· Vatican City ·

“Sorority is going beyond all borders”

1. Patrizia Morgante 2. Cristina Simonelli 3. Paola Lazzarini 4. Anna Maria Vissani 5. Cristiana Gualtieri 6. Antonietta Potente

Round table

26 September 2020

Language, boundaries, power, disobedience, are recurrent words in the reflections on sorority of a group of women who experience it in different ways. The President of the Coordination of Italian Theologians is Cristina Simonelli, who is also professor of Church History and Patristic Theology at the Theological Faculty of Northern Italy,  and has spent 36 years in Roma people contexts. Antonietta Potente, theologian, Dominican nun of the Union of St. Thomas Aquinas, has spent 20 years in Bolivia, a university professor there and then in Verona, where she entered the Diotima female philosophical community. Paola Lazzarini is a sociologist of religion, and a president of the Women for the Church association. Patrizia Morgante, head of communications at the UISG. Anna Maria Vissani, Sister of the Adorers of the Blood of Christ, is a moral theologian, and member of the legal committee for the nullity of marriage at the Diocese of Jesi, and a former president of UISM in the Marche region. Finally, Cristiana Gualtieri, who is a religious teacher in Porto Sant’Elpidio.

It is Cristina Simonelli who immediately poses the question of language, “which resists us, which is biased. Although I am bothered by the masculine declension, in some cases I myself, perhaps in italics, have to write fraternal instead of sororal. In general, to talk about us, I do not like to cling to a category: I use indifferently feminism, gender perspective, difference”. For Sister Antonietta Potente, “especially in the Church, the things that are said about women are rather confused. It is as if perhaps even we do not have such clear language, we live in hesitancy. I believe instead that being among women gives us great authority. We should be the first to eliminate the distinction between religious and lay people: we are all women and none of us are part of the clergy. Therefore, we are all lay people. This is a real distinction within the Church: to be clergy or not to be clergy. And, it is a grace, this secularity, because it authorizes us to feel liberated, outside of a scheme: it is my spirituality that can make me say that I grew up according to the Dominican tradition, not my being a nun. Of course, there is injustice, because it has been imposed on us”.

Sorority, adds Sister Anna Maria Vissani “does not mean closing ourselves off from one another, but making a slightly more feminine language blossom, which is what Pope Francis speaks about. I have experienced it a lot in my relationship with men: as a young nun, the only woman in the theological faculty, some seminarian or priest cried on my shoulder. It was very difficult. I always told myself: I must keep my distance, because I am a consecrated woman. But, I agreed to face the risk and I saw that, although trembling, we can give a great deal to men. Today, I listen to and accompany many couples experiencing crisis or who are separated”. Paola Lazzarini defines herself as “a sister (of a brother) without sisters. I have always felt a need for them, I have looked for them elsewhere. After graduating, I joined the community of the Ausiliatrici delle Anime del Purgatorio [The Society of the Helpers of the Holy Soul] and I discovered that sorority is the not choosing each other, but finding each other, having to choose each other, having to learn to be together, not to close the door in one’s face and hide in one’s own room. It was beautiful. I stayed for five years, I took simple vows but not the perpetual ones. Then I got married and had a daughter, who remained an only child; which was very hard to accept. Again, this theme came knocking on my door in the form of a sense of lack: I was not able to make my daughter become a sister”.

From this story “I hear echoes”, confides Patrizia Morgante, “despite not having had the experience of motherhood. And, the stories of pain, of violence against women trouble me; as if I felt the vibrations of this pain inside of me. I wonder if we keep within us the voice of a collective female unconscious. I believe that sorority largely linked to the relationship with the soul, with the most intimate part of us, which pushes us to narrate ourselves. We have our own way of narrating that brings us authority. The UISG is a place of sorority, because our aim is to give the nuns the chance, in their diversity, to emerge. We are opening up to other forms of consecrated life, a push to go beyond frontiers and limits”.

And this is precisely the point, for Cristina Simonelli: “With the term sorority, I think of it as the possibility of crossing borders. To say sorority in the Catholic Church means to think of lay and religious women without distinction, for whom being a woman comes first. It means a total ecumenical commitment, not just for one church and beyond the churches. To experience bonds, alliances beyond all borders. Even though practicing the border; indeed, sometimes confinement, because it is not that I feel outside of confinement. As Soave Buscemi, a lay missionary, defines it ‘staying and deserting’”.

Cristiana Gualtieri, experienced sorority as an experience of listening, of study, of a choral rereading of texts. “[through my reading] In the Bible I have deepened the competition between sisters such as Lia and Rachel; the alliance between foreigners such as Noemi and Ruth; the full reciprocal welcome between non blood relatives such as Elizabeth and Mary. I feel the need for a space, which in my parish I no longer find since I stopped dealing with traditional services such as singing or catechism”.

Sister Antoinette Potente quotes Simone de Beauvoir: “You were not born a woman, you become a women.” She continues, “I discovered an awareness of our difference when I entered the congregation: the path of identification with my deep identity coincided with a path of spiritual transformation. I had the good fortune, in Bolivia, to live within an indigenous culture, where women have their own particular role”. She says that in Latin America, however, feminist theology has had to face strong criticism from the hierarchies in recent decades. “At university it was not easy; but it is precisely this fact which makes us want to find other companions. I think it should be like that in politics too”.

“It hurts me a lot - Sister Anna Maria Vissani adds - to see women succeed in making their way in politics and imitate men. We too could be prone to it, within the Church”.

And indeed, power can complicate relations between women.

“I do not believe - says Cristina Simonelli - that sorority is a romantic question: of feeling, of affection, indeed, but it also foresees conflict and differences. And the category of authority, the question of its management. Because an authoritativeness that has no possibility to act, that therefore has no power, I do not know if it can be considered an authority. Even in an association like the Coordination of theologians, I cannot say that I do not have an authority. I try to manage it in such a way as to be the pivot to authorize others. Well, I intend to think of authority as the authorization of others”.

The issue of abuses of conscience in religious communities is not taboo. “We see them”, says Patrizia Morgante, “because the nuns are people. And then, she introduces a new theme: “Sorority makes me think of disobedient women. I believe there is a connection with the Cosmos that feeds us, because we felt like victims like the Earth...the new cosmology will perhaps be born from this new way of being sororal”.

In religious life, continues Antonietta Potente “if women have disobeyed, they have had the opportunity to cultivate immense creativity. However, if they remained only in the institutional sphere, this was guided, also in spirit, by men. I am thinking of the difference between St Catherine and St Clare...Religious communities have had male imprints, precisely in that aspect that men know nothing about; because if there are community disasters, they are precisely on the level of male relationships permeated by individualism. Then, we are human beings, and sometimes the relationship between women is tiring. Among us, authority should be more similar to charisma; it should be discovered by following a path of identity. Among men, in politics, in the Church, authority is a role, a position: instead, the more we transform ourselves, the more we perceive that each of us has their own authority. Sorority is a bond sewn with the thread of affection: it does not depend on roles, on who is the Mother Superior today or who will be the next”.

According to Paola Lazzarini, “the word authority comes from the Latin autor, but also from augere, to make grow. I really like the example we have been receiving from The Squad, the US dem deputies from ethnic minorities; coming from the margins and their ability to team up. We are fortunate not to be trained to exercise power like men and this gives us the possibility to do so in a free, creative way, which makes the other grow, authorizes, and generates. If it is not generative, power in itself can be mortifying. Recently, in my own small way, and without theological studies, I gathered about thirty friends from all over Italy to write The Women’s Manifesto for the Church. This is where the association that I preside over today was founded. The idea is to experience  the alliance between women by valuing each other, looking for a place and not being satisfied, working as a picklock. I immediately looked for alliances abroad and we started a network called The Catholic Womens Council. It is a great stimulus and sometimes a source of frustration. As an activist, I see demonstrations like the general strike of the Women of Mary 2.0 last year in Germany and I realize how much effort we are making in Italy. But it is important not to feel alone, which is the true essence of being sisters”.

Anna Maria Vissani tells us: “To our foundress, St Maria De Mattias, the Church wanted to impose itself, to simply teach, without preaching in church, or gathering people together. However, she did it. A charisma, an inspiration, is always born from a strong identity and the woman herself must give birth, we all have a womb in our DNA”. Even the question of abuses of conscience, in her opinion, has something to do with common feminine traits: “Perhaps it happens precisely because our inner instincts include rivalry. However, the relationship with power is not the same for everyone. In the international meetings of our religious institutes, it is not easy to understand us, because we come from different cultures. In America, for example, it happens that the Rule of Life is the only recognized authority. In other continents, on the other hand, it ranges from giving a lot of weight to roles, to easily accepting mutual submission. I follow Pope Francis when he says that in the end the Holy Spirit throws everything away; in our Institutes, however, he has not yet succeeded”.

by Federica Re David