ROME—In the West, the Catholic Church often can be seen as “oppressive” towards women because it doesn’t allow female ordination, and because there are relatively few women in senior decision-making positions.

Yet in other parts of the world, including the Bangwa people in Cameroon, if it weren’t for the Church, women would still belong in the kitchen.

The change in attitudes came thanks to the apostleship of a figure who’s widely considered one of the most powerful women within the Church in the 20th century: Chiara Lubich, founder of the Focolare, a lay movement that arrived in Cameroon in the 1960s when a local bishop told her during the Second Vatican Council that they needed help.

“Before Chiara arrived, women were considered nothing, many didn’t even dare to speak in front of men. But with her coming, they were emancipated, sharing their experiences to others without having to bend down as if they weren’t worth it,” said Mafua Christina Fontem.

Christina Fontem is the “Mafua”- meaning the Queen- of the Cameroonian chiefdom of Fontem.

She told reporters that the daily life of her tribe is centered around the woman, in the sense that it’s the woman running the house, working the farms and splitting the wood.

However, “the modern man who knows the spirit of the Focolare, knows they can’t leave everything in the hands of their women,” she said.

For her people, what that means in practice is that in a family shaped by the Focolare, the woman knows she doesn’t have to split the wood while carrying a baby on her back, because her man will cut it and then help in the kitchen.

“This is thanks to the teachings of the Focolare, of loving one another as Jesus has loved us,” said Nicasius Nguazong, the “Fon,” or king, of another chiefdom known as the Nwangong.

Together with several Fonts, Fontem is currently in Italy participating in a pilgrimage to mark the 50th anniversary of the arrival of the Focolare to the region. As a matter of fact, it was her dad who had requested the bishop for help. When the response came in the form of a woman, he asked her: “How could you, a woman, who’s nothing, be so much?”

Both Cameroonian royals talked to reporters on Wednesday, after participating in the weekly general papal audience in St. Peter’s Square. Several had the opportunity to greet Francis.

Fontem said that after meeting Lubich her father, Fon Defang, launched a campaign to promote the access of education for women.

“Because of that,” she said, “you will find that those of us who are here, his daughters, went to school, and you also have among us a granddaughter who is here from Germany.”

Nguazong agreed: “Before the coming of the Focolare Movement, the women had no say, but the movement has taught us a lot of things.”

Nguazong and Fontem are part of a 40-people pilgrimage from northwest Cameroonian clans who traveled to Rome to mark the 50th anniversary of the Focolare Movement first coming to the Bangwa people.

The Focolare Movement, a Catholic lay movement now present on every continent, was founded by Lubich in 1943, during World War II, as a path of spiritual and social renewal, attracting not only Catholics, but people of diverse religious and cultural background.

By statutes, it can only be headed by a woman, making it unique in the Catholic Church.

“Before the coming of the Focolare Movement, they didn’t encourage education for girls because they thought that a woman’s place was in the kitchen,” Nguazong said, giving the male perspective. He also said that it was because of Lubich that women today take part in their traditional councils.

“Today, we have no problem with a woman doing the things that in the past only men used to do,” he added.

It’s because of the Nguanzong family that the Catholic Church today is present in the region. His grandfather didn’t see any incompatibility between the traditional religion and Christianity, since all believe there’s only one God. So when the missionaries arrived, instead of forcing them out, he welcomed them.

“We cannot underestimate the things the Focolare have done in this region,” he said, adding that he was personally touched by their teachings when he attended the Focolare-built Our Lady Seat of Wisdom College. “In high school I was a spoiled brat. If it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t be king today.”

The college, he said, shaped him into the man he is today, “and for that, I’ll remain forever grateful to the Focolare.”

The lay movement arrived in the region in the 1960s, at the request of Bishop Julius Peters, of Buea, when several tropical epidemics were causing 90 percent levels of child mortality. Today, these diseases are largely under control, yet the movement continues running several schools and a hospital.

Speaking of what the Focolare at the time dubbed “the Africa project,” Lubich once said: “The last centuries have seen a continent torn apart by the greed of the Europeans… Europe has a great debt to the African people … The African continent has been the most persecuted? The African continent will be the preferred one.”