Pope Francis has called for a more “incisive” feminine presence in the Catholic Church, and his appeal has revived discussion about women’s priestly ordination - something the pontiff has repeatedly insisted is a closed door that he doesn’t intend to open.
On Wednesday, several nuns serving women and girls in conflict areas weighed in on the debate, insisting that while seeking greater recognition and leadership in the Church is important, women’s empowerment is more than simply trying to move up, but is about encouragement at the local level.
Sister Orla Treacy, a member of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary who serves as head of the Loreto Rumbek Mission in Maker Kuei, South Sudan, said that as an Irishwoman, her views on women’s empowerment in the Catholic Church “have changed dramatically” after having spent 13 years living in the country.
“Many times, when people ask us this question they’re pointing to a hierarchal church and leadership within a hierarchal church,” she said. However, in South Sudan, “there’s a sense of ‘we’re in the field;’ we’re addressing the needs of the field, and we see the Church in the field.”
“As a female in a female establishment, there’s always a sense of wanting to hear women’s voices everywhere, but there is so much need on the ground that I think, in a sense, it’s the ground up,” she said.
Treacy, who oversees a secondary boarding school for girls, a co-educational primary school and a women and children’s healthcare facility, said her work is about “helping the girls to find their voice within our local Church community environment and hoping that that would move upwards.”
Treacy spoke at an Oct. 16 “Women on the Front Lines” symposium organized by the United States Embassy to the Holy See, which highlighted the work and stories of several women religious who serve in conflict areas.
U.S. Ambassador Callista Gingrich opened the event thanking the sisters for their presence and praising their work. She specifically pointed to Treacy, who was a 2019 U.S. Department of State International Woman of Courage honoree due to her work on behalf of women and girls in Rumbek.
In her speech, Treacy used the example of a young girl who attended their boarding school to illustrate how her community is supporting and empowering women on the ground.
From a rural area outside of Rumbek, the student had come to the school and immediately began to thrive in the classroom. However, after her second semester, when the girl, 16, went back to visit her family, she was informed that she was to be married and that her future husband was a man who already had three wives and was struggling to provide for them.
Upon hearing this, the girl refused. She was then beaten and told she had to go through with it. She then ran away while on the way to meet her chosen husband, was found, beaten again and told she had to marry. The girl then ran away a second time, but this time to the city, and hid until her family stopped looking for her. She then began attending school again.
According to Treacy, the girl had insisted that the best way to help her family would come from having an educated daughter, not one who was bogged down in a life of poverty, and this is the type of empowerment that she and her sisters are working for.
Also speaking at the event was Sister Anne Falola, a member of the Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of the Apostles who works with women in both conflict and post-conflict areas of Nigeria.
Based in the capital Abjua, where the sisters run a center dedicated to assisting women and girls in refugee camps, Falola teaches these women life skills such as sewing, crafts and cooking in order to make money.
In her view, Falola said that as an African woman, women’s empowerment has been difficult because of Africa’s history and culture, which “has been disrespectful of our voice,” as well as some misconceptions in the West.
However, with Pope Francis’s insistence on having a more “incisive” presence of women in the Church, including at decision-making levels, Falola said she believes “we are going in the right direction.”
Oftentimes discussion about women in the Church tends to focus on “looking at two seats at the table,” she said, adding that in her view, “I think women are actually empowered and there is a great fear in men that if we get more power than what we have, then they will be left with nothing!”
Asked if she believes women’s contributions in the Church is sufficiently recognized, Falola had a one-word answer: “No.”
“I think presently the Holy Father is actually trying to break that,” she said, noting that throughout Church history women have not been given the opportunity “to express what they are saying and what their perspective is, especially in decision-making.”
“There is no doubt that there are a lot of failures in that regard,” she said. “Let’s hope that what is being done now, which I think we are all aware of, is going in the right direction. To keep talking about it, I think that’s the important thing.”
Similarly, Sister Crescencia Sun of the Congregation of the Sisters of Our Lady of the Missions, who works in a health clinic in India along the border with Bangladesh and who has sought to empower women and girls in her 30 years of ministry, said she has often faced problems with parish priests in the villages in which they work.
At least some of these priests, she said, have resisted the sisters’ efforts, including the desire to reach out to members of all faith traditions in the area, and not just Catholics.
However, “we as a congregation have a special focus on women and on the empowerment of women and girl children,” which is evident in their schools and healthcare facilities, she said.
“We hope that they and we can see the effect of our programs in women being able to take up leadership. I hope this will change in our local church and the Church at large,” she said.