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The UMOFC to the test of a changing world

Global Catholics Women

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03 June 2023

Fifty years of difference and about 12,000 kilometers separate Isabella Sheptak and Rosa Rita Mariano. The former, 20, is a member of the Union of Ukrainian Catholic Women in Canada. The latter, who is 71, is the president of the 70,000 Catholics who belong to the Philippine League. Along with another hundred associations (six of which are Italians), they are part of the World Union of Catholic Women's Organisations (UMOFC), founded in 1910, which is present in about sixty Countries, with a total of approximately eight million women represented. Almost two thousand of these women gathered in Aula Nervi on May 13 to meet Francis. The Pope urged them to ““pray” works and “work” prayer”, to “live like Mary the fullness of being women with the awareness of feeling chosen and protagonist in God’s saving work”. An invitation that, to the 900 or so who then travelled to Assisi for the elective assembly, - held from 14 to 20 May on the theme Women of the UMOFC artisans of brotherhood for a world at peace -, sounded like a confirmation to proceed with their ongoing projects.  “To evangelize today it is necessary to bear witness to a commitment to the common good, to the protection of creation, against an individualistic spirit that particularly marks young people. I want to be the positive face of my community,” says Isabella Sheptak. This young Canadian comes from a Catholic family, studies anthropology, and volunteers with the homeless and refugees. With a group of about ten girls, Isabella was chosen by the UMOFC to bring the views of young people to the assembly. “Intergenerational dialogue is one of the priorities we have for the coming years”, confirms Mónica Santamarina de Robles, who was chosen as the new UMOFC president on Friday May 19. Originally from Mexico, this 64 years old law graduate and mother of four children, Monica has forever been involved in the world of Catholic associations, in Mexico and internationally. She succeeds María Lía Zervino, 72, from Argentina, who is leaving after a single term. Santamarina says, “With the pandemic, we were all forced to go 'digital', even those who are no longer very young. The crisis was an opportunity and today many projects and training sessions are conducted via the web”.

The new president indicates the following actions as priorities: to give continuity to fruitful experiences; consolidate the newly founded Observatory on Women; and, network with other realities working in the social field. These are not vague ideas. This was evident when I stopped to chat with the women present in Assisi who were gathered there to give concreteness to these priorities, and I could understand how much is moving, at a grassroots level, in Africa, Latin America, and wherever the colorful representation of women is experienced in daily life. “You find us cleaning the streets, if we go to a McDonald’s we show up with our own, compostable plates and glasses. We do lectio divina in the parish and help in the training of seminarians; we plant trees, we work for the environment, and with the elderly and the homeless; we have centers for women victims of violence and focus on the training of girls”. Maria Rita Mariano, who is a doctor by profession, explains that the acronym Hope (Holiness/holiness, Outreach/sensitization, Pastoral Involvement/pastoral commitment, and Empowerment/empowerment) sums up well the spirit and the many activities that the Philippine Women's League carries out in the eighty-four dioceses wherever it is present.

“Helping girls with their studies or setting up small businesses, from canning to dairy products, these are the first steps towards independence for us,” says Beatrice Tavares, 61, who is the head of the Catholic Women's Mutual Aid Association in Senegal. Another priority is environmental education, she tells me “It stems from Laudato si’, we are aware as Africans of the damage the earth is suffering. Educating women to respect and care for mother earth has a multiplier effect, in the family, in education with their children”. Beatrice, who trained as a lawyer but is a commercial manager in maritime transport, explains that in Senegal she works in a network with two other UMOFC member associations, the Coordination of Diocesan Unions of Women's Associations and the Catholic Women's Movement. “In all, we are about 13,000 women working for the empowerment of women in Senegal”.

There are local projects, but also more far-reaching ones. Like those promoted by the Women's Observatory, created by the UMOFC in 2021. #invisiblenomore is the campaign against violence and discrimination created at the request of African women. “With the help of the Hilton Foundation, the year-long project included a listening phase, a survey in which 10,680 women from 37 Countries participated, from which emerged the need to combat domestic and economic violence, the phenomenon of trafficking and the lack of access to education”. Ana Martiarena, an Argentinean economist, 44, is the head of the Observatory and the Africa campaign. To raise awareness, a documentary, titled In-visible, by Italian filmmaker Lia Beltrami, and a series of interventions on social media have been produced. In addition, a workshop will be held in Africa before the end of the year “to think about common actions. In the meantime, everyone can become ambassadors of the invisible, by adhering to the initiative on our website (wucwo.org/fr/) to the call to action that we launched on May 13, at the meeting with Francis”.

Another project curated by the Observatory relates to violence and discrimination against women in the Church and society in Latin America. As Mónica Santamarina explains, “It emerged that listening and dialogue are fundamental; many women condemned clericalism that prevents greater participation of women in decision-making processes”. The survey on synodality also revealed a demand to be able to count in the places where decisions are made. In Kenya, Sarah Atieno Kiwanuka, 65 years old, four children and seven grandchildren, tells me, she and her colleagues from the Catholic Women’s Association do everything in their parish communities, from caring for the sick, to liturgies, to spiritual counselling. As deacons? “Yes, as deacons”.  This is also demonstrated by the dress she wears with pride. This is a synod-manifesto, where young people, the elderly, the disabled, pastors, are all on the way, together under the big cross that warms, like the rays of the sun. This is the image we have used on the cover of this month’s issue of Women Church World.

Sarah’s experience recalls that of the outgoing president. María Lía Zervino, who is a member of the Ordo virginum, and a member of the Dicastery for Bishops, also recalls that her first mission was in a very poor parish, 400 km from Buenos Aires, where “I did what today would be called a female diaconate, but without the title”.

From Madame de Velard, a Frenchwoman, who in 1910 had the idea of uniting Catholic women’s leagues around the world; to Miss Florentine Steenberghe-Engeringh, a Dutchwoman, who led it for three decades in the 1920s, giving it international prominence;  to Pilar Belosillo, a Spaniard, who was chosen as an observer at Vatican II, the UMOFC, which was recognised by the Holy See in 2006 as an International Public Association of the Faithful, has always aimed to “collaborate with women, so that they may be protagonists of evangelization and integral human development”, says Zervino. Its greatest asset is that the organisations are the most varied. These include, the “Lay and religious, consecrated, women working in social and cultural fields. From night worship to water wells in the desert, from international organisations, to the Council of Europe, to work with indigenous women in the Amazon and Australia. Networking with secular, ecumenical and other religious organisations. It is truly a cultural richness and enrichment for the Church”. In addition to women, there is a red thread that unites everyone’s work. “As an international organisation we participate in the Movement and the Laudato si’ platform, we are committed to integral ecology. We have always cared for the home, and now that the Pope tells us that the planet is the common home, we have multiplied our projects”.