The concept of mercy is not easy for Cecilia Flores-Oebanda, a Filipina activist who has suffered a series of trials through her life, including imprisonment with her own children.
Yet she believes the courage to go on amid adversity — and her ability to forgive — begin with mercy.
“Mercy is really about going beyond your own struggle, and your own pains, and your own disappointment,” Flores-Oebanda told CNA.
At times, God prepares us for adversities for a “bigger purpose: to give mercy to others,” she said. “You cannot give mercy without forgiveness, and processing that within yourself.”
“After I embrace mercy, then I’m more effective to give love, compassion to others, because you are able to manifest it.”
Flores-Oebanda, one of the speakers at this week's Vatican-hosted Voices of Faith woman's conference, is founder and president of Visayan Forum Foundation, Inc. The initiative, which addresses modern-day slavery, especially human trafficking and the exploitation of workers, has served 18,000 victims and potential victims of exploitation.
Born into poverty, Flores-Oebanda herself had been a child laborer. When she grew older, she fought against the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, during which time she watched as two comrades were killed as the government attempted to intimidate her.
The Filipina activist was eventually imprisoned with her family, giving birth to her second child while incarcerated, and was released after four years.
“Mercy is not an easy thing for me after all,” Flores-Oebanda added, citing the difficulties she has experienced. “But, I believe that courage always began at mercy. And mercy and forgiveness always go hand in hand.”
“There are some times I lost my faith,” she admitted. “You’re only a person.”
“But, at the end of the day, you will know that [God] is always there,” she said. “I just always go back on him, and know and realize that he’s always on my side, and surrender everything to him.”
Flores-Oebanda shared her story at the March 8 conference, a gathering held on International Woman's Day to showcase the achievements of women in the Church throughout the world.
Acknowledging Pope Francis' contribution to the fight against human slavery, she expressed her hope to CNA that the Church could take greater advantage of its leadership in the cause.
“The Church could actually influence the poorest of the poor and the richest of the rich,” she said. “And it can create a new mindset of sympathy, compassion to the poor.”
Flores-Oebanda went on to call leaders to “go beyond just a commitment or words,” but to implement action on the ground.
“I just want them to know that we're already there. Women, Catholic like us, are already on the ground, and are waiting for them to support us.”
Hosted at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, the event brought together women from various fields to give witness to their work, such as in areas of poverty and the defense of human dignity and equality. This year's gathering is also co-sponered by the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS).
Chantal Götz, executive director of Fidel Götz Foundation which sponsors the conference, spoke with CNA March 4 about the influence of the Jubilee of Mercy on this year's gathering.
“Mercy is a difficult topic,” she said. “I would say all the speakers” work with so-called “with fallen women, or fallen girls.”
“They all try to empower girls and these women,” she added. “This is the way I see they give mercy,” in helping them restore their dignity.
For instance, Sr. Mary Doris of the Sisters of Saint Dominic, a speaker at the conference, has worked with more than 2,500 homeless mothers over the last 26 years. She works in helping them find dignity through various programs, including one which gives mothers the opportunity to create a lullaby for their children, which is then performed at Carnegie Hall.
“Mercy comes in so many forms,” Götz said.
First held in 2014, the conference was established in response to Pope Francis' call to “broaden the space within the Church for a more incisive feminine presence.”