ROME — With the blessing of Pope Francis’s right-hand man, women are once again gathering at the heart of the Vatican on March 8 to discuss the role of women in the Church, specifically highlighting their role in stirring things up in the name of peace.
Organized by Voices of Faith in the Casina Pio IV, home of the Pontifical Academy for Science, it’ll be the fourth consecutive year the Vatican is a stage for this storytelling event in conjunction with the United Nations-sponsored “International Women’s Day.”
As has been the case on previous occasions, there are no Vatican officials in the lineup but rather leaders and activists from around the world, not all of them Catholic.
“When it comes to friend cardinals in the Vatican, we cannot go higher: It’s [Pietro] Parolin who’s supporting us in Voices of Faith and giving us permission to do this in the Vatican,” Chantal Gotz, managing director of Voices of Faith said at a press conference held in Rome on Monday.
The event, she said, is private, made possible through the contribution of sponsors and foundations, so it’s “very generous and courageous for the Secretary of State to give us this permission.”
The main partner of Voices of Faith is the Jesuit Refugee Service, which is why the storytelling event will actually hear the opening remarks from a man, Father Arturo Sosa, recently chosen as Superior General of the Society of Jesus. Magalie Laguerre-Wilkinson, producer of CBS’s ’60 Minutes,’ will be the moderator.
Above all, Gotz said, Voices of Faith showcases the enormous potential of women to exercise greater leadership in the Church.
“Voices of Faith holds the strong and deep belief that the international community and organizations, including the Church, can only become truly effective when women and men participate as equals,” she said.
Also speaking at the press conference were Marguerite Barankitse, founder of Maison Shalom, which has helped save more than 30,000 children from Burundi’s genocide and works on raising a new generation that can break the cycle of violence; Dr. Scilla Elworthy, founder of the Oxford Research Group, who’s been working on peace issues for over 30 years; and Kerry Robinson, founder of the U.S.-based National Leadership Roundtable, dedicated to promoting excellence and best practices in management development of the Church.
Elworthy spoke of a study she conducted in the 1980s on the leading figures in nuclear decision-making. After identifying 650 key positions, they saw that only five of them were women. She interviewed all of them, and realized that they thought as the men did, because in order to stay in their roles they needed to adopt male perspectives.
“Until recently, only 2.5 percent of those involved in negotiation deals around the world were women,” she said. “Which means that the voice of those more affected, women and children, weren’t being heard.”
As a consequence, she argued, only 50 percent of the peace negotiations lasted more than five years. “Now the percentage is going up, so more negotiations are producing long-lasting peace deals.”
According to Elworthy, the world’s biggest problems today- global warming, over-population, nuclear weapons and rich/poor gaps are the ones she named- can’t be solved “the usual way, [by] weaponry.”
People are realizing, she said, that there’s a need to shift consciousness towards a higher level, and that she notices an increase in peoples’ spirituality even if not religious. Learning to meditate helps.
“As the Dalai Lama says, if every child learned to meditate we wouldn’t have wars 30 years from now,” Elwrothy said.
Barankitse spoke about her experience with the Burundi civil war which went from 1993 to 2006, with a death toll estimated at 300,000 people. Since June 1993, when she began feeding a group of 25 children, she’s never given up on the idea of raising a generation built for peace, not conflict.
A big challenge for her was understanding why, in a nation where 80 percent of the population is Catholic, people were killing each other because of their ethnicity. Much like in Rwanda, the fight in this country was between the Tutsi and Hutu ethnic groups.
“To me, being a Christian was more important than being a Tutsi,” she said.
She believes that even though Pope Francis has become a great advocate for peace, it’s not fair for the laity to wait for the pope to do something or to be the one who changes the world: “What are we doing?”
As is usually the case when there’s an event centered on women at the Vatican, the question of female ordination came up during the Q&A.
Robinson tackled it from the perspective of the National Leadership Round Table, saying that from its inception 12 years ago they decided to work with existing ecclesiology and to be mindful of magisterial teaching, making a difference where it can be made, and as quickly and effectively as possible.
“With respect to women, I think the ordination question stops every other creative idea that could be implemented along the way, and thus nothing happens,” she said. “But right now unless we bracket it, we won’t get to advance any of these 40, 50, 60 suggestions on how can the Church elevate the role of women right now.”
Talking to Crux after the panel, she said that the Leadership Round Table is about correcting an imbalance: the laity is often disregarded, so they want to remind Church leaders that they have something to offer.
“[The laity’s] gifts, abilities, talents and interventions are often overlooked and underutilized in service to the mission for the Church,” she said. Though they’re currently working on having a more international scope, speaking about the experience in the U.S. she said Catholics have gone from being immigrants to all levels of affluence and influence.
“Yet we have failed as a Church to recognize their particular expertise and invite them to lend that in service to the Church’s mission,” Robinson said. “So the Leadership Round Table was created to be the vehicle and conduit for lay women and men to give what they do best.”
Talking about why they chose to explore the role of women in building peace for the 2017 conference, Robinson said it came from looking at the world and seeing conflict everywhere, beyond the “looming threat of war between nations, but violence within countries.
“What are we called to do, as people of faith, is to remind everyone that we’re part of the one human family, and within the Church, that we’re called to one Eucharistic table,” she said.