Speaking to a network of religious sisters that helps human trafficking victims, Pope Francis on Thursday told them to work closely with the local church, because this is necessary for their project to be successful.
“I want to reiterate that the journey of consecrated life, both female and male, is the path of ecclesial insertion,” Francis said. He discussed how religious must work within the bounds of officialdom. “Outside the Church and in parallel with the local church, things do not work.”
The pope also praised the network of religious sisters that combats human trafficking for being “on the front line.”
The pope was speaking to the first general assembly of Talitha Kum, a project started in 2001 by the International Union of Superiors General. Today, it’s a worldwide network coordinating the efforts of religious communities committed to the fight against human trafficking, which affects an estimated 40 million people.
Talitha Kum now coordinates 52 religious networks present in more than 90 countries on six continents. There are currently some 2,000 operators in the network who have helped more than 15,000 trafficking victims and given formation to over 200,000 people in prevention and awareness programs.
The network met in Rome Sept 21-27 for its first general assembly. The meeting sought to set the main objectives of the network for the next five years, identifying priorities and evaluating the path traveled so far.
During his remarks, Francis highlighted the two other main issues that the sisters discussed during their gathering: The limits of the development of the neoliberal model, “which with its individualistic vision risks undermining the state,” and the differences that mark the situation women faced in the world, “derived mainly from socio-cultural factors.”
During the assembly, the latter was often referred to as “patriarchy,” a term used both by Australian Mercy Sister Angela Reed, who represents Mercy International Association at the United Nations; and by Sister Gabriella Bottani, an Italian Comboni Missionary who serves as the international coordinator of Talitha Kum. Earlier this year, she was honored by the U.S. State Department for her work.
The fight against human trafficking and modern-day slavery has been one of the pillars of Francis’s pontificate. Earlier this year, he tapped Sister Eugenia Bonetti to pen the meditations for the Good Friday Via Crucis which he led in Rome’s Coliseum.
“You have chosen to stand on the front line,” Francis told them. “Therefore, the numerous congregations that have worked deserve gratitude and work as ‘avant-gardes’ of the Church’s missionary action against the scourge of trafficking in people.”
The pope underscored the fact that the religious chose to unite and work together to fight this criminal industry: “It’s an example for the whole Church, also for us: men, priests, bishops … it is an example. Go on like this!”
According to the pontiff, in the fight against human trafficking, religious congregations are realizing “in an exemplary way their task of charismatic animation of the local churches,” paving the way for an “urgent and effective ecclesial response.”
The Talitha Kum plenary brought together 86 delegates from 48 countries. Among those present, there were several survivors of human trafficking, including Blessing Okoedion, a Nigerian who was honored by the U.S. State Department in 2018.
“They have really played a major role in the lives of many women across the globe,” Okoedion told Crux Sept. 23, referring to religious sisters. “I feel blessed to be able to be here to celebrate the sisters, thank them for the courage they gave me to go on.”
The sisters helped her integrate into society, and also helped her speak out about her experience, lifting “the fear, stigma and shame,” many victims have.
“But I believe that if those of us who were once victims can come up and speak about our experience as survivors, we can help prevent other women falling into the same situation, but also help them leave, help them reintegrate into society and maybe even fight this crime,” she said.
“We need to talk about our stories to infect a change, not only in this generation but also in the next. If we don’t break the cycle, more and more women will suffer this horrible exploitation.”
Okoedion denounced the fact that even today, “many people still see women as products, as things they can acquire with their money, to use and abuse without respect, without any sense of dignity. But we’re not things. We’re people.”
Ahead of the assembly, Talitha Kum shared the testimony of several women who were saved by the efforts of the network, such as that of Sophia, from Belarus, who thought she was leaving poverty behind when she fell in love in an online chatroom with a man living in the United States and decided to marry him.
“I slowly learned that ours was not a real marriage but a way to obtain money, a full-time housekeeper and a body on which to unleash aggression and anger,” she said.
Human trafficking is often described as a hidden crime, making it hard to quantify. However, it’s considered to be the third most profitable illegal industry, behind arms dealing and drug trafficking. It affects people around the world forced to work in slave-like conditions in prostitution or forced labor. It’s estimated to generate $150 billion in annual profits.
On Monday, on the sidelines of the assembly, Reed spoke with journalists, including Crux.
Asked about what she would say to those who believe religious sisters should focus on prayer and not advocacy, she said that religious women are a part of civil society, brought up in a “faith tradition that calls us to respond to social exclusion.”
“I think religion is political,” the Australian nun said. “Politics is part of being a person of the Gospel.”
She also said that as religious women, sisters are called to work with those who are most marginalized.
“We’re Gospel women, women who want to reach out to those who are in the margins, who are most alienated, and I can’t think of a more vulnerable group than those who were trafficked,” she said. “Either women in sexual exploitation, fishermen out at sea, those who are being organ trafficked or forced into marriage, or the other numerous ways in which trafficking is manifested. I think it’s absolutely critical and a Gospel response religious women are called to give,” Reed said.
“Jesus upturned systems that were oppressed and called out those who showed power over the less fortunate or marginalized for whatever social, political or economic reason,” she continued. “I think today, we have to do exactly the same.”