· Vatican City ·

The formation of lay women

The future is in the hands
of lay ministries

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06 February 2021

The “servant” of eight million Catholics: the Church I dream of


A few years ago, I went to Rome from Argentina, my country of origin, for an international meeting among women. During a debate on ongoing formation, the Zambian representative spoke and said that in her country only priests can study theology, since this formation is not considered appropriate for laywomen. An interesting discussion ensued in which representatives from European countries and from North and South American countries presented their opposing convictions. In fact, some of them had already completed their theological or biblical studies and were teaching.

That was the first time I had participated at the Council of the World Union of Catholic Women's Organizations (UMOFC). I joined about thirty leaders from Catholic organizations, who were very committed from an ecclesial point of view. In the years since, I have clearly understood how formation is intimately connected to the history of the Church, the culture and the socio-economic level of each region.

I currently serve as president of this international organisation, which brings together some 100 Catholic organisations from all continents, to which some eight million women belong. The member organisations can only be represented by one of their leaders, since the UMOFC seeks the co-responsibility of women in evangelisation and integral human development. Working every day in contact with this diversity and women’s richness, I have become pleasantly involved in the life of their organisations and countries, and in the Christian culture and formation that characterises them. I would say that lay formation is in full evolution and that it could be represented on planet earth with the colours of the rainbow, each with different shades and nuances.

760 million illiterate people, two-thirds of whom are women


The current global emergency has accentuated negative socio-economic trends, as well as their long-term impact on the education system. “The Covid-19 pandemic has created the greatest disruption of education systems in history [...]. The crisis is exacerbating pre-existing inequalities in education by reducing opportunities for the most vulnerable children, youth and adults [...]. The lack of learning opportunities also threaten to extend beyond this generation”(cf. UN Report, August 2020). In order to assess lifelong learning, it is necessary to start with the general education of the population. It is estimated that of the 760 million illiterate people in the world (UNESCO, 2020), around two-thirds are women. This gender inequality in education is compounded by the inequality that characterises the various continents. While in most European and North American countries, and several countries in Latin America and Oceania, the entire population is literate, while illiteracy is one of the biggest problems in Africa and Asia.

India, where Dalits are denied an education


In India, Dalit women, who are from the lowest castes –therefore considered 'non-people'-, are oppressed because of their gender, caste and economic situation. They spend most of their time at home and cannot contribute anything to the family’s economic situation. The birth of a male child is celebrated, the birth of a girl is seen as a curse, and their education is either put off or denied to them. A similar situation is present in eight African countries, where the illiteracy gap between men and women is over 20%, and due mainly to cultural reasons.

Latin America is excluded from positions of responsibility


What I have observed is that the formation of laywomen within the Catholic Church differs from one region to the next.

However, my continent, Latin America, which is the region with the highest percentage of inequalities in the world, has offered a new impetus. First, by giving Pope Francis to the Church, but also through the documents drawn up by the Latin American and Caribbean episcopate, such as those of Medellín, Puebla and Aparecida, the latter being the immediate predecessor of Evangelii gaudium. In all these magisterial contributions, a privileged place is given to popular religiosity and therefore to the necessary formation of the People of God. In spite of their preparation, there are just a few women at the head of national and diocesan grassroots frameworks. Is this perhaps due to the prevailing clericalism and male cultural chauvinism?

Obviously, the situation varies according to the country and the local Church. Each diocese usually has its own centre or centres for the training of catechists and pastoral agents, with courses that start with initial Christian training and go all the way up to university. There are women trained as grassroots community leaders, human rights advocates, catechists and theologians. For example, the Argentinean group of women theologians Teologanda is developing a programme of intensive seminars for women theologians with different stages of training.

Africa, Asia and the Middle East: formation between parish and family


From my own experience, I note the great commitment and love for the Church of women in many countries in Africa and in some in the Asia Pacific and the Middle East. In general, their Christian formation takes place in the family and in parishes, and is verified mainly on matters of spirituality and liturgy. I have encountered few associations of women with a plan for ongoing formation that conforms to the pastoral orientations of the Second Vatican Council. These women express their faith with their whole being in the liturgy, in the education of their children, and in their supportive service to those most in need. Why? Perhaps because their formation has left an indelible mark on them, right to their very core.

The different drives in Europe and North America


Europe and North America have some common determinants, such as the countless formation resources offered by episcopates, dioceses, congregations, movements and associations. Nevertheless, will the widespread cultural secularism succeed in engulfing their Christian formation? In the United States, for example, I have encountered laywomen with extensive and excellent training and lay people who self-attribute “cutting-edge training”.  These laymen and women are engaged, polemically, in just a few specific fronts at the extremes, such as Pope Francis’ reform, the celebration of homosexual unions, and some other issues pertaining to Christian morality.

I wonder if the luminous wake left throughout these regions by European guides such as cardinal theologians Yves Congar and Henri-Marie de Lubac or the exceptional mystic Adrienne von Speyr, a source of inspiration for Hans Urs von Balthazar, will suffice to give the formation of women that indispensable ecclesial rooting.  After all, without it, synodal processes will not succeed.

Personally, I believe that some expressions of feminism lead to a misrepresentation of moral principles, and that the issues are far more complex than those posed by a candidacy such as that of “archbishop” of Lyon. At the same time, there are women leaders who, unfortunately, focus exclusively on issues of sexual morality, abortion and gender ideology.

The challenge for lay ministries


On January 11, Pope Francis established by motu proprio that the Lectorate and the Acolyte ministries be henceforth open to women in a stable and institutionalized form with a specific mandate. If the Church were to institute new lay ministries - already urged for in the Second Vatican Council - it would be forced to invest in adequate formation for laywomen as well. I dream of a Church that includes women who are qualified to serve. Whether it be as judges in all courts where matrimonial cases are examined, in the formation groups of every seminary, or to exercise ministries such as listening, spiritual direction, health ministry, care of the planet, defense of human rights, and others. In these areas, we women, by our very nature, are equally gifted, and sometimes even more so, than men.

By María Lía Zervino
Servidora, president of UMFOC - World Union of Catholic Women's Organizations