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Nuns, and their long march

 Suore, la lunga marcia   DCM-004
02 April 2022

For the first time a woman will vote in the synodal assembly

Last year, the news that a woman would be able to vote in the Assembly of Bishops for the first time made the headlines and was accompanied by photos. Sister Nathalie Becquart, of the Xaverian Congregation (Xavieres), whom Francis had appointed as undersecretary to the Synod in February 2021, has in fact acquired the right to vote due her position. Until now, this right has been exercised only by men. About this innovation, Sister Becquart says, “I feel like a small link in a big chain, where there are the women who preceded me, I think of the conciliar mothers, and the ones who are in the local Churches, my sisters, the laywomen, the women of the people of God. I am not here for me, I experience all this with simplicity but with a great sense of history”, Nathalie declares several times. Well, some of the links of the long chain of which the nun speaks were forged in the little building on the Tiber embankment, in Piazza di Ponte Sant’Angelo, where the International Union of Superiors General (IUSG) has its headquarters. That is to say, the network that since 1965 has been keeping women’s congregations scattered throughout the world together, sharing formation paths, offering programs, meetings and publications to assist in leadership activities.

Today, the IUSG consists of 1,903 superiors, representing congregations in Africa (166), Asia (184), Europe (1046), the Americas (479) and Oceania (28). Over the years it has defined its framework, which includes a President with a Steering Committee and an Executive Secretary.

The Superiors are divided into 36 groups -called Constellations-, which are found on all continents, and each elect Delegates. Together with the members of the Steering Committee, they form the Council of Delegates. The IUSG collaborates with Conferences of Women Religious, such as the CLAR of Latin America and the Caribbean, the US LCWR, and the Canadian Conference. In addition, it has initiated inter-congregational projects on peace, justice, ecology, solidarity and social change, with particular attention to the most vulnerable. Examples of their activities include: Catholic Care for Children (CCC), which aims to ensure that children can live in healthy and welcoming families; and, the Migrants in Sicily Project, where religious from various congregations are involved in the integration and accompaniment of those who land on the Sicilian coast. In addition, there is the Protection Project, which provides support and training on the many aspects of abuse (sexual, spiritual and psychological). Then there is the Sowing Hope for the Planet campaign, inspired by Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’; and, Sisters, a global advocacy. Finally, there is Talitha Kum, the international initiative founded in 2009, and organized via 60 local networks in almost 90 Countries, which work to combat human trafficking and exploitation,.

Over the years, the IUSG has gained recognition and credibility. To understand where it all started from, it is interesting to consult the book by Sister Grazia Loparco. Consecrated for the Church and the World, she has reconstructed the first 50 years of the IUSG -from its foundation to 2015-, through the internal bulletins. The story shows how, in just a few decades, awareness and empowerment have gone hand in hand. The bulletins speak of the Committees created to delve into issues that affect consecrated women and are intertwined with the news; for example, on education, justice and peace, vocations, and women. In addition, there is a lot of formation and study. At the end of the seventies, in fact, the superiors realized that it was necessary to fill certain theological gaps, to elaborate a thought that started not only from practice, from the experience that religious at the pastoral level did not lack, but also from a structured and qualified formation. In addition, central themes in the life of the Church, from inculturation to new ministries, came to the table. Then, in later years, there was the issue of abuse and that of the “religious immigration” of young women, of novices, brought to the West to support the church’s work that would have otherwise closed. “The history of the IUSG appears as the tip of an iceberg and at the base of which is the experience of hundreds of thousands of women, as many as one million in the first post-Conciliar period, variously distributed over the continents according to the periods and trends of increase in presences and their works in favor of people”, writes Loparco.

The beginnings date back to 1951, when Pius XII convened an extraordinary meeting involving the Superior Generals. They had their general house in Rome, and his intention was to create a national council of women religious. From that moment on, they continued to meet regularly, eventually creating the IUSG, which was officially approved by the Second Vatican Council during its last day of work, December 8, 1965.

The year 1970 marked an acceleration. In that year, writes Loparco, the president, Sister Mary Linscott, was consulted for a document on religious life by Cardinal Villot, the then Secretary of State. In reality, it was the women religious who had requested the meeting, since only the Union of Superiors General had been asked. To Sister Linscott the invitation was addressed in a personal way, as president of the IUSG, but the religious asked that the entire executive be involved. “In a very short time the interested superiors, scattered throughout the world, met in Rome; there were 23 who studied the drafts and prepared critical observations. Together with these, the superiors sent a letter to the Pope describing the experience and the points of growth and hope for the renewal of religious life. The Evangelica Testificatio assumed many reports of the USG and the IUSG”. At the last moment, the president and vice-president of the IUSG was also invited to participate in the synod of bishops in 1971 and 1974. In those years when everything was to be conquered, there was also the relationship with the representative bodies of the religious. “Consultation about the plenary sessions of the Dicastery of Religious was slower, becuase in the early 1970s there was still the idea that women religious were not part of it”, writes Loparco. It has only been since 1976 that women religious in the IUSG have been able to attend and speak at Plenaries.

As for the synods, we would have to wait more than 40 years for the derisible presence of women religious to begin to be noticed. “We religious women represent 80 percent of religious life and we had the opportunity to bring only three representatives to this synod and the previous one on the family,” declared Sister Sally Hodgdon, -the then UISG vice president-, immediately after the youth synod, in 2018.

In view of the Assembly on Amazonia, the American religious added; “After officially asking to be present, we were answered affirmatively, but we were given a criteria to choose the three sisters representing the IUSG. The religious represent just 20 percent, yet they always have ten members representing them. They do not have to ask and are not given a criteria for choosing members”. The religious had written to the Pope, and so at the Assembly on Amazonia things had improved slightly; of the 55 auditors, 10 were religious presented by the IUSG. In 2018, among other things, a lively debate had arisen around a petition, promoted by a dozen organizations (including Voices of Faith and Future Church), to ask the synod fathers and the Pope, that the religious general superiors could vote at the Synod, on a par with the religious brothers (who are not priests).

The current synod of bishops (which will have its final assembly in 2023) is on the topic of synodality. The IUSG is part of this journey, both with the theme of the plenary (May 2-6, the meeting in Rome) and with the contributions that the IUSG and the USG will send at the end of the diocesan phase.

As yet, we still do not know what the composition of that Synodal Assembly will be like, but what is certain is that there will be a first with the presence of Sister Nathalie Becquart. This has happened thanks to that chain that comes from afar and it is foreseeable that it will be enriched with new links going forward.

by Vittoria Prisciandaro
A  journalist for the San Paolo Magazines “Credere” and “Jesus”