ROME—As they’ve done for each of the last four years, women of all walks of life gathered at the heart of the Vatican this week to remind the world that they’re not just victims of abuse or gender bias in various parts of the world, but also “proactive drivers of peace.”
Though there was no actual talk about female ordination during the summit, keynote speaker Father Arturo Sosa, head of the Jesuit order, said that “the fullness of women’s participation in the Church has not yet arrived” and supported a recently instituted papal commission to study the question of female deacons.
A second participant, a non-Catholic peace expert from England, expressed her sadness over the fact that women are not fully included in the life of the Catholic Church. According to Scilla Elworthy, this is why the Church, “is being left behind.”
Organized by Voices of Faith, the Fidel Gotz Foundation and Jesuit Refugee Service and featuring women from all around the globe, the story-telling event took place on March 8, day of the United Nations-sponsored Women’s Day, at the heart of the Vatican: the Casina Pio IV, home of the Pontifical Academy for Sciences.
“Women’s voices must be heard,” said Chantal Gotz, managing director of Voices of Faith, in her welcoming remarks.
“I’m often asked if I’m angry with the world, the Church, the political life … I’m often told that women are not allowed to be mad. But the world is in crisis. We look at the XXI century, when so still have to claim that women’s voices must be heard, when there’s still so much violence, when girls are not allowed an education because they’re women,” she said.
Everyone should be angry, Gotz said, because in her experience, “it brings about change.”
“We’re using our voices, our courage, our passion, and our leadership to support a global conversation about peace,” she continued.
As it’s been the case for the previous three years, no Vatican official took part in the event. The majority of them are currently on retreat with Pope Francis. However, according to Gotz, they have the support of the Vatican’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin.
After a short video in which women were presented not only as victims of war, violence, sexual abuse, poverty, hunger, domestic violence and modern-day slavery but also as drivers of peace, and Gotz’s welcoming words, the opening remarks were given by Sosa.
He praised women’s resilience, which allows them to move forth, think about the future, and is an essential quality to make the impossible possible. He also underlined their audacity, which is “often undervalued.”
According to him, peace would be more easily achieved in the Central African Republic, South Sudan or Colombia if more women were brought into the peace dialogues. He praised Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, for her courage, compassion and vision.
Speaking about the way society at large treats women, he acknowledged that in the West, women make 70 cents for every dollar men make, and the gap grows in developing countries.
Quoting an essay from American journalist Cokie Roberts in the Jesuit-run America Magazine, he said: “the U.S. Congress needs more women. Then maybe, just maybe, Washington would work again.”
He also said that “If we are honest, we acknowledge that fullness of women’s participation in the Church has not yet arrived,” to the applause of those present. That inclusion, he continued, would bring the gifts of resilience and collaboration even more deeply into the church, yet it remains stymied on many fronts.
Sosa praised Pope Francis’ call to promote a “theology of women,” adding, however, that in his opinion, an “ecclesiology of women” is also necessary, so that they’re included in the Church “as they should be.”
“Indeed, the inclusion of women in the Church is a creative way to promote the necessary changes in it,” Sosa said. “A theology and an ecclesiology of women should change the image, the concept and the structures of the Church. [It] should push the Church to become the People of God, as was proclaimed by the Second Vatican Council. Women’s creativity can open new ways of being a Christian community of disciples, men and women together, witnesses and preachers of the Good News.”
Sosa was not the only one who brought up the role of women in the Church during the three-hours long event. Many spoke about the need to include them in leadership positions and at the “decision making table.” But some went even further in challenging the status quo.
Elworthy, founder of the Oxford Research Group, said she’s both “deeply impressed by the rich of the Catholic religion,” but also “very sad.”
“My sadness is, I believe for the reason of not including women fully the Catholic Church is being left behind,” Elworthy said during a panel. “All the major institutions that we live with now, the military, politics, business, even banking, have all acknowledged, and used and allowed to populate the top [positions] with females. And I’m just really sad that there’s this restriction in the Catholic Church.”
Elworthy was speaking at the last panel of the day, “Building Effective Leadership for Peace,” which included three women from three continents: American Sister Simone Campbell, Executive Director of NETWORK lobby for Catholic Social Justice, Flavia Agnes from India, a women’s right lawyer and the European expert.
It was moderated by Kerry Robinson, founder of the U.S.-based National Leadership Roundtable, dedicated to promoting excellence and best practices in management development of the Church.
According to Robinson, one of the central reasons why Voices of Faith came to be is to shine a spotlight on women all over the world who’re making a profound difference in the area of peace, justice and human rights, and are doing so from a profound sense of conviction and faith.
“When I look at our institutional Church, it’s absolutely essential, for everything that we’re learning in these four years, that women must be included at the highest levels of leadership and at the table of decision making,” she said.
This including women in the table is not so much for the sake of our women, “[although] it’s what women deserve.” Robinson argued that it’s “for the sake of our Church,” since it could render it more effective, a better advocate of human rights, increase its ability to alleviate human suffering and further advance justice and the Gospel.
Campbell offered four virtues as a “good Catholic sister”, which she described as very simple but very needed and are part of the female genius: being joyful, having holy curiosity- listening to people’s stories- and sacred gossip, meaning sharing those stories so they get multiply.
“What came to me in prayer is that my role is to be stomach acid in the body of Christ,” she joked. “That is because I’m called to nourish, bring down food, release energy, but I can be toxic in grand quantities, so I need to be contained. But if you’re part, then the body is whole, and everything is done.”
The storytelling event also included the witness of several women who’re actively working as peace makers. One such woman was Australian Stephanie Lorenzo, CEO & Founder of Project Futures, an organization she created to help women who’ve been victims of human trafficking and modern day slavery, inspired by a book she’d read from a slavery victim in Cambodia, The Road of Lost Innocence: The True Story of a Cambodian Heroine, by Somali Mam.
“This world cannot ever heal from human trafficking, violence and war without you and I taking action every single day,” she said. “Your voices matter, but more importantly, your actions matter, because they have the power to change someone else’s lives.”
Then there were twin sisters Nagham and Shadan from Homs, Syria, who were forced to flee their country in 2015, travel along the dangerous Balkan route- including crossing the sea from Jordan to Greece in a dingy boat. Today, resettled on Ghent, Belgium, they’re working with the Jesuit Refugee Service, as they did before fleeing Syria, to help educate children affected by war.
Shadan said she understood why some people don’t have the ability to welcome refugees: “Because the media show that they’re terrorists.”
“What I ask is for people to get know them before judging,” she said, which also applies to their country: “I’m sad when people think Syria is only a desert. It’s a very beautiful country, much more than these five sad years.”