Vatican City — Several Vatican congregations and leaders of the global representative groups of men and women religious are teaming up for a new global initiative to fight human trafficking, a scourge Pope Francis has called a modern "crime against humanity."
With the new International Day of Prayer and Awareness Against Human Trafficking, the Catholic leaders hope to draw attention to what many have called the modern slave trade and what the United Nations says has affected some 21 million around the globe.
The day of prayer is set for Feb. 8, the feast day of St. Josephine Bakhita, a 20th-century Sudanese woman who was imprisoned as a slave before being freed and joining a religious order.
The Vatican congregations and religious order leaders explained the event at a press conference Tuesday that was unusual for its moving and personal nature, as it featured reports from several women religious who have been deeply involved in ministry with trafficked people, especially women victimized as prostitutes.
Speaking of her experience working with such women, Comboni Missionary Sr. Valeria Gandini asked during the conference how men could ever consider treating women in such a way.
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"What name to give to clients that are our grandfathers, husbands, fiances, sons, brothers?" Gandini asked, letting the question hang in the air as she said she had asked it before and would ask it again.
Gandini, who focuses her ministry on women trafficked to the Italian island of Sicily, was one of several women religious who spoke at the conference.
Maltese Sr. Carmen Sammut, the superior general of the Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Africa and the leader of the international coalition of leaders of women religious known as the International Union of Superiors General (UISG), noted that the new day of prayer is being launched in a year in which UISG celebrates its 50th anniversary.
Sammut said many women religious work with trafficking victims because "it is intrinsic to religious life to go out toward all those whose pain cries out to God."
The Maltese sister said her group and the corresponding men's group, the Union of Superiors General, wanted to launch the day for two purposes.
The first, she said, was to be a day of prayer "to cry out to the Lord in the name of all the victims: 'Until when, Lord?' "
The second reason, she said, was "to light up the world, that is, bring hope to those who are without hope."
"Working at prevention and at protecting of victims is not enough," Sammut said. "We need courage and determination in a global effort to persuade the various states to make just laws and to apply them in order to pursue the traffickers and to stop these organizations."
As part of the new international day of prayer, the religious leaders have launched a new website -- a-light-against-human-trafficking.info -- that contains stories of those who have been trafficked, prayers about the issue, and suggestions for how to take action.
Comboni Missionary Sr. Gabriella Bottani, who leads Talitha Kum, an international network of religious order members against trafficking, presented the website during the event Tuesday.
Bottani also gave an overview of what people might pray and reflect over on Feb. 8. Among her suggestions:
- "To better see the path we travel together;"
- "To transform heart and mind, breaking the crust of superficiality and indifference that impedes us from knowing the other person as brother or sister;"
- "To re-find the strength of collective action;"
- "To sustain our commitment to favor liberty and dignity of the person."
Among the Vatican officials speaking at the event Tuesday were Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace; Cardinal João Bráz de Aviz, prefect of the Vatican Congregation for Religious Life; and Cardinal Antonio Vegliò, president of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People.
Responding to a question about how the leaders might encourage all Catholics to be involved in fighting trafficking, Vegliò said: "To sisters, I say: You are not alone."
"Don't stop," Vegliò encouraged the women religious, repeating: "Don't stop."
"When we speak of the Gospel of Jesus, many times, we encounter this indifference, this misunderstanding, this resistance," he said.
The Vatican and religious order leaders will launch the Sunday day of prayer again on Friday in a night prayer event at Rome's Basilica of the Twelve Holy Apostles called: "Turn on a light against trafficking."
That event will also include participation of the Vatican congregations with the symbolic lighting of a fire, reflections and dances.