International Women’s Day in the Vatican

Women from all continents met in the Vatican on March 8, International Women’s Day, to focus on two topics: women in society—the excluded, the marginalized and women in the church.

“We chose those topics because they are close to the heart of Pope Francis,” Chantal Götz, the dynamic woman from Lichtenstein who is the driving force behind this second annual meeting of Voices for Faith, told me. She is Executive Director of the Fidel Götz Foundation, which initiated the event.

Like all the other participants, she would have dearly liked to have Francis come to their five-hour meeting at the Casino Pio IV, home to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, in the heart of the Vatican that Sunday afternoon.  But that was not possible because the missionary pope was visiting a parish on the periphery of Rome, at that same time; a parish riven by recent clashes between local residents and immigrants, and marked by poverty, unemployment and drugs.  He sent them a message of encouragement, however, and earlier that day – at the Angelus – extended a greeting to all the women of the world. 

The meeting was opened by Lesley-Anne Knight, former Secretary-General of Caritas Internationalis. She had worked four years in that organization but her contract was not renewed.  She alluded to that in her opening speech when, in a remark that drew warm applause, she told her international audience, “You can take the woman out of Caritas, but you cannot take Caritas out of the woman!”  

Drawing on her long experience in the social-justice field, she spoke about the great work Catholic women are doing in situations of misery, poverty, violence and persecution in countries across the globe. She recalled that women are the first to suffer in situations of conflict, with many being abducted or raped.  “Surely their voices need to be heard, also in the Church; they need to be in decision-making positions” She concluded with a question:  “Where will the women be tomorrow?”

She then gave the floor to five women activists in the social justice field, and a Nigerian Jesuit priest- the only male speaker.

The first, Mukti Bosco, a Catholic laywoman from India and co-founder and Secretary General of Healing fields - a healthcare project aimed especially at the poor, reminded the audience that two-thirds of India’s population survives on less than US$2 per day.  Born to a Hindu Brahmin father and an Anglican mother, both of whom “always worked with the poor and the marginalized”, she has followed in their tracks in a country where healthcare is so greatly needed as 70 percent of diseases are preventable as are 60 percent of child deaths.  She emphasized the importance of educating women in healthcare “because they are the custodians of the healthcare of the family”.       

Next to speak was Fr. Agonkjaianmehge Orobator, a Nigerian who is Jesuit provincial in East Africa.  He hit the international news when he called on President Goodluck of Nigeria to resign for failing to act decisively to protect and rescue the 274 schoolgirls who were abducted and kidnapped by Boko Haram in the village of Chibok, northeastern Nigeria, in April 2014.  In a powerful and passionate talk, he recalled that these “children of a lesser god” are still missing 388 days later.  They were being educated but in Nigeria, like many other African countries and indeed elsewhere too, “the forces arrayed against the education of girl children are legion”.  Indeed, “educated African women are an endangered species”.  There’s “a conspiracy of cultural complacency”, he stated.

Dr. Mary McFarland from the United States was the third speaker.  She’s the International Director of Jesuit Commons, and has used her university background to build an important international project that provides higher education to those on the margins of life, in refugee camps or similar situations. Her venture is now working in partnership with the Jesuit Refugee Services.  Recalling that there are currently some 45 million displaced persons in the world, she said she has found “a hunger for education” among many of these people, and especially among women in what seem hopeless situations in such places as Syria, Malawi, and Kenya.  One told her, “We don’t seek education for jobs, we seek education to end our ignorance”.  One of those she has helped is the Somalian woman Suad Mohamed, who lives 17 years in a refugee camp; she helped her become a teacher.  Suad addressed the gathering by video conference.

After a musical interlude given by Nokter Wolf, the Abbot Primate of the Benedictine Confederation,  a courageous Argentinean woman, Sister Marta Pelloni, spoke of how for more than 20 years she has been a leader in the struggle against human trafficking of girls and young women in Argentina, as well as against the “even more invisible” trafficking in human organs.  She denounced the ‘wall of silence’ and ‘the corruption’ in her country around this criminal activity.  She revealed later that Pope Francis had helped her several times when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires.

She was followed by yet another truly courageous woman, Syrian Orthodox Sister Hatune Dogan. Born in south-east Turkey, she suffered four attempts at rape as a young girl – but was lucky to have escaped and then her father took her to safety in Germany also to avoid persecution.  A polyglot – she speaks 30 languages, including Armaic, her first language, and has written 15 books.  She devotes her time and efforts to helping young Christians, and especially Christian women, who are persecuted anywhere in the world.  A force of nature, she works especially to help young women and girls escape from persecution, violence and slavery in the Middle East.  She has set up a foundation and built a network of some 5,000 volunteers in 35 countries to  help in this work.       

After listening to these inspiring testimonies, the Voices of Faith meeting moved into its second act: a panel discussion on the role of women in the Church.  This interesting and constructive discussion was chaired by Deborah Rose Milavec, Executive Director of the U.S. based reform group “Future Church”.   They looked at where the women are in the Church today, and where they could be tomorrow if hoped-for changes take place in the Church under Pope Francis.

Recognizing that the ordination of women to the priesthood has been ruled out also by Pope Francis, the four panelists focused on the other areas: the need for the Church to put into practice its teaching on the equality of women and men; to use inclusive and more proper language when speaking about women; and to include women at the different levels of decision-making in the Church.

Dr. Astrid Lobo Gajiwala, a biologist who established India’s first tissue bank and is consultant to the Catholic Bishops Conference of India (CBCI), told the meeting, “I dream of a Church where it won’t matter whether you are a man or a woman”.  She would like to see a Church “where God is liberated from male constructs”, and where the language is inclusive, and “where women too can give a homily”.   She told how in 2010 she, along with other women, helped the CBCI draft “The Gender Policy of the Catholic Church in India”, a forward looking document that challenges discrimination and inequality in the country (http://cbci.in/DownloadMat/Gender_Policy.pdf.).   

She “felt really respected” in the way the bishops involved her and other women in drafting this text, she said. On the other hand she finds it hard that women are excluded from decision-making and may only make recommendations.   “We call ourselves a prophetic Church but we are often following what happens in the secular world”, but “God speaks everywhere in history and is pushing us, and we should be responding”, she said. 

Tina Beattie, another member of the panel, grew up in Zambia and converted from Presbyterianism to Catholicism “after my fourth child”. A well-known British theologian and broadcaster, she teaches at the University of Roehampton, London. She warmly praised Pope Francis’ exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel” (Evangelii Gaudium”) and declared, “This is the Church I dream of; a messy, faithful, joyful Church with a passion for social justice”.  This was the kind of Church she had “glimpsed very strongly” when she first became a Catholic. She now dreams of “a Church that proclaims the full equality of male and female, as made in the image of God”. It would be “a beacon to the world”.  Since the ordination of women is ruled out, she said she hopes for “the equal promotion of men and women” at every other point of the Church’s life.

 The third member of the panel was Gudrun Sailer, an Austrian born journalist working for Vatican Radio “where 50 percent of all the journalists are women”.  A mother and author of two books on women working in the Vatican – “762 of them today”, she noted that as women they are subject to career limits. She emphasized the need for change in Church law and in attitudes to open the door to women in the Vatican.  She recalled that the Church throughout its history has always been inspired by its secular environment and, as John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council taught, it seeks to read “the signs of the times”. She believes that today it should recognize that “excluding women from the Church is not what the Gospel wants.”

The fourth panelist, Ulla Gudmundson, was a former Swedish Ambassador to the Holy See.  Born a Lutheran, she admits to having a different perspective.  She recognizes that the diplomatic world is mostly male-dominated, but finds it “rather odd” that there is not even one woman in the Holy See’s diplomatic service.  She has read the document for the next synod and feels it reflects a fear of individualism.  “Women want to be treated as adults”, she stated.  She challenges the language often used by Church leaders and Church documents to described women: words such as “tender, patient, sympathetic” but seldom “strong, courageous, intelligent” -words that are usually used of men. She’d like all these words to be used for both men and women.  Indeed she declared, “Pope Francis is a shining example of feminine genius: patient, tender, showing mercy and love”.   

The Voices of Faith meeting concluded with the presentation by Caritas Internationalis,, of two awards, each for 10,000 euros, to a self-help Syrian women refugees group and to a Caritas Nicaraguan program to empower rural women provide food for their families and become agricultural entrepreneurs.

The meeting ended as it began with the singing of the Voices of Faith song by Laura Collins, a New Zealand singer. Afterwards, Chantal Götz told me she will send a full report to Pope Francis. She hopes he will be able to meet them next year.

CORRECTION, March 13. 2015: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Chantal Götz was from Germany. She is from Lichtenstein. Voices of Faith is an initiative of the Gotz foundation, not sponsored by the foundation, as previously stated.

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