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Women religious on the front lines

“Women are truly capable of facing life in all its facets”, said Sr Yudith Pereira, director of the network Solidarity with South Sudan and a religious of the Congregation of the Religious of Jesus and Mary, “and for this reason they play a central role in the world today”. Sr Yudith is one of the religious who spoke at the Symposium “Women religious on the frontlines” which was held in Rome on 11 April this year. Organized by the Embassy of the United States to the Holy See together with the Union of Superiors General (UISG) and Solidarity with South Sudan, the day afforded an opportunity to listen to the testimonies of women religious in the frontlines in various hotspots around the world – from war fronts to prisons, from human trafficking to rape as a war weapon, from child pornography to illegal immigration and the trade in human beings. Wherever there are vulnerable people, the religious are there with nothing but their bare hands. And they are there together; “Wherever one of us is, we are all there”, Patricia Murray of the UISG said during the initial greetings, underlining that Catholic women religious of the various congregations are aware that they constitute a network. It is a sort of summation of the themes at the heart of the Pontificate of Pope Francis, expressed for decades by these consecrated women not only at the concrete and operational levels but also theoretically. Because – and the 11 April fully confirmed this – the Sisters do not only do things, and they do many and do them well, but they also study, discuss, plan and propose. Indeed being close to vulnerable people demands in addition to love intelligence, skills and a great knowledge of the task to which one is called. Whether it is a matter of violence, rape or torture, of prison, journeys of hope or difficult maternities, whether one is speaking of the Philippines, of southern America, of Syria, Cambodia, Nigeria or Europe, an important part of being on the frontlines means, for example, knowing how to help victims to manage and heal their memories too. “A woman sexually exploited by the IS”, the Syrian religious Monique Tarabeh of the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepherd recounted, “who lived in one of our centres in Homs would escape every time she heard a door open because she thought they had come for her to abuse her. Only after seven months of treatment did she succeed in freeing herself from this nightmare”. In the course of the day Ambassador Callista L. Gingrich awarded to Sr Maria Elena Berini, a religious of the Sisters of Charity of St Joan Antida Thouret, the international prize the Women of Courage Award, conferred annually by the U.S. Department of State upon women who have distinguished themselves for their courage. Sr Berini, born in 1944 in Sondrio, Italy, after spending 35 years in Chad (1972-2007) now lives in the Central African Republic, where she carries out her pastoral commitment in an area on the border with Chad and Cameroon. In September 2017 Sr Berini welcomed at her mission in Bocaranga thousands of people fleeing from the attack of the Muslim militias. “We don’t look at religion, culture or provenance: we look at people who are in need of affection, love and acceptance”. It was Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher, Secretary for Relations with States, who closed the Symposium with a very personal intervention. In fact Gallagher spent his years in the Diplomatic Service of the Holy See in Libya, Burundi, Guatemala and Australia, recounting the fearless and courageous work of so many sisters. “The women religious of the world are doing a magnificent job with great passion and tenderness. And they have the courage to go to places where perhaps we men are frightened to go, bringing Jesus’ compassion to people in difficulty”, Gallagher said. This was an important recognition at the end of a day of work from which, as the English journalist of Vatican Radio, Philippa Hitchen, moderator of the work said, emerged “even the tiny seeds of hope which here and there are at last, timidly and among thousands of new and old problems, bearing some fruit.

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Sept. 20, 2018

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