Rome seminar highlights 'unsung heroes' among religious sisters

By Hannah Brockhaus

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Women religious at a meeting with Pope Francis in Nairobi, Nov. 26, 2015. Credit: Martha Calderon/CNA.

A symposium in Rome on “women religious on the front lines” praised the often unrecognized and unappreciated work of religious sisters, especially those working with survivors of human trafficking and war.

U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See Callista Gingrich spoke at the April 11 event, which she said was to “recognize and celebrate women religious, often the unsung heroes of the Catholic Church.”

“They serve the displaced and the desperate. They work in countries like South Sudan and Syria, where governments have failed, and humanitarian organizations struggle,” she said.

“It is my hope that this symposium will help to recognize the work that women religious do around the world.”

Organized by the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See, the International Union of Superiors General (UISG), and Solidarity with South Sudan, other speakers at the event were Sr. Patricia Murray, executive secretary of UISG, and Fr. Henry Lemoncelli, a member of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life.

Archbishop Paul Gallagher, Vatican secretary for relations with states, gave the closing remarks, describing some of his own encounters with women religious working “on the front lines” of the Church from his time as a nuncio.

The event also included two panels: one on women religious working with survivors of human trafficking, which was made up of two religious sisters and a human trafficking survivor; and the second on women religious working in conflict zones, which was made up of three religious sisters.

Sr. Cecilia Espenilla told CNA following the event that though sisters cannot give birth to new life in the traditional sense, “we give life” by giving survivors of trafficking “the hope that there is something in the world, something for them, there is a future for them. And not only for them, but for others too.”

During the panel, Sr. Cecilia gave her perspective on working with survivors of trafficking in the Philippines.

A member of the Congregation of the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena, she is the Philippines coordinator of Talitha Kum, an international network of consecrated life against human trafficking.

“Women have a special dignity. There is no humanity without women, so we have a special role in this world,” she said. “Religious cannot give birth, but we can give life, life to humanity, that no one is second class.”

She also emphasized the importance of prayer in the work that the sisters do. “This is an indispensable element in fighting human trafficking,” she said. “Because we’re not fighting only a [crime] syndicate, we are fighting evil itself, which wants to destroy human dignity.”

Prayer is also important for the survivors themselves, she emphasized, since through it they can “find hope and they can dream again for the future.”

“So that’s the hope we give, that God is there, and he is the one that will love all of us,” the sister told CNA. “To have faith, to really believe that there is someone looking at us... it’s a way to know that no one is abandoned, [that] there are people sent by God to help you rise up again.”

“We are instruments somehow, you and I,” she stated, “and that is our role on earth, to be instruments of God so that we can give life and hope to people.”

During the symposium, Gingrich also recognized Sr. Maria Elena Berini, who was a recipient of the U.S. State Department’s 2018 International Women of Courage Award for her 10 years serving at the  mission in Bocaranga, Central African Republic.

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