· Vatican City ·


Grazia Loparco, an Italian Salesian Sister

The importance of education

 L’importanza dell’educazione  DCM-008
02 September 2023

Grazia Loparco, who was born in Locorotondo (Bari), is a nun with the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians, a lecturer at the Pontifical Auxilium Faculty in Rome, and a historian. She is interested in historical research on nuns, women, education, Jews, and the Salesian Family in the world. She is on the editorial board of “Woman Church World”.

In referring to the Second Vatican Council, have women in recent years been able to come out of the margins to which they have been relegated for centuries?

If we refer to the Catholic Church, I believe that the opening up of the Faculties of Theology to women and lay people in general has laid the groundwork for better preparation in this field. Hence the maturing of skills that are gradually being recognised and valued, because we are on common ground, we speak the same valued language. Poor culture is certainly a fundamental reason for marginalisation. For me, however, this is not to be confused with access to hierarchical power. It is precisely the theological understanding of women that can enrich and I would say rebalance the way of understanding authority, the roles, which in the Church have arisen as ministries, that is, service in the People of God and not as an assertion of dominance.

The risk of careerism is always present, be that in men or women; where there is a less interested way of seeing a freer voice can arise, in my opinion, a constructive criticism, that stays close to people, their needs, doubts, anxieties and hopes.

Despite the steps that have been taken, we all notice that women are still not really authoritative interlocutors in various circumstances. This is due to persistent prejudices in training, which many times already sink into families and extend into the life of church communities. On fragility, on the wholeness of the person, on the integration of “mind, heart, hands”, as Pope Francis reminds us, women generally have more insight and experience; if they were listened to and valued in cooperation they could better integrate more specifically male skills, to the benefit of all. I believe the journey has begun, but the change of mentality is still a long way off. It must be remembered, however, that today's world is experiencing an accelerated pace, and the long history of the Church should not deceive us about the possibility of delay.

What was the role of the Council in this direction?

The Council represented a turning point of attention to the modern world, the decision for a dialogue with contemporaneity that was going through a complex crisis. The Church, in a generic sense, because so many saints are the magnificent exception, had for a long time been more concerned with defending principles than with announcing in new language the meaning of life that philosophers, artists, and men of letters were denouncing having lost, having renounced an open gaze on the mystery. The extraordinary figure of Paul put back at the centre the theme of witness, of commitment to building a civilization of love. It was the opposite of a formalistic or intimist religiosity, “from the sacristy”, where ideologies would have liked to relegate the clergy, while waiting for them to disappear. Secularization, once recognised, required and entailed changes in the life of the local Churches. But not everywhere, not always. Real history prevents us from affirming anything clearly, if we do not want to fall into ideological reductionism.

In Italian society, but perhaps we can broaden our horizon to Europe and the world, the 1970s were characterised by immense female protagonism. Women emerged from the margins that society had imposed on them. Can we speak of a parallel phenomenon in the Church? With what similarities? With what differences?

In European society, women emerged as protagonists thanks to widespread education, access to professions and politics. This was thanks to economic independence and freedom to make choices concerning the affective and sexual dimention. To be concrete, there is a growing number of women who, thanks to reading, television and cinema, are appropriating ideas and behaviour that were previously considered reserved for the elite.

There has also been a more qualified female contribution in parishes, perhaps in the first decades under the impetus of the Council, then almost forced by the decrease in priests. The assumption of women's role to speak and responsibility in various cases seemed to be a form of vindication, in conjunction with feminist movements. This generated, at least initially, mistrust of the more critical, albeit well intentioned, by those who remained in the male chauvinist or paternalist mindset, and sought the collaboration of women who were executive and submissive by culture or training. Is it a coincidence that even in recent mixed movements and communities, it has happened more than once, that the cultural formation of women has not been promoted?

In recent decades, thanks also to Catholic feminists and a certain acceptance by the clergy, there has been a move away from marginality in various parts. The similarity in society and the Church may be in certain relational and cultural processes involving men and women. I see a difference in the fact that respect for women as persons, before roles, is an original datum of Christianity, albeit blurred in its practical consequences. On the other hand, the canonisation of many women has evidently helped to highlight that we are not just “daughters of Eve”.

Can we define the main stages of the journey out of the margins for women in the Church?

To answer this question, we should confront ourselves with what we mean by church and margins, and try not to apply our interpretative categories to the past. To answer in a few lines is impossible, though I will just recall a few points. The martyrdom of the early centuries placed women at the heart of Christian witness on a par with bishops and popes. The same is true of their freedom to decide on consecration and the apostolic life, while combining faith and concrete charity, by the very fact that they remained in contact with the people, deprived of the possibility of becoming entrenched in doctrine.  Those who live service to the poor in the redemption of dignity, those who educate by elevating the populace, those who support humiliated women, are they on the margins or at the centre of the Church? If by centre we mean power, are we sure we understand the Church? This applies to believers and non-believers alike. If we do not want to prolong the misunderstanding continually denounced by Pope Francis, we need to understand the nature and mission of the Church. Not so much in theory, because Lumen Gentium is splendid, but in the daily life of local communities.

What role did the sisters play in this journey? 

In the 19th century and up to the middle of the 20th century in Europe, nuns dedicated to the apostolate were at the forefront of female protagonism in certain fields, which opened the way for laywomen in other continents of mission too. Just think of the new figures of graduate teachers, nurses, missionaries, with the requirements of cultural preparation, travel, entrepreneurial skills for many communities, money management for structural work, sobriety of life and solidarity, universality in service. When and where these aspects have become widespread values among women in society, the figure of the religious has lost social attractiveness. Religious life, at the heart of the Church, is also called to keep up with the times, with the new anthropological, spiritual and social challenges. Formation, I believe, makes and will make the difference, not only in Europe, for a credible and “therefore” authoritative witness to the Gospel. The attitude of discernment and conversion day by day transforms life, making it more human, a sign and call of hope for oneself and for all. (Ritanna Armeni)