Women at the heart of the Church

By Samantha Lin

On International Women’s Day, 8 March, Voices of Faith, a story-telling and community-building event that showcases the stories of diverse women in a wide range of fields, took place in Vatican City. In its fourth year, Voices of Faith is an initiative of the Fidel Götz Foundation in partnership with the Jesuit Refugee Service and Caritas Internationalis, supported by the Raskob Foundation for Catholic Activities, Loyola Foundation and Mary J. Donnelly Foundation.

This year, five women from The Lay Centre — three students and two staff members — attended the event, entitled “Stirring the Waters: Making the Impossible Possible,” which focused on the stories of women who have changed the status quo in extraordinary ways.

Fr Antonio Spadaro, SJ, Heather Walker (The Lay Centre Staff), Samantha Lin, Hansol Goo and Claudia Giampietro (The Lay Centre Students), Clarissa A. Oliveira (The Lay Centre Staff).

The event was moderated by the US-based CBS journalist Magalie Laguerre-Wilkinson. The participants were warmly welcomed by Chantal M. Götz, managing director of the Fidel Götz Foundation. Fr. Arturo Sosa Abascal, SJ, the Superior General of the Society of Jesus, delivered the opening speech, starting with the invocation: “We need to have the faith that gives the audacity to seek the impossible, as nothing is impossible for God.”

After speaking about his encounters with the incredible resilience of women in his native Venezuela, his final sentiment set the tone for the event: “But if we are honest, we acknowledge that the fullness of women’s participation in the church has not yet arrived.”

The speakers of Part I more than proved Fr. Sosa’s belief that resilience makes the impossible, possible. Dr. Mirreille Twayigira, a survivor of the Rwandan genocide, whose first memory is of burying her father, told a story of survival and grace that brought many audience members to tears. After years of moving from camp to camp, country to country, after losing her family members one by one, after drinking water out of rivers clogged with dead bodies, Mirreille and her grandfather settled in Malawi so she could attend Jesuit-run schools. In a surreal moment, Mirreille gestured to Fr. Sosa sitting just feet away from her, as she described her gratitude for the Jesuit education she received. In a feat of enormous personal strength, Dr. Mirreille graduated in the top six students in Malawi, received a scholarship for medical school in China and subsequently moved to China, learned Chinese and became a doctor. She is now back in Malawi working as a doctor and says she hopes her story can be an example that, if given the resources, and if they are told they are loved and that they matter, refugee children can succeed.

Dr. Mirreille Twayigira, Rwanda/Malawi

The following speakers, Syrian sisters Nagham and Shadan, were interviewed by Magalie Laguerre-Wilkinson about their work teaching over 200 Syrian children with Jesuit Refugee Services before they were forced to leave. They attributed their belief that peace comes first from the inside, from your relationship with God, to their teacher, the courageous Fr. Frans van der Lugt, SJ, who was assassinated in Homs in 2014.

Stephanie Lorenzo, the founder of the non-profit PROJECT FUTURES, spoke next about her conversion from a self-centred 21-year-old to a passionate, motivated 30-something who, over the past six years, has raised $4.5 million to aid survivors of human trafficking in Cambodia. She works to change the conception that “philanthropy” is only for “people with deep pockets” and to provide resources for young professionals to turn their social networks into social responsibility. Above all, Stephanie said, she represents a generation that gets a lot of flak for being narcissistic but her experience has proven that the millennial generation has an “insatiable desire to connect.”

Scilla Elworthy, PhD, founder of the Oxford Research Group, Peace Direct and Rising Women, Rising World (UK) and Marguerite Barankitse (Burundi)

The first part of the event was brought to a close by the powerful, energetic “Mom” of the group, Marguerite Barankitse from Burundi. Since experiencing genocide as a Tutsi trying to protect her Hutsi neighbours in the early 1990s, she founded an orphanage, called Maison Shalom, for 30,000 children-victims of conflict. She does not refer to them as “orphans,” she says, but rather “princes and princesses.”

Part II of the event was a conversation among three women, Dr. Scilla Elworthy, the founder of three peace-focused organizations, Flavia Agnes, a women’s rights lawyer, whose clinic has served 50,000 victims of domestic abuse in India, and Sr. Simone Campbell, SSS, the executive director of NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice. The conversation was moderated by Kerry Alys Robinson, founding executive director and global ambassador of The National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management, which works to introduce best business practices in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. All the panelists talked about dignity, inclusion and the special quality of women to listen.

Dr. Scilla listed the five traits of being a successful female change-maker:

1. Compassion, not just empathy, that moves one to action;

2. Radical inclusion: nobody has to be left out;

3. Listening to understand the current situation and taking an action right away;

4. “UBUNTU” or as our leadership scholar Isaias is fond of saying, “I am because we are.” Interconnectedness: we should not make decisions without thinking about the consequences to the next generations;

5. Regeneration and constant growth: using our inherent understanding of nature to help regenerate it; care for the environment.

IV Voices of Faith “Stirring the Waters – Making the Impossible Possible” 2017

For the young female Lay Centre students in the audience, the most impactful part of the conversation came when the four women talked about how to mentor and encourage young, Catholic women in the Church. Sr. Simone, who described herself as the “stomach acid in the body of Christ,” listed four virtues as an emphatic final word on being an active Catholic woman:

1. Joy;

2. Holy curiosity that leads to deep listening;

3. Sacred gossip: sharing good stories and good news to create a community and to multiply the stories;

4. Doing your part.

Meeting with Sr. Simone after the panel, she urged to never ever let yourself be sidelined, but to be the active woman that the Church may not always want, but certainly needs.

Samantha Lin (Lay Centre student), Sr Simone Campbell (executive director of NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice, USA) and Flavia Agnes (a women’s rights lawyer and co-founder of the Majlis Legal Centre, India)


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