrdom, the martyrdom of love, service and peace.”
Aaron closed with a prayer: “May the blood of the martyrs cry to the heavens, so that the king of peace may grant us peace. The Middle East needs peace, give us peace, and may the great powers of this world allow us to live in peace.”