My first encounter with the Voices of Faith event happened on International Women’s Day in 2015. From my desk, I watched the live stream of the event that took place inside the Vatican and featured the stories of Catholic women working on the frontiers of the church in areas like education and health care for girls and women as well as initiatives that supported migrants, refugees and victims of human trafficking. The event featured a panel in which five accomplished women raised critical questions and spoke about their hopes and dreams for the leadership of women inside the Catholic Church.
I immediately felt inspired and encouraged by this creative and unique initiative, which sought to be a place of encounter and a bridge between the frontiers and the central government of the church. The participants highlighted the leadership of women already being exercised in the church but also insisted that this leadership be expanded to every area of the church’s life. Already in 2013, Kerry Robinson wrote in Americaabout the group’s meetings with cardinals in Rome to discuss opportunities “to elevate women to positions of meaningful leadership in the Roman Curia.”
Friendship and regular collaboration with women is essential for any man preparing for priestly ministry.
This year, the fifth year of the Voices of Faith event, I had the privilege of speaking on the panel at the event. In light of the upcoming synod on young people in October, the event mainly featured the voices of young women. One of the inspirations guiding Voices of Faith this year was a letter Pope Francis wrote to young people in preparation for the synod. “Do not be afraid to listen to the Spirit who proposes bold choices,” he said. “The Church wishes to listen to your voice, your sensitivities and your faith; even your doubts and your criticism.”
It is providential that this year’s event took place in the Aula of the Jesuit Curia in Rome, where the Jesuits meet for general congregations to elect a new superior general and discuss important business. In this same hall in 1995, the Jesuits issued a major statement on women in church and civil society in which we heard a call “to change our attitudes and work for a change of structures” in regard to “respect, mutuality and equality between men and women” and to “translate theory into practice not only outside, but also within, the Church itself.” Asking for the grace of conversion, all Jesuits were invited to “listen carefully and courageously to the experience of women” and to “align themselves in solidarity with women.”
The women who spoke at this year’s event are exemplars of faith and courage.
On the panel at Voices of Faith, I spoke about the strong presence and influence of women throughout my Jesuit formation. I have had women as professors of Scripture, ethics, sacraments and even homiletics. I learned Ignatian discernment from a Dominican sister who was my spiritual director for three years. I prepared for priestly ministry with women: studying with them and collaborating with them. Women have been my supervisors, colleagues and friends. Along the way, I have tried to listen and learn from these women, especially as they shared their diverse experiences as Catholic women and raised critical questions about the church we love. On the panel, I emphasized that this friendship and regular collaboration with women is essential for any man preparing for priestly ministry.
In response to other questions, I spoke about my hopes for the Papal Commission on the Diaconate of Women and of the joy and pain of women who experience a call from God to serve within the Catholic Church as ordained ministers but live with the reality that it is not possible to fulfill that vocation today.
The women who spoke at this year’s event are exemplars of faith and courage in their work with refugee women, girls education and Catholic-Jewish relations. As just one example of many, Ssenfuka Joanita Warry, a Catholic, spoke powerfully about the double discrimination she faces as a woman and a lesbian in Uganda. She described the violence that results from the criminalization of homosexuality. Her dear friend, she said, “paid the ultimate price” after a local newspaper published names and photos of L.G.B.T. persons. She asked why homosexuality is still criminalized in parts of the Catholic world. Since messages from the churches in Uganda are treated as messages from God, she explained, “our religious leaders hold the key to protection of L.G.B.T. persons.”
The courage of these women gives me courage. There were many powerful moments of honesty. At some points, I saw people in tears because of the beauty and power of what was shared. In response to the final question of the panel, “Why are you still Catholic?” Elisa Orbananos Hernando, who works for the Jesuit Refugee Service in the Great Lakes region of Africa, said, “I’m still in love.... I love the church that made me the person I am today, and I try to love in return.”
I hope the event has a ripple effect that inspires and encourages more women to speak about their experience of how God is at work in their lives and in the church—a church that needs every voice.