Vatican City: International Women’s Day – knocking on the Church’s door

Wednesday, 9 March 2016 14:37 GMT

* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Vatican City, 9 March 2016 – Yesterday, at the Casina Pia IV in the heart of the Vatican, powerful women made their voices count this International Women’s Day at the Voices of Faith event co-hosted by the Fidel Gotz Foundation and the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS). The event’s theme “Mercy requires courage” stemmed from the Jubilee Year of Mercy and Pope Francis’s call for believers to make their mercy  a concrete reality as opposed to an abstract idea.

The first session of the event, moderated by CBS News - 60 Minutes producer Magalie Laguerre-Wilkinson, focused on "Voices of Faith from all over the world."

Women’s stories. Dr Katarina Kruhonja from Croatia, the Co-founder of the Center for Peace, Nonviolence and Human Rights opened the event speaking of peace and reconciliation following her experiences in the war in Croatia. As a precursor to the rest of the event she said, “let us give a voice to the many women whose voices remain unheard, whose suffering is not recognised and whose potential remains ignored!”

Sr Mary Doris who works at the Siena House Shelter for homeless mothers and babies in the Bronx neighbourhood of New York followed speaking to the power of prayer and service. Women, she says, can help other women move beyond a situation of dependency and despair to independence and self-worth. “Mercy, for me, is the desire to love and serve others,” she said.

Laguerre-Wilkinson then introduced Cecilia Flores-Oebanda, former political prisoner in the Philippines and the founder of the Visayan Forum, dedicated to ending modern day slavery. She was detained for four years for fighting against the Marcos regime. In prison, she bore her two children and began raising her family.

“It’s very difficult to find mercy in my heart. How can I forgive, or forget? But after spending time with the women survivors in my centre, I learn to forgive. You cannot have mercy if you don’t have courage… Freedom is about choice – choice to do something, choice to pick up the fight, choice to make a difference and I’m inviting you to be part of it,” she said.

Merci, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo in Dzaleka camp, Malawi, is one woman who chose to pick up the fight. After going through the Jesuit Refugee Service / Jesuit Commons Higher Education on the Margins online higher education programme, she was resettled to Canada. She said the programme helped her learn how to effectively communicate her ideas and help serve her community.

Judy Onyango and Caroline Kimeu from Kenya are two women who also fought back through education. They left their families as teenagers to flee being married off to pursue a life of education and the possibility of a better future. Both worked their way to earn their education. Onyango now is working on her MBA and works with an organisation to help support other young girls’ receive access to education.

“Education for girls is not served on a silver plate. It is not free. You have to fight!” Onyango said.

On the panel with Onyango and Kimeu was Fr M C George Menamparampil sdb, who works to combat child marriage in India. “You don't have to give women everything, you just have to help them reach the lowest rung of the ladder, and from there, they can climb up themselves,” said Fr Menamparampil said.

Sabriye Tenberken, who has lived with blindness since age nine, has never been handed anything on a silver plate, but has chosen to use her disability to empower other disadvantaged women, by helping them help themselves and their communities. She and Paul Kronenberg, co-founders of Kanthari and Braille Without Borders, spoke to their endeavours. They have trained 141 social visionary women to undertake local sustainable social projects which now reach over 12,000 people.

“Our (visionaries) need the understanding that they can embrace the challenges, they can stand up and they can transform guilt and the necessity of forgiveness into empowerment and gratefulness,” Tenberken explained.

Women and the Church. Following these remarkable speeches, Fr Thomas H Smolich SJ, JRS International Director, moderated a panel of Catholic women who spoke about the direct role of women in the Church. The role of women in the Church has often been kept at the margins, seen as “guest workers, rather than family members,” Dr Carolyn Woo, President and CEO of Catholic Relief Services USA indicated.

“There may come a day when people – women – will stop knocking on the door of the Church. We are knocking right now, and our interest is not the interest of women, but the interest of the Church.”

The current generation is one that may never see their efforts for women’s empowerment manifested in the Church. However, that does not mean they should not continue their efforts.

“We may never see the fruits of our labour, but that doesn’t mean stop knocking. We have to keep watering the seeds, tilling the soil, because women in the Church are an endangered species,” said Nicole Perone, student at Yale University.

Perone continued to point out that the Pontifical Council for Laity and the Pontifical Council for the Family are two areas where women should be represented.

“Women not only need to be in leadership but in visible leadership … When we say ‘all are welcome’ do we really mean all are welcome in this place? A woman can be president of the US, prime minister of her country, CEO of a Fortune 500 company. They can succeed at the top of any secular sector, so why is the Church the last frontier?”

Gayatri Lobo Gajiwala, an English teacher from India who grew up in an interfaith household, and Petra Dankova, a sister in training and social justice advocate from the Czech Republic, said to empower women, the Church first must welcome women. Geralyn Sheehan, Director for the Peace Corps Colombia, agrees women’s ideas are key to sustaining the Church’s interests.

“When I think of the challenges the Church faces – FGM, trafficking, etc. – the target of many of those challenges are women…Thus the solutions thus have to come from women.”

Fr Smolich concluded the event with gratitude, thanking all the participants for having the courage not only to show concrete mercy, but to share their stories of mercy as well.