Religious group focuses on Francis' peripheries, including women

Rome — One of Pope Francis' most common exhortations is that those in the Catholic church need to leave its confines to go out to society's peripheries to serve those most in need, spreading the faith through witness and work.

This week, one group of Catholic sisters, brothers and priests are spending five days focusing specifically on that call -- how to live it out and what it might mean for the church in coming years.

The men and women religious -- part of a group known as Service of Documentation and Study on Global Mission (SEDOS) -- are focusing particularly on how it may impel them to understand better the Islamic faith, other Christian denominations, and struggles experienced by Catholic women who feel left out of decision-making roles in the church.

Coming together at a yearly retreat Monday through Friday in Nemi, a small town about 25 miles southeast of Rome, the group is hosting a meeting for about 80 religious leaders from around the world titled: "Open the door; Let him out: A self-referential Church keeps Jesus Christ within herself and does not let him out."

After opening remarks Monday afternoon on understanding Islam, they heard Tuesday from Mary McAleese, who served as president of Ireland from 1997 to 2011 and is now finishing up a degree in canon law at Rome's Gregorian University.

Franciscan Sr. Nzenzili Mboma, the group's executive director, said in an interview that she and others invited McAleese partly to respond to a question posed some 50 years ago at the Second Vatican Council.

Looking at the meeting of the mainly bishops at the council session, the late Belgian Cardinal Leo Jozef Suenens is said to have asked: "Why are we even discussing the reality of the church when half of the church is not even represented here?"

"That half of the church is women," said Mboma, who has served in her role at SEDOS since 2010. "Today, it seems almost that we are in the same situation."

"What is the future and what is the place of women, especially at the level of decision-making?" Mboma said she and others wanted to ask McAleese. "We are absent. And there are so many women here in the church who could help the church in that domain because we are at the grass roots."

Mboma spoke about this week's meeting and the work of her group during an interview with NCR last month at the SEDOS secretariat office in central Rome.

SEDOS was founded in 1964 by nine missionary religious institutes as a sort of clearing house and coalition for the study and sharing of their global work.

The group counts about 100 global congregations as members, a mixture of both men's and women's orders. It is run by an elected president and vice president. By tradition, one of the officers is a woman and the other a man.

This week's conference for the group is an annual residential seminar that attracts leaders of member congregations living in Rome and those coming from various parts of the world just for the event.

Mboma, a native of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and a member of the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary, said her group wanted to incorporate McAleese into this year's program to have an opportunity to question her about the possibility for expanded women's roles in the church.

McAleese's part of the program was scheduled to take up nearly three hours Tuesday morning and was organized not as a talk, but as two sessions where SEDOS members could ask the questions.

After conferences in past years that focused particularly on challenges faced by missionary congregations in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and on the 2012 synod on the new evangelization, Mboma said she and her group wanted to focus specifically on Francis' new missionary call for the church.

Mboma said where Pope John Paul II told the global church to open its doors to let people in, Francis tells the church to open the doors to let Catholics go out to find others.

"He's giving us new impetus to live our missionary life today," she said.

Among other speakers at this week's event will be separate presentations by a Lutheran pastor on empowering youth in his denomination and by a Christian Orthodox theologian on the same issue in his tradition. On Monday, the religious heard from Jesuit Fr. Felix Körner, a German native who teaches at the Gregorian University and is a noted expert on Islam.

Mboma said they chose to have Körner speak on that subject so religious could better understand Islam in a time when many in mission work are faced with violence supposedly perpetrated in the name of the faith.

"We have to know something of Islam from within," she said. "It's just for our own ongoing formation to get to know a bit more about Islam."

Mboma also said the conference is coming at a time when Francis is reinvigorating religious life with the 2015 Year of Consecrated Life and his focus on speaking about the charisms of the different religious orders and institutes.

"The very fact of dedicating the year 2015 to consecrated life is something that shows his concern for us, concern in the sense that we have to become more and more aware of our mission within the church and in the world today," she said.

"He's saying ... that charisms are really for the life of the church and of the world," she continued. "It's a gift. Consecrated life is a gift of God ... to the church and we should be taking that seriously, living it seriously as a gift."

"This year dedicated to consecrated life gives us a lot of opportunity to go back to the first motivation and to see in our journey, where we are and where we are heading in this changing world," Mboma said.

In addition to its yearly residential seminar, SEDOS hosts several one-day conferences in Rome each year on different themes. The group publishes a bimonthly bulletin that contains insights on different aspects of mission work from around the world and attracts noted theologians and bishops as authors.

At its secretariat offices, the group also maintains an extensive library of books and materials on mission work as well as other Catholic subjects that librarian Jesus, Mary and Joseph Sr. Celine Kokkatt said is used frequently by students at studying at the pontifical universities.

"It's a wonderful kind of trailblazer for mission," Mboma said of SEDOS. "It's very important for the contextualization of the mission today."

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

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