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Mission Possible

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06 March 2021

The challenge of the three girls on the Covid Commission


Come to think of it, they had to be women. In crisis situations, women know how to place themselves at the forefront, for they are clear headed and have the necessary determination. Therefore, it is no surprise to find three women, actually three girls, at the heart of the Covid-19 Vatican Commission -established by Pope Francis in March 2020- to reflect on the socio-economic and cultural challenges post-pandemic and propose guidelines to address them.

There names are Marcela Chapa, Marianna Beltrami and Josefina Mas, and they make up the secretariat of Father Augusto Zampini, assistant secretary of the control centre that is coordinating the commission chaired by Cardinal Peter Turkson (the other secretary is Monsignor Bruno-Marie Duffé). Their specific presence alerts us to the challenges of the commission, which is to find new answers to new questions.

Their respective CVs in brief are as follows. Chief of Staff Marcela, a 32-year-old Mexican, studied international relations and socioecological economics in Mexico, where she also taught in a university. When she was contacted for the post, she was in Vienna, working on a M.A in socioecological economics and policy. Marianna, 30 years old, Italian, from Trento, was attending an MA course in Oxford. Josefina, 22, of Argentinian origin, was studying in Rome. Following a very careful selection process, they passed three individual interviews, oral and written tests and discussions with international consultants. They all speak at least three languages, and in the office they constantly switch from one to the other.

The presence of women on the Covid-19 Commission is not limited, however, to the secretariat.  Three of the four task forces referred to as ‘Working Group 2’, the one coordinated directly by Father Augusto, are headed by women: Sister Alessandra Smerilli for the Economy, Chiara Martinelli and Jacqui Remond for Ecology, and Sister Carol Keehan for Health. In addition, there are five female junior assistants, just below the coordinators.

These choices evidently did not come about by accident, for it is due to Father Zampini. Fifty years of age, Argentinean, from Buenos Aires, a former lawyer specialized in banking and financial law, and had a brilliant legal career until, at 35, he entered the seminary. Marcela tells me, Father Augusto has no problem if the best candidate is a woman”.

Their work, in the first phase, principally involved collecting documents and coordinating the international partners involved in the commission. While, at the moment, they are moving on to the project phase. The task of the secretariat is to keep the hundreds of threads that connect working groups, task forces, think tanks together, and sometimes this involves zigzagging  between time zones and different languages.  This is a complicated task, but as Marcela explains, “it is an exciting challenge, for we are in a moment of profound change, for the world, as well as for the Church”. The primary innovation, after all, is precisely this. Marcela acknowledges, “we are in a traditionally masculine environment,  but the commission was created for a very specific purpose; and this helps us.  Just as it helps Father Augusto's leadership, which values competence. When we have to consult on theological matters, he often asks female theologians.”

A mixture of languages can be heard in their single room three desk office, located in the Palazzo di San Callisto, in Trastevere. At the moment, they tell us, efforts are focused on the vaccine, which the pope has repeatedly called for it to be universally accessible and free of charge. Other projects include food security, research into international debt, and in-depth discussions on the encyclical Laudato Si’.

The work involves hundreds of people from around the world. Marcela explains that “the Commission is not afraid to get involved. We are in contact with dozens of universities and research centers, even outside the ecclesial network”. In particular, ‘Group 2’, the one led by Father Augusto, is called on to develop ideas. Marcela continues, “we need to analyze the needs that gradually emerge and figure out how to respond better.”

A friendship was established, and which has grown stronger with the awareness of working for the same, compelling mission. As Marcela explains further, “we believe in Pope Francis’ dream.” Marianna, who had been living in England since 2014, returned home for lock-down. “From one moment to the next, I found myself here, seeing firsthand that we can change, not only in the Church, but in the world; it is a unique, exciting and encouraging experience, because we realize that change is possible.”

As Marcela summarizes, the goal “is to bring everyone's gaze further forward, to go to the roots of the evils that this pandemic has brought to the fore.” Because, Marianna recalls, “as the pope said, you can’t go back to the way we were before. Either we come out better or worse.” Josefina, the youngest, is still excited, “sometimes,” she says, “I almost can't believe I'm here. For the people I'm in contact with, for those we meet every day, for the mission we have received.”

The Commission was supposed to finish its efforts by last summer. However, the ongoing pandemic has seen their work extended. There is, for now, no deadline. “We take one day at a time." 

by Elisa Calessi