Holy boldness: Women religious rising at Vatican

The Vatican can move at a snail’s pace, but looking back over the past six years, the profile of women, especially women religious, at Vatican events has risen sharply.

May 10, 2019

By Cindy Wooden
The Vatican can move at a snail’s pace, but looking back over the past six years, the profile of women, especially women religious, at Vatican events has risen sharply.

The Roman Curia is not teeming with women leaders and Pope Francis has given no indication, for example, that he will open the diaconate to women, but women are taking centre stage more often and doing so with the “parrhesia”, or boldness, Pope Francis encourages.

And rather than having to beg for a hearing, members of the International Union of Superiors General — leaders of some 450,000 women religious around the world — are regularly invited now to Vatican meetings at every level.

Sr Carmen Sammut, UISG president and superior of the Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Africa, told reporters May 2

“with the Vatican dicasteries, many things have changed” over the past six years.

“We have, in fact, been knocking on doors, and doors have been slowly opening” at the Synod of Bishops and at the meetings of Vatican congregations and councils, she said.

Sr Sally Hodgdon, UISG vice president and superior of the Sisters of St Joseph of Chambery said, “Since Pope Francis, things have changed radically.”

Vatican offices, she said, “are much more open, more user-friendly.”

“It seems each year they listen a little more and follow through more on our ideas,” Sr Hodgdon said.

Vatican officials, she said, are realising more and more that women have some of the skills and experience they need, and the sisters are realising how they can be “prophetic in different ways.”

One example is the Way of the Cross meditations written for Pope Francis’ celebration at Rome’s Colosseum by Consolata Sr Eugenia Bonetti, a pioneer in the ministry of women religious to victims of human trafficking, particularly those forced into the sex trade.

Sr Bonetti’s meditations for Good Friday were prayerful and pious, but also explicitly condemned men who go to prostitutes, governments who have slammed their borders closed against migrants and refugees, and Catholics who prefer to look the other way in both situations.

Another moment of holy feminine boldness came during the February summit on child protection at the Vatican when Sr Veronica Openibo, congregational leader of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, told Pope Francis and the presidents of the world’s bishops’ conferences that the hypocrisy of Catholic leaders who claimed to be guardians of morality yet remained silent about clerical sexual abuse has left the Church’s credibility in shambles.

A small sign of the changing status of women can also be seen in the Pope’s interaction with participants at the UISG plenary meetings, which are held every three years in Rome. Pope Francis was scheduled to meet with some 850 women leading religious orders May 10.

The first plenary he addressed, in 2013, was held just two months after his election. The superiors were excited by the new energy the new pope brought and his renewed focus on serving the poor which was, and is, their forte.
But the women were the audience, not the protagonists of the meeting, with the Pope giving a speech that included a quip about the women religious not being “spinsters” or “old maids,’ which brought laughter, but didn’t sit well with everyone.

Three years later, in 2016, the format of the UISG meeting with the Pope had changed. This time the sisters asked challenging questions and the Pope responded.

“I like hearing your questions because they make me think,” the Pope told the superiors general at the May 2016 meeting. “I feel like a goalie who is standing there waiting for the ball and not knowing where it’s going to come from.”

Describing the questions as courageous, Pope Francis was asked, among other things, about: opportunities for women to preach; the importance of involving women in Church decision making, especially when the decisions impact women; and handling requests from bishops and priests looking for free labour from religious orders.--CNS

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