Doing the heavy lifting: Women leaders share their stories at Vatican event

IMAGE: CNS photo/Garry Lotulung, Reuters

By Cindy Wooden

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — In the heart of Vatican City, dozens
of women from around the world gathered to share their stories of faith and
activism. A few men were in attendance, but Pope Francis and top members of the
Roman Curia were out of town on their Lenten retreat.

For the third time the Voices of Faith
celebration of International Women’s Day, March 8, brought Catholic women to
the Casina Pio IV, a villa nestled in the Vatican gardens.

Members of the Voices of Faith international advisory board
— mainly women leaders in organizations serving the poor or in foundations that
fund Catholic activities — arrived in Rome days before the main event to network with the chosen “storytellers” and
speakers and to meet with Vatican officials.

While raising the profile of women in the Catholic Church
and encouraging the inclusion of women in church decision-making was on the
agenda, the approach was not about confrontation, but about highlighting what
women already are doing and how the church could benefit from encouraging more
women to be involved and giving them greater responsibility.

Chantal Gotz, managing director of the event, told
reporters, “We are trying to change the mindset of bishops and Curia
people. We do it in a kind of emotional way, through storytelling,”
bringing them into contact with Catholic women leaders and “showing them
what we are capable of doing, that they should use our expertise and talents.”

The idea, she said, is to promote inclusion based “on
capacity and not because you are a man or a woman.”

Among others, the speakers included: Katarina Kruhonja, a
Croatian who works for reconciliation and nonviolence in the Balkans; U.S. Dominican
Sister Mary Doris, who runs a home for homeless mothers in the Bronx; Cecilia
Flores-Oebanda, a former political prisoner in the Philippines who runs an
program to rescue girls from human traffickers; Sabriye Tenberken, a German who
went fully blind at the age of 12 and now runs a school for the blind in Tibet;
and Caroline Kimeu and Judy Onyango, both young Kenyans who struggled to stay
in school and to avoid child marriages.

Although Pope Francis has not attended any Voices of Faith event and has not met participants, the speeches March 8 were
peppered with praise for his leadership, his denunciation of human trafficking,
his call for the institutional church to give greater space to women and,
particularly, for his recognition of the service of women religious to the
church and to the world.

Only in private conversations was the general enthusiasm for
Pope Francis’ leadership tempered with concern for how little has been done to
promote Catholic women leaders in the three years since he has become pope.
Under Pope Benedict XVI women served as undersecretaries at both the
Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life
and at the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. Those remain the only curial offices with women at that level.

The reform of the Curia is ongoing, as is the drafting of
rules for who is eligible to hold the top positions. The establishment of the
Secretariat for Communications is one change that already has been made and, in
early February, the Vatican announced that the director of the secretariat’s theological-pastoral
department would be Natasa Govekar, a theologian who specializes in the
communication of faith through images.

Nicole Perone, a Voices of Faith speaker who is completing
her master of divinity degree at Yale University, expressed hope that in the
coming months women would be appointed to top positions at least at the Vatican
offices responsible for family and for laity.

Geralyn Sheehan, country director for the U.S. Peace Corps
in Colombia, told the Voices of Faith gathering, “Institutions never
change because they should, but because it is in their self-interest,”
which is why it is important to highlight for the entire church the examples
and stories of women leaders who serve the church.

Carolyn Y. Woo, president and CEO of Catholic Relief
Services, the U.S. bishops’ overseas relief and development agency, told the
conference that “whether it is out of necessity or it is out of
invitation, about 80 percent of the work of the church is done by women.”
Faith formation and sacramental preparation, evangelization, education, health
care, emergency services and social outreach done in the name of the church are
all areas where women lead, she said.

Her position, like those of women presidents of Catholic
universities and women chancellors of dioceses, she said, shows “the practice
of empowering women and the ability to share power with women is there.”

The next step would be to move from seeing women in such
leadership positions as being exceptional to it being normal, Woo said.

Catholics at all levels of the church also need to learn to
listen to women’s “voices of faith” as input that is not
“threatening,” but enriching, she said. “Whenever women plea or speak
or recommend or propose there’s this skepticism and suspicion, ‘Is this
conversation leading to women’s ordination?’ ‘Is this a slippery slope?’ as if
everything women want eventually is (leading) to the priesthood.”

St. John Paul II said that the ordination of women was not
up for discussion because Jesus chose only men to be his disciples.

Such suspicion about the motives of Catholic women active in
church leadership “is unfortunate,” Woo said, “because along the
way we fail to hear the voices.”

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Follow Wooden on Twitter @Cindy_Wooden.

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