· Vatican City ·


The Church of the margins. The pope, who came “from the end of the world”, and his first greeting

From the peripheries
to the centre

 Dalle periferie al centro  DCM-008
02 September 2023

“You know that it was the duty of the Conclave to give Rome a Bishop. It seems that my brother Cardinals have gone to the ends of the earth to get one...but here we are.” 

This was Pope Francis’ first greeting as pontiff. This was the beginning of a pastoral revolution. Francis wanted to emphasise that the new pope came from a distant land, from a peripheral place, at the edge of the centre that guides and directs the Church.  This was compared to Rome, which has always been the capital, to a Europe that is the cradle of the values of Christianity and to a West that has been built on those values.

The first words of the new pope were to the crowd in St Peter’s Square, who were waiting under a light yet insistent March rain for the results of the conclave. To listen to his words again -after more than ten years of pontificate- they take on a broader meaning.

His words do not merely reveal an emotion. They are not merely expressions of modesty and surprise; instead, they are an announcement and a vision. The first non-European pope in the history of the Church, though the son of European immigrants, emphasized his coming from the margins of the world, from the kind of places that are unconsidered or if they are so, then very rarely. He was pointing a way. If the conclave had chosen a pope - this is what his words tell us today – by taking him from the “end of the world”, those places would cease to be periphery, they would overcome limits and boundaries, and they would become the centre of the Church. Ten years after that March evening, we can say that these words would submerge her, change her, and restore her vitality. In an alternation of centrifugal action, with the beautiful image of an outgoing Church, and centripetal force, with the equally effective image of a listening Church. It is significant that the vast majority of the 21 new cardinals appointed in July 2023, come from the so-called peripheries of the world.

Borders, being broken down, and walls are being climbed on both sides.

Can the periphery finally become the centre, can the margins acquire a leading role, and expand until they invade the centre and become one with it? Can they change the Church; can they renew her? Moreover, who are the margins today? Who are the protagonists announcing change from the periphery? 

These are the questions that Women Church World has asked and is asking. Reasoning on the different concepts of “periphery”, be that geographical, existential, spiritual or religious; to which we add “gender”.

There is undoubtedly a geographical, worldwide periphery, which presses on borders.  The countries of a world that until recently were only to be educated, had to limit themselves to knowing the faith that others had brought, with its dogmas, its certainties, its customs, its liturgies, and accept it and absorb it. The lifeblood came from the centre and was for years more or less benevolently distributed over the lowliest of the earth whether they inhabited the forests of the Amazon or the arid lands of Africa or the slums of Asia.

This has been path in which the Church has sometimes been confused, or at least not sufficiently distinguished, with the culture of the West, even - in the distant past - when this coincided with military and political prevarication. Today, it is the peripheries that are giving new life to the centre; it is they who are pointing out a new path of faith, which to a distracted elsewhere has become lukewarm.

There is a precedent. In 2007, at the other end of the world, the fifth Latin American Bishops’ Conference in Aparecida strongly and unequivocally reaffirmed “the preferential option for the poor and excluded”.  The then Cardinal of Buenos Aires Jorge Bergoglio was the President of the Commission drafting the Final Document. It was the document of “an important but relatively small subcontinental conference”, to cite Fr. Diego Fares, SJ in La Civiltà Cattolica, 2017. Today, the Church questions and is questioned by every form of existential peripherally present throughout the world, for example, the homeless, refugees, migrants, political refugees, the sick, the imprisoned, the unemployed, and those discriminated against because of their religion, faith, opinion, gender.

There was also another significant moment. The 2019 Synod was “for the Amazonia”. However, it was immediately evident - and it was well read on the Synod’s website from the year before - that the “great ecclesial, civil and ecological project that seeks to overcome borders and redefine pastoral lines, adapting them to contemporary times” was a goad for the whole Church. “Although the theme refers to a specific region, such as Panama, the proposed reflections go beyond the geographical territory, since they cover the entire Church and refer to the future of the planet”.

That Synod brought to the centre of universal attention the problems of a distant Church, which in Rome became the problems of the whole Church and that spoke to the world.

The drama of the Amazon highlighted the drama of our way of life.  From that Synod, at which the periphery journeyed physically to Rome, came reflections and decisions on aspects close to the heart of women, who are often doubly marginal, both in the Church and in society, such as ministries for example. Even with some disappointments.

Nevertheless, it is a path that has not stopped progressing. Last June, in Rome, the Ecuadorian Kichwa leader of the Sarayaku people, Patricia Gualinga, the Brazilian Sister Laura Vicuña, indigenous of the Kariri people and the Peruvian Yesica Patiachi, of the Harakbut people, representatives of the Amazonian Ecclesial Conference and Repam, were received by the Pope. They spoke about the environment and the responsibilities of the market in the destruction of creation. They also spoke about women's ministries in the Church. They had asked the Pope to meet them.

It is the impulse of the “continent of hope”.

On the other hand, Europe sees its religious vitality shrinking, and is hastily spoken of as a periphery of the faith. France, Italy, Germany, Spain, which built Catholicism, and for centuries been the propulsive centers of Christianity, today appear converted to an economic and social creed that has created barriers and exclusion, that isolates. Moreover, it has cast aside spirituality and faith.

Faith in poor countries is founded, instead, from the richness of the relationship with the other, from its indispensability to overcome the difficulties of daily life. They are at the end of the world, but even from there, they manage to speak, to give new life to the words of the gospel. To offer new horizons. Finally to take the floor. From Africa, from boundless Asia, from the Americas - even those apparently rich, but living the devastating dramas of urban and existential peripheries, a centripetal force is unfolding from the frontiers and moving the Church. This represents an extraordinary opportunity for her to learn and rebuild herself.

Immigrants -be they women or men -have left their countries on the periphery of the world to ask for a better existence, and they also have their experience of life and faith to offer, which are innovative forces. They are not intruders to be turned away, nor just a cheap labor force, for they represent bearers of the vitality of a faith that has faded in our countries, and of new solutions for living together.

As Pope Francis has stressed, “More and more we experience how the presence of the faithful of various nationalities enriches the face of parishes and makes them more universal, more Catholic”.

Combonian Sister Elisa Kidané, who was born in Segheneiti, Ethiopia, who lived for many years in Latin America, now the past few years in Rome, likes to repeat: “now I am a missionary in Italy”

The periphery of women

Can one speak of women on the periphery of the Church? Can one speak of irrelevance, of marginality, of lack of prominence in a Church that has preserved in the thousands of saints and blessed the presence, the history and the memory of women, that every day and in every part of the world celebrates them in parishes, in the streets, in communities? A Church that has placed the cult of Mary at the centre of prayer, of art, of redemption? Can one speak of marginality thinking of the many who have tenaciously built their presence even in such an obviously male institution? Alternatively, to the nuns and sisters who are increasingly important protagonists in the life of the Church?

We can talk about this if we first make a distinction between presence in the Church as a community, as the “ecclesia”, and presence in the places of decision-making and official elaboration. In the latter, the presence of women can still be defined as irrelevant, if not insignificant. Even today, women inhabit the periphery and appear on the margins of major decisions. Of these, they are the object rather than the subject.

Today we can say with some certainty that it is precisely the female periphery that more than others besieges the centre and poses the problem of renewal and greater consistency with the word of the Gospel.

The presence of women in the synod path - primary, fundamental, unavoidable - proves this. Their demands for prominence in decision-making and participation in the thought processes even in the Church are now an inescapable fact. Just as it is a fact that the new epochal awareness of women on the planet commonly defined as “feminism” has entered the strong and obstinate ganglia of ecclesiastical power and is forcing reflection.

Today we are witnessing a paradox. Women's lesser position of power in relation to the “decision-making centre” makes them stronger in these difficult times. Marginality has matured a critical sense that is more necessary than ever for an institution that can only aspire to its own renewal in the coherence of the Gospel message.  It is women who have always been “inside” the Church and have always been kept on the margins, whose capacities have been used but rarely recognised, who show the way out of immobility and a male rituality that is by now plain to see as insufficient. It is women who can make the centre-periphery contradiction become fruitful; they can powerfully illuminate it with the light of the Gospel that is the word of a God made man, a man of the frontier who has given voice to those on the margins. In terms of decision-making, women, extensively, are the poor of the Church. Women’s and feminist movements, believers, religious women, theologians, have opened a very fruitful debate, discussing theories and stances, including spiritual and theological ones, produced by men.  In addition, here they are reversing the geographical perspective, with much vigor and conviction in European countries.

The peripheries are not just distant countries, or little-known places. Geographical and existential peripheries are places where a derelict, marginalised, discarded humanity dwells. Barriers that have often become walls separate them. Today, however, they offer new horizons. They show and can change a social and cultural mentality and above all a vision of faith. They tell us that there is another narrative of existence and that this can change the lives of many.

By Ritanna Armeni