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A path to illuminate

· The existential and spiritual crisis of African women religious ·

In Africa days are marked by the trajectory of the sun. People wake at dawn and go to sleep shortly after sunset. In the streets of red earth that cut through the countryside one comes across a humanity on its way, often barefoot. It is enough to see it in the morning, when the streets are filled with women walking swiftly on the roadside. Africa has a face: the face of its women. It is they who, silently, without asserting rights, reproduce every day the miracle of survival; in a continent where living is a real challenge.

For these extraordinary women it is normal to walk 15 kilometres every day to reach the nearest well, normal to cover 30 kilometres on foot to sell an onion or else be thrashed by their husbands, or to do 80 per cent of the work in the fields but not to be owners of the land. If you ask a woman “why” she will answer you quite simply that for her this is normality.

Although they are surrounded by absent men and by societies with chauvinist traits, something is changing. There are women who have attained crucial political offices, important positions in the professional world or a key role in their own society. This was an unimaginable emancipation until a short time ago, to which the Church too has contributed.

Recounting Africa is far from simple. Everything is double in the story. Everything is mirrored in its reflection. The land which is both the richest and the poorest in the world is the cradle of civilization and of contradictions. Here, time never stands still. If need be it doubles back on itself on a track between achievements and retrograde steps.

It was precisely the latter that Amina, Zelam and Rhanda told us about. They are three African sisters who described to us the painful subordination to which a large part of the population of African women is constrained by virtue of a culture which wants man to be the chief and the boss. This produces serious distortions in the Church too, it gives rise to problems linked to the charism and to religious vocations, and makes Pope Francis’ warning with regard to women’s service to the Church more present than ever: a service that must never become servitude.

In Africa, in the face of 35,000 priests and 3,500 missionaries, sisters number more than 60,000. And yet “the Church has never bothered much about their formation”. Women religious are usually formed only and solely by the apostolate, therefore through catechesis and teaching at elementary school; that is, to respond to the social needs and not to understand or to deepen their knowledge of the charism and spirituality of the Congregation to which they belong. The Church has not been very committed to the formation of these religious. They always find themselves applying decisions formerly taken by others and for others.

The virtuous religious was and is adulated as the hinge between the visible and invisible worlds, the revelation of love and grace, the most naturally religious being that God created. However all this then gives rise to the condition of domestic and social subservience of African women religious, unlike what happens in the male congregations.

Women religious are exalted through the jobs they do: they cook well out of love for Jesus, they teach the catechism to children, they decorate parish churches, they clean, mend and make clothes, they look after prelates and the elderly and care for children in difficulty. But all this excludes African women religious from the principal roles, those of management, administration and decision-making.

The situation has further deteriorated because of the increase in the number of small diocesan-type foundations, founded by African bishops and priests, in which women are chosen to be at their service. When the prelates complete their mandate or die, these works are doomed to failure. Consequently further problems arise for the sisters involved.

African women religious are sometimes sent to Europe as missionaries in the dioceses, but this missionary cooperation often ends badly for lack of clear projects and preparation and the religious often end on the streets, becoming homeless. Given the scarcity of resources, Sr Anne told us, “there are many poor African Congregations that send women religious to study without giving them any financial support” so that they all too often find themselves asking for alms. This fact in itself engenders a strong feeling of vulnerability.

In certain cases, which are not rare, the situation of these untrained women religious at the service of the ecclesiastical hierarchies is even more humiliating. The important American Catholic periodical, the National Catholic Reporter,denounced it in 2001, publishing the report which Sr Maria Marie McDonald, Superior General of the Missionaries of Our Lady of Africa sent in November 1998 to a group of delegations of the Union of Superiors General (male congregations), of the International Union of Superiors General (female congregations) and of the Vatican Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life which was dealing with this issue.

Indeed Sr McDonald wrote that the problem is not confined to Africa, even though the group which prepared the report referred to the African experience. “It is precisely because of our love for the Church and for Africa that we feel so deeply afflicted by the problem we are presenting to you”.

The report explained specifically the vicious circle triggered in these cases, starting with the existence of sexual harassment and even with the rape of sisters by clerics. The sister is usually distanced from her congregation whereas the priest is frequently only transferred to another parish or sent away to study.

The sisters who have had this experience are numerous, the women religious emphasized, even though they do not speak about it out of fear. Until it happens that they become pregnant, in which case the congregation sends them away from the convent because “it is a disgrace”. This is a situation that is “common in Africa”, to which institutes or congregations of other countries flock in search of vocations; however they are not looking for “people interested in religious life to form”, but rather only a sort of unskilled labour “to solve their problems: they need staff to work in the schools or kindergartens that they run”.

In countries where aids is very widespread, the sisters reported, sisters are considered “safer” for avoiding infection in sexual relations. These are not isolated cases, they explained. It is almost impossible to estimate the number of sisters who suffer abuse from their “benefactors” and are then abandoned by their congregation. This is a scandal for the entire Church because, before entering these diocesan congregations, these women religious were normal, intelligent girls, often the best in the society to which they belonged.

Almost from the outset the Church promoted women’s fulfilment. It would be hard to find another institution in the world which – like in fact the Catholic Church – simply let women think with their own minds, be what they were born to be and do great things.

Instead a strange contrast seems today to characterize the status of women in African Catholicism. If hypothetically their contribution to catechesis, to liturgical animation and to charitable activities were lacking, it is easy to imagine that parish communities would collapse. Virginia Woolf said that “a story does not exist until it is told” and perhaps the silence on the identity of African women religious has lasted too long. We must help them: this is the appeal that African women religious are launching. Let us listen to them further: “They are scattered across the world, who has ever shown concern for them? Where are they? What do they do? The Church must come to grips with the suffering of African women religious in particular, but more generally with the situation of women, because women, and women religious in particular, are the face of the Church that most frequently and most easily reaches the poor”. Harsh words, full of sorrow.

Silvina Pérez

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Aug. 24, 2019

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