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The Moderator of the Board

A meeting with Maria Bonafede, the first woman elected to the leadership of the Waldenses

Maria Bonafede was the first woman elected as the head of the Waldenses. She was the first “Moderator” of the board from 2005 to 2012. She is currently on sabbatical, studying, travelling, but she is preparing to resume her role as a pastor, this time far from Rome.

In assuming the role of "Moderator" did you feel a special responsibility because you were a woman and it was the first time that a woman had become head of the Waldensian community? "One of the reasons that made me decide to accept was in fact this responsibility. I had my doubts. I overcame them when a younger friend insisted saying that if I had not accepted the challenge we would have waited another fifty years before we got another chance. Then I realized that I should not refuse, you could skip an appointment with history. To get a woman moderator we had already needed eight hundred years."

Was your candidacy the result of a battle by women or was it born by chance? "It has definitely met with a growing sensitivity, visible, moreover, from when women were admitted to the pastoral ministry in 1962. It had been discussed for fourteen years since 1948. That was a really important debate which led to the increased sensitivity to female abilities and gifts. I think I was chosen because of an attitude to mediation as a dialogue both among the Waldenses and with other Christian denominations. "

Does a feminine faith different from a masculine one exist? "I have thought about it and I think so. There is not only a different type of sensitivity but a different way of believing, hoping and praying. Mine, like that of many women, is a faith that can recognize doubt and name it, a daily battle with myself. I think this is a female characteristic even though I know that many men ask themselves questions. But women can also express their questions, they know how to make them public. They are convinced that there is no need always to show yourself confident and strong. Even the best guide knows the dangers and the fragility of a journey of faith. And this does not make him not a good guide. The female problematic nature, to get inside the issue and know how to listen not just to the words but the essence of the people, are attitudes which are more present in women and they draw closer, they create confidence in the Church."

Does the female diversity of faith exist in all religions? "Certainly, yes. I have seen it in ecumenical relations, I have spoken about it with many Catholic women. A nun recently in a conference reflection said that women need to tell the Church all their experience of faith, that they should make it everyone's heritage, make it available to all. In many of us women an awareness has developed that they have a vocation and tasks that can not be covered by others. That God has made a new and personal proposal to us. Certainly this is true for everyone, but for women of Christian Churches it has been the discovery of a new potential. "

You have always had to deal with the male world: have you found this difficult? "The Catholic Church treats you the way you are, it knows that the Waldenses are different and recognizes you as you are. If you are woman pastor, it joins in with you as a woman pastor. Inside the Waldensian world in recent years much has changed. A few years ago a woman had to give constant demonstrations that she was up to it. My two degrees have helped me, but I have struggled to break a prejudice. Just consecrated I was sent for a few years to a community that (I found out only later) did not want a woman. No one had told me. Many families were suspicious and resisted until they realized they could trust me. I know that many other woman pastors have had similar experiences. Today much has changed. There was actually a community that had to choose their own pastor, and that addressed its call to compete, only to women pastors. At first we were 3 to 4,  now we are forty percent."

Is the dialogue between religions today easier or more difficult? "More difficult. Ecumenism is difficult. Of course after Vatican II there was a work of opening, dialogue, construction, the walls of prejudice collapsed. But today we need to be more daring and also to confront more uncomfortable issues, those that hurt."

You have met many Catholic nuns, a diverse world, in motion. "I have met important women theologians, teachers and also very simple nuns. These remain on the margins, almost hidden. I once attended a luncheon in a Roman basilica. An excellent lunch but in which only men were present. I asked who had prepared it. They told me that it had been done by two nuns that no one had invited. When I went to thank them they hid themselves away, they did not want to be seen. In an Ethiopian Orthodox community women ate separately. I ate with the men and I was very uncomfortable. Yet the churches, all the churches would have nothing to lose by enhancing women. Indeed we would all gain."

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