Sister Norma Pimentel, arguably the most prominent Catholic woman in America today, has said she believes it is time for women to step up, take the initiative and be proactive in the Church, rather than waiting for someone to create space for them.

In comments to Crux, Pimentel said her hope is for a woman “conscious of her presence in society, in the family, in our country, in the world. A woman who does not step back and let others [act], but who actually takes the initiative to voice what she sees and acts on it.”

“It is our time to seize the moment and to be ourselves, who God has created (us to be) and what he expects of us, and to be that voice, that strong voice that does not easily get pushed aside, but which stands firm in what she believes and knows is what she needs to do,” Pimentel told Crux March 23.

Considered a leader in American Catholicism, especially on immigration, Pimentel said she believes rhetoric on enhancing women’s roles in the Church, including advocacy from Pope Francis to give women more leadership opportunities, is moving in the right direction.

“I hope that women stay firm and steadfast so that they know that they are not alone and that everyone is counting on them,” she said, adding that she views herself as one of these leading women.

“I think this is where God has me, and he’s pushing me forward every single day to stay steadfast in his message (and) in what it is to defend life and protect life,” she said.

Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities in Rio Grande Valley, Texas, and a member of the Missionaries of Jesus order, has gained global recognition for her work with immigrants along the U.S.-Mexico border.

In May 2018 she was given the Laetare Medal from the University of Notre Dame, the nation’s oldest and most prestigious Catholic award, and in January 2019 she was invited to attend a roundtable discussion with U.S. President Donald Trump during a visit to the border but was unable to speak with him.

During a 2015 virtual papal audience broadcast by ABC’s “20/20,” Francis singled out Pimentel to praise her work of welcoming immigrants at the U.S.-Mexico border.

“I want to thank you,” said Francis, “And through you to thank all of the sisters of religious orders in the U.S. for the work that you have done and that you do in the United States…is it appropriate for the pope to say this? I love you all very much.”

Pimentel was a keynote speaker at this year’s edition of the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress, an annual gathering launched in 1967 and held at the Anaheim Convention Center, which regularly attracts in excess of 30,000 youth, catechists, religion teachers and other church leaders.

A first-time speaker at the event, Pimentel offered a Spanish-language keynote address on “Quenching the Thirst for Jesus.”

She said she was “very impressed” with the congress and excited “to see so many people eager to hear and to learn and to know, what is God calling me to do, what do I need to do, how much more can I do so that I can become alive in my faith?”

The main goal of her speech, she said, was to awaken “that fire within that will help people stop all the abuse and injustice and take a personal message from God himself saying I need you, I want you to do something, don’t just wait for someone else to do it.”

“We have to unite ourselves as one voice in changing our communities to be a community of justice and respect for human life, so we must elect leaders who will speak for and represent us and who will really help the community to uphold the dignity of life in all aspects,” she said.

Her comments came as the 2020 election cycle is heating up, with a crowded field of some 16 democratic candidates, including several women.

Immigration, which was a major topic in the 2016 race that elected Donald Trump who has taken a strict anti-immigration policy, will likely also be a key issue in the 2020 elections.

As the discussion moves forward and more candidates are announced, Pimentel stressed the need to keep human dignity at the forefront.

“It’s time that we wake up,” she said, explaining that this means recognizing one’s responsibility “to go and do something, be a voice to those things we see that are wrong and be a voice and act and help others who are close to me to do that as well.”

“It’s not okay to just complain, it’s not okay to just be silent, it’s not okay to just be afraid. We have to put all that aside,” she said, noting how on a daily basis she is witness to the suffering of the people who walk into the center she runs, suffering she said “being caused by governments who do not put a stop to criminals destroying the lives of families and destroying innocent victims.”

Pimentel said Catholics have the responsibility “to hold them accountable for what they do and don’t do.”

Speaking of misconceptions which often arise in the immigration debate, Pimentel said it has become common to “discard” the suffering of individuals and families wanting a better life because they are portrayed as criminals.

“We can easily leave it as, ‘oh, well you’re an illegal alien, you have broken the law. I’m afraid of you and therefore I should not help you, I should not see you as a human being to be moved by your suffering.’” This, she said, is a major misunderstanding which prevents the wider population from seeing immigrants as fellow human beings who deserves to be treated with “dignity and respect.”

Immigrants, she said, “need a lot of protection, a lot of people with compassion, with conviction that it is our responsibility to help them in the process of finding whether they have a right to be in this country or not. They must be treated with respect and care.”

In the lead up to the 2020 elections, Pimentel said the narrative on the immigration issue must be one of understanding the root causes of immigration and finding real solutions.

The issue must not be left as a mere “political debate, whether the right or the left,” but it should focus on the people and on “bringing solutions that help people find where they’re safe.”

“We must get at the root cause as to why this is happening and our leaders must respond to those…and bring solutions so that these people, or anyone, is not abused and criminalized as they are,” she said.

“We have to stop tossing blame around and start to find ways of creating solutions to the whole immigration reality,” Pimentel said.