~ by Sr. Bridgita Samba Mwawasi and Sr. Rosalia Sakayombo for Global Sisters Report
What would the church be without religious sisters and consecrated laywomen?” These were the words of Pope Francis in a video released Feb. 1, 2022, to mark his prayer intention for the month to be for consecrated women.
Pope Francis insisted in the video that “the church cannot be understood without them” — religious women and consecrated laywomen! Again, Pope Francis encouraged women religious to fight when they are treated unfairly, even within the church. This is a bold move from the pope of a church whose culture over the centuries has ensured women maintained a low profile with regard to crucial decision-making.
The church leadership structure has had little room for women’s involvement in important decision-making processes. The clergy have authority on matters spiritual, dogmatic and theological, and they administer all church goods, spiritual and secular. This has led to criticism that the church is too clerical. In some parts of the world, many parish councils that play an advisory role to the clergy have few, or no, women.
Yet the role of women religious cannot be overemphasized: They play a significant role in many aspects of church life. They act as spiritual leaders and guides, as educators, as key people for medical and social life issues as well as in catechesis of the young and old alike. Women religious journey with some of the most vulnerable groups of society. Institutions owned and run by institutes of women religious are grounds for imparting the Gospel and societal values and spaces for evangelization. Despite this contribution to the church and society, women religious have continuously been overlooked in key decision-making processes and have had to keep a low profile while unpretentiously, yet joyfully, living their vocation among God’s people
As we mark the 10th anniversary of Francis’ papacy, the church also celebrates a completely new perspective of women religious as demonstrated by this pope. Francis has consistently insisted that women religious keep their gaze on their mission, which is to selflessly serve humanity without being reduced to servitude. According to Pope Francis, women religious should not be cheap labor for the church. In the 10 years of his service as the vicar of Christ, Francis has taken every opportunity to openly show his appreciation and affection for women religious and their role in their communities, within the church and in society. He has opened a number of doors for the participation of women religious in church affairs. His faith in women religious can be seen in the various appointments, often for the first time, of sisters to critical church positions and high-ranking Vatican offices. Trusting women religious with such critical and sensitive church offices is a sign that he is charting the path for inclusion and loudly stating that the church can no longer ignore the unique contribution of women religious to the life of the church and society.
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