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To decide on the Church’s future

· Interview with Sr Carmen Sammut, for three years head of the International Union of Superiors General ·

The sisters seem younger than their age, thanks to their absorbing lives and their involvement in ever new experiences. I was thinking about this as I prepared to interview Carmen Sammut, President of the International Union of Superiors General (UISG), at the organization’s headquarters on the Lungotevere, almost opposite the Vatican. Its position is a strategic one but its relations with the ecclesiastical hierarchy are few and far between: it meets only once every six months, together with representatives of its male counterpart [Union of Superiors General, USG] at the Congregation for Religious [Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life]. “We had meetings with the Congregation for Consecrated Life on the occasion of the Year for Consecrated Life”, Sammut said. “We are working together on the changes to be made to a document that dates back to the 1970s. It concerns the regulation of relations between religious institutes and bishops. It is a document declined almost entirely in the masculine, on the relations between clerics. We hope that the new document in the process of formulation will instead feature the grammar of a new relationship between women religious and the hierarchies, between men and women”.

Sr Carmen is frank and feisty, with her ready open smile and her very bright eyes full of projects and hopes. The association she directs – as she explained straight away – has above all an internal relation to the world of active religious life. It came into being 50 years ago to coordinate and intensify exchanges of information between the numerous women’s congregations that are active in the world. Almost 2,000 women superiors belong to it. They are divided into groups according to their countries: 10 in America, 8 in Europe, 10 in Africa and 8 in the Middle East, Asia and Oceania. Carmen is in fact also Superior General of her Congregation, the Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Africa, which she entered at the age of 22.

Born in Malta on 20 December 1951, Carmen Sammut was a teacher in Malta for three years before entering the Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Africa in 1974. She trained as a woman religious in London and in Malawi and did her novitiate in Ottawa, Canada. In 1989 she earned a diploma at the Pontifical Institute of Arabic and Islamic studies. From 1980 she spent three years in Mauritania, nine in Algeria and 15 in Tunisia. She was Provincial Superior from 2000 to 2006, was elected Superior General in 2011 and two years later, President of the UISG.

When did you feel that you had a vocation to the religious life?

I was born in Malta into a Maltese family and studied to become a teacher. My first vocation was to Africa; my vocation to religious life came later. I combined them, choosing a congregation which did not exist in Malta but which lived for Africa. The first sisters, who came into being in the mid-19th century in Algeria, were called the “White Sisters” because of their long clothes and veil: from the back they were indistinguishable from Muslim women. After a period of training in London I was in Malawi for two years to check on my two vocations. I then did my novitiate in Canada.

How odd: what does a Congregation for Africa which came into being in Algeria have to do with Canada?

The reason is that it was a Canadian woman who saved us from the Bishop’s decision to dissolve us, considering us unfit for the task we were proposing for ourselves. He had forbidden us from accepting new postulants but then, after a long journey, Adelaide arrived in Canada and it was impossible to refuse her. There has been a small group of Maltese women in the Congregation from the outset.

How did you like Malawi?

Very much! I taught English and I lived with 120 girl students. However I was also very happy when I went to Algeria to live at last the relationship with Muslims in Bechar, a small centre 1,100 km from Algiers. We were two sisters who taught at a secondary school in a modest district inhabited solely by Muslims. They entrusted us with the most difficult cases, believing that as Christians we would be able to deal with them. It truly was serving the poorest among the poor.

Did you encounter difficulties in your relations with Muslims?

Never. They respected us, in a certain sense they helped us bear witness to being Christian, to feeling that we were the leaven in their society too. I experienced one episode there which I consider exemplary for understanding what interreligious relations are: I had made friends with a young working girl who would take the same route to work as I did. The winter was bitterly cold, and I had no gloves whereas she did. One morning she offered me one of her gloves saying: “Like this each one of us will be able to keep one hand warm in a pocket and to protect the other with the glove!

Did you learn Arabic?

I studied it in Rome at the Pontifical Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies in two stages, between 1983 and 1989. I then went to Mauritania, to the capital, where I stayed three years. There too I taught English, there were very few Christians. Then from 1989 to 2000 I was in Tunisia. For six years I was our provincial administrator so I travelled a lot, I even went to Yemen. I then returned to Tunisia where I did not teach but rather looked after a library where Tunisian girls would come to study in the afternoons. I did all I could to provide the library with Arabic texts in order to help the girls with their studies. In the year 2000 I was elected Provincial for a six-year term of the Province of North Africa (Algeria, Tunisia, Mauritania), with headquarters in Algiers.

So you’ve been concerned with very different projects and have played many roles?

Yes. In 2006, after my experience with the Province had ended, I took a course in Wales on spiritual guidance and retreats, run by the Jesuits. In the meantime I was helping the sisters who had to prepare for taking their final vows.

What do you think of the fact that women religious almost always turn to priests or men religious for teaching and spiritual assistance? Do you think this is really necessary?

No. I believe that women religious must learn how to do these tasks, they must learn how to preach. There are already some who have studied to be able to commit themselves to this ministry; and then to give spiritual help to men too and not only to other women religious. This practice is still too rare.

You’ve been Superior General since 2011 and from 2013 President of the UISG for three years. Do you think you could be re-elected?

I don’t think so. It is necessary to be Superior General and I will cease to carry out that office in the course of a possible second mandate.

How did you find yourself in this role? Who helps you?

I am supported by a council of 10 Superiors General from the five continents, elected by the Assembly. Instead the executive secretary is appointed by the Council. The Union is divided into groups. It is a complicated organization because there are so many of us, but it works. The corresponding male organization functions differently since there are far fewer men religious.

During the Synod one male Superior General told me that the response to his proposal of holding common meetings with both men and women superiors was that you were too numerous. You would have made the men disappear....

It’s true, it is a paradoxical situation: women religious account for almost three-quarters of religious but they are invisible, it’s as if they did not exist in the Church. For this very reason we have initiated new projects to make ourselves known and to share projects better among ourselves and with others. First of all we plan a renewal of our image to the outside world, with Facebook and a new website: we are aware that we must renew our manner of communication. This attention to communication goes side by side with our traditional aims: to be recognized as an organization with a prophetic character, to reawaken reciprocal help and to make a contribution to religious life.

Do you have an open dialogue with the congregations? Do they cause you problems?

Of course, and the input for new initiatives comes from these suggestions. Two are under way: Talita kum, a network for saving women from sexual slavery which involves various congregations, and a project for aid to South Sudan, in which we collaborate not only with female congregations but also with men’s; women church world has already published articles on both these initiatives. However we have also begun new projects, such as that of strengthening the presence of women experts in canon law. We are creating a network among all the women canon law experts in the world: they are few and isolated. It is important to be connected, to offer one another advice, to stimulate the increase in women experts on this subject: we are planning to fund three scholarships for African women.

Canon law is essential and crucial, both for defending oneself from abuse and for suggesting modifications that permit the role of women to be broadened.

Of course. It is very important that we become aware of this and, in the case of need, that we learn how to use legislative instruments too. The next stage is to emerge from our isolation and to become a voice that is recognized and listened to within the Church. Basically, institutes of women religious, such as ours, already exist. It would be enough to give them a task, to enable them to participate in decision-making on the Church’s future – a Church to which we also belong and to whose animation and development we contribute in no small part.

Born in Malta on 20 December 1951, Carmen Sammut was a teacher in Malta for three years before entering the Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Africa in 1974. She trained as a woman religious in London and in Malawi and did her novitiate in Ottawa, Canada. In 1989 she earned a diploma at the Pontifical Institute of Arabic and Islamic studies. From 1980 she spent three years in Mauritania, nine in Algeria and 15 in Tunisia. She was Provincial Superior from 2000 to 2006, was elected Superior General in 2011 and two years later, President of the UISG.

Lucetta Scaraffia

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