Some 300 religious sisters on Tuesday heard their peers call on them to “empower women” through education, institutions specifically created to support women, being critical of situations where women are being “trampled on,” and by telling the stories of the thousands of religious sisters who are fulfilling their “apostolic mission.”

“Who are we as sisters? We are people who’ve been chosen by God to be sent, we’re apostolic sisters, trying to live the life of the apostles, sent out to the world to bring the good news, the message of freedom to humanity,” said Dominican Sister Helen Alford, a member of the Vatican’s Academy for Social Sciences. “What we do for empowering women is part of that basic gospel-rooted mission.”

Alford was speaking in a pre-recorded message showed at the beginning of an online event called “Sisters Empowering Women,” organized by the International Union of Superior Generals, under the theme of “Economy and Health: Religious Sisters, Leaders of a New Model.”

The leading voices in the panel were American Sister Carol Keehan, a member of the Daughters of Charity and chairperson of the Health Task Force of the Vatican’s COVID-19 Commission, and Salesian Sister Alessandra Smerilli, undersecretary of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Integral Human Development. The two-hour long encounter was moderated by the UK’s ambassador to the Holy See, Sally Axworthy.

Keehan spoke about what the Vatican’s COVID-19 commission’s health task force is doing to try to promote vaccination equity and also better understanding how they work and why the Catholic Church sees receiving it as a moral imperative, despite some voices – which as she said, range from bishops to religious sisters – saying the contrary.

Pope Francis and Pope emeritus Benedict XVI have both received the COVID-19 vaccine, the Vatican mandated it for all of its employees, and offered it for free nearly 2,000 homeless and needy people from Rome. In a TV interview broadcast Jan. 10, the pope said that he believed that from an ethical point of view, everyone should take the vaccine because those who did not would not only put their own lives at risk, but also the lives of others.

“The COVID commission aspires to work towards solving this global problem from a global perspective,” Keehan said. Quoting Pope Francis’s 2020 encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, she said: “Anyone who thinks that the only lesson to be learned was the need to improve what we were already doing, or to refine existing systems and regulations, is denying reality.”

Keehan said her task force began by understanding what were the most valuable contributions the Catholic Church could make when it comes to the pandemic, and they decided to focus on the equitable distribution of vaccines and in helping reduce the resistance in many places to getting vaccinated.

Though she avoided going into specifics, she acknowledged the concern people have in some countries for getting diluted products were “more than justified.”

The taskforce has since then made several resources available for dioceses, schools, parishes and religious to distribute. The resources combine both up-to-date clinical data and theological background information, and several are guides made in a Q&A format.

In her presentation, Smerelli spoke about how the Economy of Francis was forced to change from a week-long event in the Italian city of Assisi in 2020 to an international online process to create an inclusive economic model that is person-centered.

Recalling some of the points made by young people from around the world during the various online gatherings, Smerelli said that young people suggested the abolition of tax-havens and for all major companies to have independent bodies that have decision-making power on issues involving social and environmental impact.

Young people also asked for all children to have access to education, and for working women to have the same opportunities as men. They also echoed Francis’s call for money currently used for the arms trade to be utilized instead to create an international fund to fight poverty.

“In a meeting with the COVID commission coordinators, Pope Francis told us that we cannot think about development without starting from what COVID is leaving us,” Smerelli said. “We cannot think about managing COVID issues without a notion of integral human development.”