What does the encyclical Brothers All reveal when it is read by a woman? And, what new meanings emerge from those Pages if we try to project them through the prism of female sensibilities that differ in religion, culture and origin? Since its publication - and even before that, with the controversy over its title - Francis' third encyclical has been the subject of careful reading and re-reading, including for this year’s International Women's Day.
The theme was chosen by the Women’s Council of the Pontifical Council for Culture and the Union Mondiale des Organisations Féminines Catholiques (UMOFC), the World Union of Catholic Women’s Organisations (WUCWO), in agreement with the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. To the event, scholars, theologians of different faiths and seven female ambassadors to the Holy See from three continents, from South America to Europe and Asia, were invited to discuss it in a webinar.
Different voices to weave a dialogue that appears to be “the implementation of that culture of encounter that the Pope urges in the encyclical”, as noted by Maria Elvira Velàsquez Rivas-Plata, ambassador of Peru. A dialogue that can also enrich men’s reflections on Brothers All, if it is true - suggested Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture - that a female gaze can “grasp many colours, many shades, many dimensions that had escaped us”. It is important to recall that the background to this debate is a world plagued by pandemics. At the heart of the reflection, what the Pontiff describes as the “care of the common home, the planet”, which the Covid-19 contagion has shown us is its fragility. As Irina Bokova, former director general of UNESCO and a member of the High Committee for Human Brotherhood observed, “if the world is to be rebuilt, but rebuilt better, the theme of global solidarity, empathy, compassion and care must underpin all the efforts of institutions and governments”. And this is where the role of women proves decisive. As claimed by Marìa Lìa Zervino, Servidora president general of the UMOFC, “Women know how to lead a sick society. We have been doing it for centuries, caring for the most fragile members of the family”. Continuing, she recalls, “For everyone, the first home was a woman's body”. In the name of this natural competence, “women’s protagonism is vital”, because as “architects of the projects of recovery and reunion” they can reconstruct “the social, economic and political macro-relationships”.
In order to weave new relationships, it is necessary to “educate so as to open the heart”. This is the appeal that Elena Seishin Viviani, vice-president of the Italian Buddhist Union, finds in the pages of Brothers All Hers is an invitation to a “re-humanisation of society” that will allow “the regeneration of peaceful coexistence” in the light of what the Dalai Lama defined as “wise self-interest”, that is, the attitude of “taking one’s neighbour into consideration even when pursuing one’s own personal happiness”. Speaking of the inseparable bond between the individual and others, Shahrzad Houshmand Zadeh, an Iranian theologian, quoted the verses of an 18th century poet, Sa'di, “Human beings come from the same pearl. When one of the parts suffers from some evil, the others also feel pain. You cannot consider yourself part of humanity if you do not have compassion for that pain.” To the pain of the “abandoned”, to the suffering of the “geographical and existential peripheries” the Pope dedicates certain pages written with great intensity. Maria Fernanda Silva, the Argentinian ambassador, quoted them, when recalling how the pandemic is imposing substantial steps backwards in the condition and rights of women and is seeing a resurgence in scourges from long ago, such as child marriages. Once again it is “the ferment of the feminine”, evoked by Swamini Hamsananda Ghiri, vice-president of the Italian Hindu Union, who proposes to cure “the disastrous inner aridity” that marks our time by “taking care of the world as an abode of peace”.
Utopia in times of hard and bloody conflict? Elisabeth Beton Delégue, the French ambassador, evoked the viral image of the “wonderful nun kneeling in Myanmar in front of the military deployed” against the demonstrators after the coup, to talk about the strength of women as “craftsmen of peace”, according to an expression that recurs in Brothers All.
The last consideration in this women’s debate (the Jewish theologian Nadina Iarchy and Isabel Apawo Phiri also took part, for an ecumenical perspective) is about the usefulness of the confrontation between religious and lay people. Sally Axworthy, the British representative, underlined this, recalling the powerful threat of climate change, saying “We need to hear the voice of religions. We tend to focus on the short term, religious leaders think long term. We need to listen to them”.
by Bianca Stancanelli