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The word that wasn’t there

10. Icona Sororit.jpg
26 September 2020

“The idea came to me from afar, but at first I didn’t even have a word to describe it”. The Order of Sorority comes from a word that is not there. There are words like “sisterhood”, and “fraternity”, but Ivana Ceresa, the Order’s founder, when she spoke about its beginnings, explained that the term to describe a deep bond between women that is not a blood relative does not exist. A linguistic absence -that is also symbolic-, underlined the Mantuan theologian born in 1942 in Rivalta sul Mincio, and who died in 2009.

And, it is always the crushing word of one gender only, namely the male gender, which was the light that lit up inside her the desire to realize what it was she was looking for the name to describe.

One day, she stated in an interview, she went to mass in the St Andrew church in Mantua. Present there were all women, but the celebrant said “Pray, brothers”. “I looked at him and said: what did he say?”. And, she did not stop there in here amazement. “After the mass, I went to the sacristy and said four words to him. I said to him, are you not ashamed, are you not ashamed to call us brothers for everyone there were women?”

In another of her writings she said: “If I say: all men are called to salvation, I am not telling the truth, I am using a language which hides me”. This conceals the difference of being a woman. Decisive also in faith. Even before God. Here is the intuition that then became a book, her most important: Dire Dio al femminile [Saying God in a Feminine Way].

However, Ceresa went one-step further, beyond her intellectual discovery. She decided, together with some friends, to put it into practice; to verify it, among women, in experience. What is needed is “a journey of exodus from homologation to masculinity”, the Rule of the Order states. However, it is only possible through the relationship between women who seek, in a relationship of “authority” and “trust” (these are core concepts in Ceresa’s thought) to give substance to that intuition.

The Order of Sorority, an association of “women summoned by the Holy Spirit to make the presence of women in the Church and in the world visible”, the Rule specifies.

It has taken a long while to get there. The first fundamental meeting for Ivana Ceresa was with her grandmother, a strong woman of faith, an expression of the matriarchy that ruled so much of countryside in the North. From her grandmother, she was inspired to become a theologian. However, at that time -we are at the end of the fifties-, the profession was precluded to women. In 1960, she enrolled at the Catholic University; saying to herself “If I can’t study theology like a man, I will study literature like a lot of women do.” Then came the second, decisive meeting with Luisa Muraro, the philosopher of sexual difference. Both were guests at the Marianum University College in Milan.

Ivana Ceresa returned to Mantua, got married and taught Literature at secondary schools. However, she never stopped cultivating her passion for theological research. The era characterized by protest arrived: “In those years, I studied theology to challenge authoritarianism, conformism, misogyny, capitalism and all the rest”. However, it was still the search for equality that did not exist. Then, in the eighties, the third fundamental encounter. The one with the Diotima philosophical community at the University of Verona, which diffused the thought of sexual difference. Ivana Ceresa understood that the problem, even within the Church, is not to be like men, but to claim one’s own feminine way of being.

These were years of study and confrontation.  Luisa Muraro, who has become the main theorist, in Italy, of research into sexual difference, and Ivana Ceresa met again at the Libreria delle Donne [Women’s Library] in Milan.

Ceresa, however, was also a woman of faith, and she felt an increasingly urgency that these intuitions became an ecclesial reality, hence as a consequence she loved to repeat, “Church and world are an hendiadys”. She studied female theology and rereads the history of saints and mothers of the Church. She held conferences, seminars and lectures at the school of contemporary culture in Mantua.

After one of the many conferences, she met with some friends to share the desire to reflect on these issues together and more consistently. One afternoon Martina Bugada [1], a friend and iconographer visited her. She recounted that day to me like this: “She told me: ‘I thought of this word: sorority. This word came to me that did not actually exist’. Even the computer rejected it, it was not expected”. Sorority is the translation of sorority, an English term used in colleges to indicate groups of female university students, affiliated by a bond of commonality that was not of blood. Taken from the theologian Mary Daly, author of Beyond the Father, Ceresa extended its use. It was 1994, when it all began. Nevertheless, every illumination must be verified. “If Martina says yes —  Ivana reflects — let’s move on”. Martina says yes. And, after her, another one, and then one more. They became twenty, then thirty. They were divided into various groups in order to maintain a more effective comparison. Today they meet at each other’s homes.

“My aspiration —the founder of the Order of Sorority says — was to see a group of women coming together to learn how to support each other, to recognize each other as women, to understand that the world is not neutral and that they do not want to be neutral but want to be feminine”.

This intuition engraved her name in the history of the Church where she finds some precursors: the Beguines of the North, Clare of Assisi and her companions, Angela Merici, the founder of the Ursulines, Giovanna Francesca Chantal, the founder of the Order of the Visitation of St Mary. In these traces, she finds comfort in the gift that the Holy Spirit, she says, gave her: “I gave voice to my desire to give birth to the world, the Church, the present, in short, and the future also from a feminine perspective”.

On 18 March 2002, the Bishop of Mantua, Monsignor Egidio Caporello, recognized the Order of Sorority as an association of the faithful. In doing so he quoted article 1 of the Rule, those who wished “to live the Christian faith according to the feminine difference in the local Catholic Church, in the footsteps of those who, in distant and recent times, have preceded it”.

Today, there are about forty people, divided into six groups: five in the Mantua area, one in Milan, unified by their dedication to Mary. There are those who are married, single, consecrated women, non-believing women, and women of other religious denominations (at the moment there is a Waldensian woman). They meet once or twice a month, to reflect on saints, texts by theologians or to discuss current issues. Once a year they meet together for two or three days.

Each group has a rotating president according to their moment of entry into the group. Once a year, on the Feast of St Mary the Crowned, to which the Order is dedicated, the president of all the sororities is chosen by lot. In obedience to one of the fundamentals of this experience,  as Martina explains to me, “female authority is the mutual recognition between two or more women who give support each other in relation to their own desires and according to the purpose they wish to pursue”.

A concept that Ivana Ceresa explains using the image of the Visitation: two women, Mary and Elizabeth, rely on each other, in a trust that stems from the recognition of the other’s authority. An antithesis to power. Today, the sorority also has an Icon (on page 27), written by Martina Bugada [1]. The Madonna and Child in the centre, on the right and left the women who inspired this experience: Angela Merici, Teresa Fardella, Osanna Andreasi, Paola Montaldo, Speciosa.

by Elisa Calessi

[1] MARTINA BUGADA “Martina testifies and continues a feminine line of the practice of icons, and the reference here is to Maria Sokolova (1899-1981), the first teacher of the Lavra School of St Sergius and Sergiev Posad. This is one of the most important iconography schools in Russia, which Martina attended” [from Nella Roveri’s text in Encyclopedia delle Donne [Women’s Encyclopedia] - http://www.enciclopediadelledonne.it/biografie/martina-bugada/].

Named after Mary SS Crowned

in 1996 in Mantua
Foundress Ivana Ceresa (1942-2009)
Recognition  March 18, 2002 by the Bishop of Mantua Egidio Caporello
Other branches are to be found in Mantova, Ostiglia, Asola, Grazie, and Milano