The Table

For the fourth time, the women of Voices of Faith gathered at the Vatican on International Women’s Day (March 8) for a storytelling and conversation series highlighting women’s resilience and courage. This year’s theme focused on peace-building and women’s unique role as first responders and negotiators in crisis, conflict regions and communities in need.

Expectations for this year’s conversation were high for Church reform advocates. I wrote clearly about my disappointment in last year’s event here, especially the disconnect between global oppression of women and the oppression of women in Catholic institutions, as well as the shortcomings of the panel discussion, “What women want,” which was a heavily coded conversation, underscored by Dr. Carolyn Woo’s comments which painfully dismissed women’s ordination efforts.

In that light, I greatly appreciated Voices of Faith Managing Director Chantal Gotz’s opening comments about her anger and the need for more people to be angry.  Claiming anger and broadcasting it from the Vatican is a powerful thing.

Fr. Arturo Sosa Abascal, Superior General of the Society of Jesus followed Chantal with frank comments about women in the Church:

But if we are honest, we acknowledge that the fullness of women’s participation in the church has not yet arrived. That inclusion, which will bring the gift of resilience and collaboration even more deeply in the church, remains stymied in many forms… No one is more resilient than women building and supporting the church in the poorest parts of our world…. The opposite of clericalism is collaboration, working together as baptized sons and daughters of God.

I took the liberty of contextualizing some of his comments to call to mind the many women working in priestly and spiritual ministry when Fr. Sosa said:

St. Francis of Assisi himself said, ‘Start by doing what is necessary, then what is possible, and suddenly you are doing the impossible.’ … We have more than started. We will not stop.

I encourage you to listen to the stories from Part I of the event on the livestream. The women are extraordinary and captivating. Nothing new — women are incredible — but hearing their stories and being able to express gratitude and support firsthand was a great privilege.

Just before the panel discussion, “Building Effective Leadership for Peace”

Kerry Robinson, Global Ambassador of the Leadership Roundtable, moderated the panel discussion to follow, featuring Scilla Elsworthy from Peace Direct and Rising Women, Rising World; Flavia Agnes, a human rights lawyer from India; and Sr. Simone Campbell, SSS executive director of Catholic Lobby organization, NETWORK. These women have incredible life experiences and wisdom when it comes to leadership, and their backgrounds in direct service steered the conversation. Each offered their branded template for, as Simone Campbell said, “bringing the Gospel to where it wouldn’t be otherwise,” and shared success stories from their work.

Deb Rose-Milavec, Sr. Simone Campbell & Kate McElwee

For me, the panel was interesting if not a bit disparate, and simply not focused enough on the fact that it took place at the Vatican. Sr. Simone’s organization NETWORK was named in the censure against the U.S. sisters in 2012 and yet the panel never got there. 

To her credit, Kerry Robinson offered general disclaimers about women at every level of decision-making and leadership in organizations and the Church and the importance of mentoring young women to follow their vocation, but it almost felt out of place in the fast (and too short) conversation. In closing, Scilla Elsworthy said, “by not including women, the Catholic Church is being left behind.” Finally. Someday soon the elephant is going to be too big for this little room at the Vatican.

Knowing the talents on the panel, especially when it comes to the institutional Church and “grace under pressure,” I was left still hungry for more at its end.  

Marie Dennis, co-president of Pax Christi International did a beautiful job weaving these threads together in her closing remarks, calling for women to be at the center of Church and Gospel led efforts for peace and nonviolence, from the beginning. To me, her voice made the most sense out of the day, clearly centering women and calling for more. 

This is my third time attending the Voices of Faith events at the Vatican and as a guest, I’ve been able to witness the “waters stirring” and various currents finding different strength each year. As an ambitious project that amplifies women’s voices, it is always impressive.

My own hope is that in years to come the platform of the Vatican ceases to be just a backdrop. It is a missed opportunity not to dialogue about the institutional Church as an actor in oppressing women and the structural and theological efforts that could truly make all voices count.