ROME – As anyone who follows the Catholic Church has known for a long time, in many of the ways that matter, including leadership of some of the Church’s keenest social justice fights, religious women represent the front lines.
That point got an exclamation point at a Rome gathering on Wednesday, with nuns involved in combating human trafficking and ending some of the world’s most chronic conflicts declaring, “We are the Church, we are women, we are leaders!”
The symposium, called Women Religious on the Frontlines, took place in Rome April 11 and was organized by the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See in collaboration with the International Union of Superiors General and Solidarity with South Sudan.
The event shined a particular spotlight on the massive efforts of nuns to save young men and women victims of trafficking. Italian Sister Gabriella Bottani is known for her commitment to this cause and is the coordinator of Talitha Kum, an international network of consecrated life, which fights human trafficking around the world.
Talith Kum is the Aramaic version of the well-known saying from Mark’s Gospel, “I say to you, arise!” Aramaic is the popular version of Hebrew believed to have been spoke by Jesus, which is still preserved in several antique Christian communities in the Middle East.
“We speak about slavery, but it’s actually much more,” Bottani said. “It’s the tip of the iceberg that helps us understand that something is not right, something is wrong,” she added, saying that there’s need for a more profound change.
U.S. Ambassador Callista Gingrich, who hosted the event, praised the leadership of women religious.
“These women are often the last beacon of hope for countless people suffering from famine, disease, conflict and repression. Often at the risk of harm to themselves, they serve the displaced and those desperate for lives free of violence and strife,” she said.
Gingrich is the wife of former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Gingrich said she took part at the 2018 International Women of Courage award ceremony last week, which awards women who stand up in the defense of human rights, with First Lady Melania Trump in Washington, D.C. The event honored Italian Sister Maria Elena Berini, who offered shelter and aid to the thousands of internally displaced by the war in the Central African Republic.
Berini was also present at the Rome event, which included panels featuring religious women who every day stand up for human rights, fight against human trafficking and child pornography.
“Everywhere I’ve been there have been women like this, and I have no doubt that women like this will continue to serve the Church, serve humanity, serve Christ in the future,” said English Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Vatican’s de facto foreign minister, who at the conference told of personal experiences of meeting nuns living in difficult situations.
“Holy Week is an especially appropriate time to recognize and celebrate women religious in their efforts to advance peace and stability in our world. Too often, their work goes unnoticed and underappreciated,” Gingrich said.
“As a lifelong Catholic, I am committed to highlighting the critical role of these brave and dedicated sisters,” she added.
The conference presented the challenges that religious sisters face in countries where there is violence and conflict and highlighted the bravery of those who choose to remain even when non-profit organizations and local and international institutions leave.
Regarding the fight against human trafficking, United Nations estimates are that at least 40 million people are trapped in slavery today. Early on in his papacy, Pope Francis launched a full-blown offensive condemning human trafficking, calling it “a crime against humanity.”
For Sister Cecilia Espenilla, of Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Sienna and Coordinator of Talitha Kum in the Philippines, the alarm went off when she attended a conference on violence against trafficked women and children, where she learned of the vastness and gravity of the issue and decided to dedicate her life to fighting it.
“I cannot imagine my dignity violated and abused like that. I don’t want these things to happen to me, much less other people, and especially children. I mean, they don’t even know what’s happening to them, and yet it’s happening,” Espenilla told Crux in an interview.
Speaking at the event, Espenilla emphasized that the role of religious sisters in helping trafficked persons is in “putting them back together as human beings,” and said that those who have suffered this abuse and escaped it, ask not to be called victims, but survivors.
One survivor was present at the event, Blessing Okoedion, a young Nigerian woman tricked by Christian women into believing that she had been offered a work opportunity in Italy, but instead found herself forced into prostitution.
“I was full of anger, I was confused, asking myself how can Christian women do this? How can Christian women exploit me just for their economic gain?” she said at the conference. “I never thought that it would happen to me.”
The Ursuline sisters of Casa Rut helped the young woman escape captivity and begin a new life.
Okoedion is the author of “The courage of Freedom,” which tells her story of escaping slavery and prostitution, which she had the opportunity to recount to Francis in person during an audience in March where she informed him that many of her clients were Catholic.
After that meeting the pope publicly decried the fact by calling those who take advantage of these women “criminals.”
“We are actually one with the pope in this priority,” Espenilla told attendants at the conference. “A lot of clients are really men and boys and it’s really a concern for us because there is that kind of mentality that women are second class and that women are of no value at all. I urge our men in the hierarchy to educate people against this.”
Espenilla said that while the Church hierarchy is an ally, there is more to be done. She suggested members of the hierarchy ask the advice and council of the religious women who are at the forefront in fighting human trafficking every day.
“We’re on the periphery, we’re in urban places and up in the mountains. We’re working where this is happening, and the bishops see that,” she told Crux. “But we need more!”
Bottani also acknowledged the Church’s commitment against human trafficking. “With Pope Francis there was a stronger commitment. But it could be better,” she said. “We are improving and struggling to be better.”
She stressed the importance of women religious lobbying and advocating on behalf of survivors and the weakest in society. “We are women, we are the Church and we are leaders,” she said.