Vatican event seeks to gently push Francis on women's roles

by Joshua J. McElwee

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An organization seeking to influence Pope Francis' view of women -- and to propose female professionals he might tap to lead high church offices -- will be hosting a live-streamed event from the Vatican for the second time next month.

Called Voices of Faith, the event will feature storytelling presentations from 10 women from various parts of the world who have overcome adversity or have reached the highest places available for women below the hierarchy's stained-glass ceiling.

The event will be held March 8, the day marked as International Women's Day, at the Vatican's iconic Casina Pio IV, a white marble structure inside the Vatican Gardens that houses the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.

Organizer Chantal Götz said it is meant to symbolize that doors are opening for women in the Vatican as well as the huge potential the church hierarchy fails to use when it does not allow women key leadership roles.

In the back of Götz's mind is a hope to raise issues of inequality in church structures, she said.

"But of course knowing this church now and working with the Vatican for all of these years, you have to go through another channel," Götz said. "Because very logically, once you hear all these women's voices, they will realize that these women have a lot of talent and potential."

"Once you create this pool of all these voices you're going to raise, they will come and ask advice," she continued, giving examples of questions like: "Who can we put on this-and-this commission? Who would be able to give advice on this-and-this conference?"

Götz is the executive director of the Fidel Götz Foundation, a Lichtenstein-based charitable trust that is planning the event alongside several partners, including the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See and Caritas Internationalis, the international network of Catholic relief and development agencies.

The Voices of Faith event was held for the first time at the Vatican in March 2014, when it was a split between personal, touching stories of struggles women face in various parts of the world and conservative interpretations of church practices.

This year, the scheduled speakers again include a wide range of perspectives, including a female Somali refugee who is studying in the United States and a former secretary general of Caritas who was essentially forced out of her job in 2011 by the Vatican.

Speaking to NCR this week during a trip to Rome to make preparations for the March event, Götz spoke both of her hopes for its success and the struggles that organizers have faced in hosting a women-centered project at the Vatican.

In one example of such struggles, Götz said even though her group has been planning the event for a year, they were only able to secure the Vatican location weeks ago after a meeting with Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin.

While the event is live-streamed -- meaning it can be watched by anyone through the Internet -- Götz said the Vatican location is "important because it means the doors are open."

"To say that it is from the heart of the Vatican ... it means that they agree in a way that the doors have to be open for these women," she said.

Götz also said highlighting women's inequality in the church was not necessarily the event's main goal, but she said she wants to show the unique abilities and perspectives women offer.

"I'm totally convinced that many more women have more experience in certain things than any bishop or cardinal or any priest," Götz said. "And this is all we offer."

"I think we should not push," she continued. "But it's completely the moment, I think. [Pope Francis] can say we have to give more space for the women, but I think so far, he doesn't really know how to do it or how to promote it."

"We just think we [can] help him and provide a kind of platform," Götz said.

"There is a huge potential," she said. "And even [at the Vatican], I'm convinced they know it. There is a huge potential. But it's this kind of, 'How can we work all together for the same [cause] that nobody feels threatened?' "

Among the scheduled speakers at the March 8 event:

  • Suad Mohamed, a native Somali who lived in a refugee camp in Kenya for 17 years before moving to the United States for studies;
  • Ulla Gudmundson, a former Swedish ambassador to the Holy See;
  • Lesley-Anne Knight, a Zimbabwe-born laywoman who was the secretary general of Caritas until 2011, when the Vatican did not renew her four-year term at the organization;
  • Orthodox Christian Sr. Hatune Dogan, a native Turk who helps Christians persecuted in the Middle East.

There will also be a presentation by one man, Jesuit Fr. Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator. A native Nigerian who serves as the provincial of the Jesuit order's province of East Africa, Orobator is to speak about the Nigerian women and girls kidnapped by terrorist group Boko Haram.

This year, the Voices of Faith event is also launching a new prize to honor the work of women in addressing world hunger.

The Women Sowers of Development Prize is to be given jointly during the event by the Fidel Götz Foundation and Caritas to recognize organizations run by women that have developed best practices in that area.

The prize consists of two awards, each worth 10,000 euro ($11,400), for one organization that is part of the Caritas network and another that is not.

Götz said her foundation and Caritas received approximately 60 proposals for organizations to receive the awards, whose winners were chosen by juries organized by Caritas that included participation of Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, the organization's president and an adviser to Francis.

Götz also said she wanted to emphasize that she and her event want to work with the church hierarchy in recognizing and supporting women.

"We are not trying to do any harm to the church," she said. "We are not trying to compromise them."

"Let's take the fear out of it," she continued. "There's nothing threatening about it. It's really trying to do a good thing with the only aspect of course is ... we tell it through the voices of these women. And this is, of course, something special."

Götz said she is evaluating the success of the event in both measurable and immeasurable ways.

In terms of numbers, she said she hopes the live-stream this year will attract about double the 700 people that last year's did. She said she also hopes the event could in future years become self-supporting, possibly even turning into a self-financed, independent association of the church under papal blessing.

But overall, Götz said she is hoping most for a kind of "mentality change."

"I think we all have to admit the women are the pillar of this church," she said. "And if we don't start now to act and appreciate them, I don't know where we're going."

Putting some light on how extensive that mentality change might have to be, Götz shared how some bishops and cardinals she invited to the March event had asked what their role would be in the proceedings.

"Well, Bishop, your role would be you can sit, and you can enjoy, and you can listen," Götz said she responded to those questions.

"For some, it's quite difficult," she continued. "They all want to talk. They're not used to listening to different experiences of women."

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

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