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Sisters

Not “de segunda” citizens

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30 April 2021

Nelly León, the first woman episcopal delegate in Chile


Once again, it fell to her to be a pioneer. Since December 1, 2020, Nelly León has been the episcopal delegate for the general pastoral care of San Felipe y Petorca. She is the first woman in Chile to hold this appointment. In the past year, in fact, two others in the Country have held a similar position, but with the title of “pastoral secretary”. “Ah, definitions... Someone occasionally asks me what to call myself. So I answer, ‘monsignora’, right? Then I burst out laughing and repeat: I am and remain Sister Nelly”. The unsettling irony is one of the most evident characteristics of this Sister of the congregation of the Good Shepherd, light years away from the stereotype of the accommodating and submissive “little nun”.

“I have a strong personality and I don't hide it,” says the “chaplain” of the women’s prison in Santiago, once again the first woman to carry out this role. There, in the facility where she has worked for sixteen years, on January 16, 2018, she welcomed Pope Francis who had come to meet the inmates. On that occasion, too, Sister Nelly showed boldness, adding a phrase to her welcome speech at the last minute: “In Chile, poverty is imprisoned”. The statement was received by a prolonged ovation. Vos sos una campeona (you are a champion) he said in greeting me. I have never received a more beautiful compliment”. Working in the the prison is Sister Nelly’s great vocation, and since March last year, when the pandemic broke out, she even stayed overnight to bypass the intermittently imposed lockdowns. “It was the first thing I said to the bishop, Monsignor Gonzalo Bravo Álvarez: there is no question about me being a chaplain. My heart is behind bars and I’m not giving it up. So today, I do two jobs. I couldn’t back out”.

What was the reason?

I agreed to become an episcopal delegate to open doors and paths for women in the Church. Amongst the faithful, in the ecclesial communities, the contribution of women is essential. In the decision-making centres, however, there are still too few women. For too long, in the Church, we have been considered “de segunda” citizens, that is, “second class”, and women’s religious congregations have been relegated to second-rate roles.  For a long time, therefore, many of us, myself included, have been asking for greater responsibility and space, following the example of great women figures who are full of boldness, such as Mother María Eufrasia Pelletier, the founder of my congregation, and Teresa of Avila. Not out of a thirst for power but so that we can offer our full contribution, in a spirit of reciprocity. Not accepting when it was offered to me would have been inconsistent.

There still seems to be a certain fear in the Church about the presence of women in decision-making positions. Why do you think this is so?

I do not know if you could call it fear. Certainly, there are prejudices, which persists from the past. That is why it is so important for me to do my job well; maybe I can help to dispel them.

What would you say to those Christians who are prejudiced against women?

I would ask them to make an effort to go beyond stereotypical images and try to get to know us. We have no claim to anything. Nor do I consider myself a “feminist” in the strict sense of the word, even though I firmly believe in equal rights and opportunities for women and men. Society has made a lot of progress on the women's issue. In the Church, we are only at the beginning.  We have a very, very long way to go. Pope Francis is doing a titanic job in this regard and his example is an inspiration to the bishops. I repeat, we are not seeking power. We want to serve, to contribute our skills and our vision to decision-making. An exclusively masculine perspective is debilitating and leads to enormous errors. We have seen this in the scourge of abuse that has hurt the Chilean Church so much.

What do you mean?

It had become common practice to “transfer” the problem to another community, without resolving it. It is a common masculine modus operandi. The female approach, which is also the result of a long historical and social process, is more inclined to solve. If there had been more women in decision-making positions, history would have been different. This is why the contribution of women is so important in this new era in which the Chilean Church is trying to renew itself and heal its wounds. The diocese in which I am involved has suffered a lot from abuse. I have to face an enormous challenge, but this gives me even more impetus.

How are the clergy and faithful of your diocese taking the fact of having an episcopal delegate?

Some priests were very welcoming others have remained silent. The most enthusiastic have been laywomen.

To become a chaplain was not easy too.

I started by working together with a priest. He was the chaplain; I was a mixture of a secretary and a pastoral agent or, at best, a coordinator.  Gradually, however, I took on more and more responsibilities and finally, in 2008, I was left alone. At that point I began to call myself a “chaplain” because in fact I was one. Yet still many people say to me, Sister Nelly, where is the chaplain? When they realise it is me, they are speechless.

Why are you so attached to working in the prison?

Because I learned to experience the Gospel there. Prison taught me to welcome everyone without distinction, to respect the history of each person, to listen with the heart. Which is what Jesus tells us. When I come across passages like the Samaritan woman or the forgiven adulteress, I wonder at times how so many Christians have such hard hearts. I have also experienced that “in Chile, poverty is incarcerated”. That is why I wanted to say it in my speech there before Pope Francis. The phrase came from my heart while I was rereading the text, a few hours before saying it.

Sister Nelly, what is your dream for the Church?

I dream of a Church that is more inclusive, more synodal, where men and women walk together. A Church that is simpler, more essential, and poorer. I dream that we take off our sumptuous clothes and elegant shoes and walk the dusty streets of our neighbourhoods and of the world with sandals, as Jesus did. 

By Lucia Capuzzi
Journalist from the Italian national newspaper Avvenire