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Action by women’s lay movements

Catholics in the game

 Le cattoliche in campo  DCM-010
04 November 2023

Into the wheat fields, they came armed with pens, notebooks and the Gospel. To the women who were reaping there, they taught reading and writing, and passed on the rudiments of the language along with the Word of God.

The path towards a leading role for Catholic women in the Church and society also starts from there, from worn out shoes and dusty clothes. “For literacy campaigns, the Women’s Youth of Catholic Action used liturgy texts, circulating translations that had not been made public. They understood that there was a problem of women’s protagonism and it came through education and knowledge”, says Stella Morra, a theologian and sociologist. “Even being divided between men and women was seen as a resource, not a limitation. It was about finding places where women could speak freely”.

It was at the beginning of the 20th century that women’s associationism began to take shape, thanks, in particular, to Catholic Action. For example, Armida Barelli, the daughter of a middle-class family in Milan, studied in Switzerland and who had a robust spirituality. At the request of Cardinal Ferrari in 1918, she founded the Ambrosian Women's Youth, then, the following year, urged by Benedict XVI, the national equivalent. She was to become the “elder sister” of many girls who in parishes went onto also find the way to meet themselves. Thousands of women who between moments of study, prayer, gatherings, summer camps, especially in the South, discovered they too could be protagonists even outside the walls of the home. “Barelli’s social dimension is expressed through the promotion of women’s culture, through literacy, training, and the university. The associative press, differentiated by age groups and social categories, was the groups’ main instrument that were led by the women themselves”, notes sociologist Chiara Canta.

Barelli, whom Francis declared blessed on April 30, 2022, is a pioneer in so many spheres, from Catholic Action, to the Sacred Heart Catholic University and the Secular Institute of the Missionaries of Royalty with Father Agostino Gemelli, to the Work of Royalty. Seeds of Catholic Action also made the Italian Women’s Center and the Women’s Promotion group flourish. Alda Miceli, who succeeded her as head of the Women’s Youth, “was to be one of the thirteen laywomen who participated in Vatican II , women involved in the Church and Catholic associations in various capacities, who represented significant realities and 'vital worlds' made up of thousands of active women around the world”, Canta says.

“From the beginning, the statutes, both of the Catholic Women’s Union, which was founded in 1908, and of Armida Barelli’s Women’s Youth, which was founded in 1918, provided for the eligibility of offices in a democratic form”, points out historian Ernesto Preziosi. “This is a path that also marked a new sensibility referring to the presence of women in society and their right to participate in political elections. A right on which Catholic women fought with public interventions that helped bring to Parliament a bill partially approved by the Chamber of Deputies on September 6, 1919 with the support of the Italian People’s Party”, Preziosi says.

It was not until 1945 that Italian women were granted the right to vote, and at that moment, Catholic women organized the widest electoral participation. At that moment, Barelli wrote, “We women are a force in Italy; out of one hundred votes 47 are from men 53 by women.” A vast work of sensitization that undoubtedly has produced its effects also in ecclesial as well as civil sensibility and discourse”, Preziosi states. And Armida’s “sisters” were women who went on to make history in our country as well, suffice it to mention the partisan “Gabriella”, or the young Tina Anselmi, who went on to be minister of the Republic, chairwoman of the Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry into the P2 Masonic Lodge and promoter of the Equal Opportunity Law.

In short, Barelli, “with her work contributed in a decisive way to the promotion of young Christian women in the first half of the 20th century, to the process of integration between North and South, extending her action also in the international field”, writes Francis, in the preface to Ernesto Preziosi’s book, La zingara del buon Dio [The Good Lord’s Gypsy]. It is a role that the Pope also recognizes for Catholic Action in today’s world, so much so that he invited Eva Fernandez Mateo, coordinator of the International Forum of Catholic Action (FIAC), to participate in the last synodal assembly. “I am convinced that the experience of faith through Catholic Action has helped women a lot since the beginning of the XX century”, says Eva Fernandez Mateo, who recalls the figure of “Pilar Bellosillo, founder of Spanish Catholic Action, who was an auditor at the Second Vatican Council”.

Founded in 1987, FIAC is present in about 30 Countries, on five continents, and speaks of lay protagonists, often expressed in the feminine, in Catholic Action around the world. “Beatrice Buzzetti of Argentina was the first female coordinator from 1997 to 2004, followed by Paola Bignardi of Italy. Mention should also be made of Maria Eugenia Diaz, from Mexico, who was also president of the World Union of Catholic Women. In addition, Viorica Lascu, the first collaborator of those Romanian bishops later martyred by the communist regime, who then helped set up a single Catholic Action, with the two rites, and pushed it into the FIAC for this international opening”, recalls Maria Grazia Tibaldi, among the founders of the FIAC of which she is now secretary.

Pope Francis also invited the president of the Focolare Movement, Margareth Karram, to the Synod.  To think that when the Movement was taking its first steps, it was precisely the significant presence of women that caused perplexity. Historian Elena Del Nero recalls the words of Monsignor Traglia in 1959 during a plenary session of the Italian Bishops’ Conference (CEI). “When discussing the possibility of dissolving the Focolare he said ‘the movement cannot be approved, what attracts wonder are the women who act as teachers of the spirit’; followed by Cardinal Siri who declared strong doubts about the possibility of 'restoring' the Movement, stressing that ‘there is a woman involved’”. In January 2020, a focolarina, Francesca Di Giovanni, a jurist, became the first woman to hold an executive position in the Secretariat of State, under-secretary of the Section for Relations with States.

By statute, the Focolare movement must have a female president. John Paul II approved this request of the foundress, Chiara Lubich. The norm, “confirms how a woman, even though she has not received Holy Orders, can preside over an ecclesial body, to which belong, alongside lay members, a large representation of priests, religious men and women too, as well as a good number of bishops who share the spirituality of the Movement. All this seems to me to glimpse new horizons for the role of women in the Church”, Lubich explained in an interview.

Catholic Action, the Focolare Movement, and Scouting too. After twenty years of dictatorship and several years of war, “in Italy the experience of women’s scouting, the AGI (Italian Guides Association merged into the Italian Catholic Guides and Scouts Association (AGESCI), was born from a small group of young women from the Roman bourgeoisie, an entirely self-managed women’s squadron”, recalls Roberta Vincini president of the AGESCI National Committee.

In the post-Council period, the Association ratified the figure of the Chiefs as lay leaders. “The AGI knew that they could actively participate in the building of an ecclesial community, and in particular the Chiefs felt committed as women and as scout educators to bring their specific contribution”, adds Daniela Ferrara, Chief Guide of Italy. “In 1974 came the choice of diarchy, or coeducation: the Association entrusted educational and governmental tasks to a woman and jointly to a man, with equal dignity and responsibility”. A protagonism that AGESCI women also embody in Italian society, “suffice it to mention Maria Teresa Spagnoletti, magistrate of the Juvenile Court of Rome. Or Giovannella Baggio president of the National Study Center on Health and Gender Medicine and elected Member of the Scientific Board of the International Society for Gender Medicine”.

Therefore, Lay associations have done much for the maturation of Catholics. A great contribution also came from women's access to the study of theology, sanctioned by the Second Vatican Council. “The women of the Gioventù Femminile [Female Youth] understood that there was a need not to be illiterate either of the Italian language or of the faith, and that was more significant to participate to the public debate”, says Stella Morra. However, on the other hand, the whole society was changing. “The status of women was structurally blocked; they had no economic, legal autonomy. And the ecclesial community had a great distrust of the more public dimension, of women acquiring professions, economic autonomy, because it clashed with the romantic mythologizing of the family”. An ambivalence that marked ecclesial life, Morra concludes. “On the public level, certain pillars did not have to be moved, particularly that of the family and non-domestic work. That inevitably did move, and changed the private as well. And posing a series of questions to the Church with which, as we are seeing in the synodal process, even now we have to come to terms”.

by Vittoria Prisciandaro
A journalist with San Paolo magazines “Credere” and “Jesus”