María Lía Zervino, Union of Catholic Organizations
The most important organized women’s faith movements that exist today date back to the early 20th century. In 1910, the World Union of Catholic Women’s Organisations (WUCWO) was founded; in 1912 the International Council of Jewish Women (ICJW) and in 1921 The Grail, an ecumenical and international women’s movement. At the forefront of these entities were visionary women who united organizations from different countries to be recognized in the international arena. Today, UMOFC has international representatives at FAO, UNESCO, ECOSOC, the UN Human Rights Council, and the Council of Europe.
There are currently other Catholic women’s movements, but only the World Union of Catholic Women’s Organizations; the WUCWO has been recognized by the Holy See as an international public association of the faithful.
It is curious that it came to me to serve as president of this organization during Pope Francis’ pontificate, as I am also from Argentina and Buenos Aires like him. I was born into a Catholic family that has deep roots in Argentina. I was baptized on the eve of the Immaculate Conception, and Mary has been marking my steps ever since.
However, I had a difficult adolescence during which time almost everything my parents had instilled in me collapsed. I regained my faith in my early years of college.
My life was marked by a fundamental event, which was the call to consecration. Yes, I fell in love with Jesus Christ and, what was even more surprising for me; I realized that He had fallen in love with me. It happened in a somewhat turbulent time for the Church, the post-conciliar era, at the beginning of the 1970s. There were more “exits” than “entries” into religious life and the priesthood.
My place in the world and in the Church today is the Institution Servidoras, an association of consecrated virgins founded in 1952 by an Argentine priest, now a servant of God, Luis María Etcheverry Boneo, in close collaboration with his disciple Lila Blanca Archideo.
As a member of Servidoras, my life has gained meaning. I discovered the beauty of a family of women called to live only and in the present for Jesus Christ. Our service to the Church is based on the full development of the priestly character imprinted by baptism and confirmation. This is an essentially diaconal vocation, which seeks through the ‘sacramentalization’ of women to instaurare omnia in Christo, to restore all things in Christ, with Mary’s hand.
Being anchored in this charism, various pastoral paths opened up before me, especially in the dioceses of Mar de la Plata. This path led to the founding of a parish community in a disadvantaged rural area (catechesis, paraliturgy and even baptisms and direct when necessary), university pastoral work and evangelization of the young, the formation of pastoral agents, and more besides.
From then on, the themes of women, justice and communication became slowly intertwined.
A short while ago I wrote an open letter to Pope Francis in which I thanked him for healing the open wounds of the Church, the atrocities of abuse and modern slavery, along with the violations of women’s dignity. In addition to answering this call, “Francis go and repair my Church.” Like the saint of Assisi, for offering us guidance with Evangelii Gaudium, for teaching us to listen to the cry of the lowly and the planet with Laudato si’, for pointing us to the path of brotherhood for all humanity in Fratelli Tutti, and for his passion for families, especially those most in need, in Amoris Laetitia.
However, as someone serving in a women’s movement, I feel that although the Pope has appointed women to key positions in the Roman Curia, still not enough progress has been made in considering women as an asset. There are women who are eligible to preside over family courts, seminary formation teams, and ministries (of listening, spiritual direction, planetary care, human rights advocacy, and others). I hope, along with so many others in the women’s movements in the Church, that this will be overcome soon. I believe in the direction taken by this Pope.
With the synod on synodality, for example, a new air is coming from Latin America. This is demonstrated by the fact that, accepting the Pontiff’s suggestion, the bishops of the region did not convene an assembly of bishops like the historic ones of Medellín in 1968, Puebla in 1979 or Aparecida in 2007, but an ecclesial assembly of the People of God, where we were all invited to be heard.
We received thousands of moving testimonies, both for the suffering and discrimination of Latin American women and of their experiences in overcoming the Covid-19 emergency. The pandemic has deepened the pre-existing dramas and resilience of women, their families, and their peoples. I trust this Pope, who in addition to lashing out against chauvinism and clericalist behaviour, told 60 Latin American bishops in Bogota, “Hope has the face of a woman.”
Nevertheless, there is still a gap at the international and local levels between women and the Church that needs to be bridged. To this end, it is imperative that, as a mother, the Church echoes the situations of vulnerability that so many women currently experience, and their strength. This is why we at WUCWO have created the World Observatory for Women.
Today, the analysis of women’s movements is complex; it swings in an arc of different positions, which in a sense reflect what is happening throughout the Church.
On one side are the groups who are nostalgic for the papal magisterium of some years ago. Their approach is a religious fundamentalism that does not respect the freedom of others and fuels forms of intolerance, while waiting for the Church to impose herself using her power. At the opposite pole, there are those who aspire, I believe erroneously, to a democratic Church, where the quota of women in positions of power is equal to that of men. In this Church, the so-called sexual and reproductive rights of women (an expression that usually conceals the ideology of gender and abortion in extreme situations) and the female priesthood are included. Generally, these are elite movements and rely on economic power that allows public demonstrations.
I think I can say that the sensus fidei of the majority of Catholic women is not in these extremes nor is it part of the elite. However, it is clear that I agree that there is an urgent need for women to become part of church teams, at all levels, where decisions are made. Women have are “thirsty for participation”.
The approximately eight million women of the WUCWO, who are present on all continents, constitute, on the one hand, an existential observatory of women in the world, and on the other, a force for renewal from the grassroots. This co-responsibility with men and with a great love for the Church, can effectively collaborate in the culture of care that Francis dreams of for “the” Church, who “is woman”, and who therefore demands an evangelization with feminine traits.
by María Lía Zervino
MARÍA LÍA ZERVINO is an Argentine sociologist, and laywoman, belonging to the Association of Consecrated Virgins Servidoras. Born in Buenos Aires sixty years ago, she is president of the World Union of Catholic Women’s Organizations, the only movement of Catholics recognized by the Holy See as an international public association of the faithful, an extensive network representing eight million women on all continents. An important voice that is attentive to the issues that animate the debate of women in the Church and interreligious dialogue. A year ago, on the anniversary of his pontificate, she wrote an impassioned open letter to Pope Francis in which she called for an extra step regarding the role of women in the Church. “As a woman I feel I’m in credit. You fight against chauvinism and clericalism, yet I think that not enough progress has been made to employ women’s talents who make up a large part of the People of God”.