The essential role of women in the work for peace and social justice was the message Sister Simone Campbell brought to the fourth annual celebration of International Women’s Day at the Vatican on March 8, jointly organized by Voices of Faith and the Jesuit Refugee Service.
A Sister of Social Service and executive director of Network, a U.S. Catholic social justice lobby, Sister Campbell praised Pope Francis' efforts to bring the plight of the poor and the marginalized to the attention of the church.
"We rejoice in 'Laudato Si''; that [says] care for the earth and care for the poor come from the same reality of exploitation of both and that until we learn to end the exploitation, we will not care for those at the margins, we will not care for our earth,” she said.
Highlighting four virtues young women need to make their voices heard, Sister Campbell said that joy and a holy curiosity to "listen, ask questions and learn from others" were important.
She also encouraged women to engage in "sacred gossip," explaining the need to share the stories they have learned from others so that those stories "can multiply" in others.
Today, she said, she is seeking to “take the Gospel to Capitol Hill on health care” and emphasized that “the only way forward is that we work together.”
Father Arturo Sosa, superior general of the Jesuits, delivered the keynote address at the conference, calling for the development not only of “a profound theology of women,” as Pope Francis said, but also of “an ecclesiology…that includes women.”
“If we are honest,” he told some 100 Catholic women activists from all continents attending the conference, “we acknowledge that the fullness of women’s participation in the church has not yet arrived.”
Father Sosa: “If we are honest, we acknowledge that the fullness of women’s participation in the church has not yet arrived.”
Father Sosa argued that a deeper appreciation of a theology and ecclesiology of women can “change the image, the concept and the structures of the church” and enable it “to become the People of God, as was proclaimed by the Second Vatican Council.” Indeed, he said, “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.”
Other presenters included four women refugees, among them Dr. Mirelle Twaygira. As a child she had escaped from the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and had, thanks to her grandfather, found refuge in Malawi. There she was educated and was later given a scholarship to study medicine in Beijing. She now works as a doctor assisting refugees in Malawi.
Two sisters, Nagham and Shadan, also spoke. After escaping the war in Syria, they made the hazardous crossing by boat from Turkey to Greece and now live in Belgium where they help fellow refugees.
The fourth testimony came from Marguerite Barankitse, a Tutsi from Burundi who saved Hutu children during the terrible interethnic killings there, and for this was threatened by both sides. She continues her faith-inspired work helping others.
“Stirring the Waters — Making the Impossible Possible” was the title of this year’s conference, which focused on ways women can work for peace through nonviolence. In the second part of the event, Kerry Alys Robinson, executive director of the National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management, moderated a three-person international panel that discussed “Building Effective Leadership for Peace.”
“You have to be courageous when you see injustice, you have to stir the waters.”
Flavia Agnes, a Catholic activist and women’s rights lawyer from Mumbai, India, and co-founder of the Majlis Legal Centre, told how after experiencing violence in her own marriage she decided to work to break “the cycle of violence” affecting women. She studied and became a lawyer and has since dedicated her life to helping women and girls who suffer violence in various forms, inside and outside their home. “You have to be courageous when you see injustice, you have to stir the waters,” said this woman who has helped 50,000 women and girls.
Dr. Scilla Elworthy from the United Kingdom, recalled that after her disappointing experience at the 1982 U.N. conference on nuclear arms, she decided to do something to promote peace. She went on to open a dialogue with those who make decisions regarding nuclear arms (including government and military officials and arms producers).
She founded the Oxford Research Group that for 30 years now has been building bridges for global security. She told the conference that she is really encouraged by the fact that today many young people, deeply concerned at what is happening in the world, are coming to ask her what they can do to change things.
All three panelists emphasized the urgent need for the church to change and to fully include women in decision-making roles.
In his address, Father Sosa focused on three concepts: resilience, cooperation and inclusion. He highlighted the resilience and courage of women in situations of conflict whom he had met while working for 10 years on the Venezuela-Colombia border. He was especially impressed by how they networked together in the face of adversity.
He next emphasized the vital need for collaboration between women and men in working for justice in a world where one in every 113 people is an asylum seeker or displaced person. “Many of us are looking at the world through the prism of xenophobia and narrow-mindedness these days, a prism which seems to feed on discord and marginalization,” he said.
Father Sosa recalled that political commentator Cokie Roberts, writing in America, had underlined the need for women to be involved in the public sphere. Ms. Roberts, the daughter of two former members of the U.S. Congress, put the matter succinctly: “Congress needs more women."
Father Sosa cited St. Francis of Assisi: “Start by doing what is necessary, then what is possible, and suddenly you are doing the impossible.” And, he added: “We have more than started. We will not stop.”
The Venezuelan-born Father Sosa, who is close to the pope, explained that “by bringing Vatican II to life and incorporating the poor into our church,” Francis “is giving women’s voices more opportunity to speak and be counted.”