Right at the outset of the Rome Congress celebrating the fifty years of the Social Justice and Ecology Secretariat (SJES), Fr. Arturo Sosa, Superior General of the Society of Jesus, challenged all participants to make the gathering not only a time to celebrate the many accomplishments of the last 50 years, but to take advantage “of this special moment in which God is again speaking to us and inviting us to remember, to thank, to discern, and to take audacious, bold, and risky decisions to accompany Jesus and his people at the frontiers, together with the most excluded, poor, and vulnerable.”
He “dared to offer” us ten points, inviting us to reflect on them with “with transparency and courage”. The fourth of these points addressed the “the place of women in our social institutions and priorities”. He asked the group to reflect on the following questions: “What role do women play in the processes of discernment and decision-making for our life-mission? What place do they have among the priority challenges of a world that marginalizes women and a Church that is reluctant to recognize their co-responsibility in the leadership of the community of the followers of the Lord Jesus?”
This question resonated well with the people gathered there: Jesuits, lay people, men and women from the four corners of the world who have dedicated themselves to the elimination of all forms of injustice, and who accompany people at the frontiers, where the most excluded, poor, and vulnerable people are. It is there, at the frontiers that they have seen that poverty and exclusion have a feminine face. They know first hand that girls are less likely to be sent to school, that the vast majority of refugees in camps are women, that sexual violence against women is used as weapon of war. They have also seen that when women participate as full members in any initiative that seeks to improve living conditions and strengthen democratic processes, whether it is educational system, income generation activities, or the defense of human rights, these initiatives are more likely to be successful.
Fr. General’s challenging words, went to the core of the issue: unless we are able and willing to look with boldness at our own structures, at how women are involved in our own process of discernment and decision making in the Society of Jesus and in the Church, we will not be able to see the marginalization of women in society as a whole, as a priority challenge.
These words fell on fertile ground at the congress, especially among the 34 women who were present. Many commented that they felt encouraged by Fr. General words, but also challenged to respond to his invitation. We asked for a meeting with Fr. General the next day. He said yes.
That same night over 30 women from every continent, gathered at 9 pm to decide together what we wanted to say to Fr. General in the 15 minutes we were given to meet with him. It was late and we did not have much time. Most of us had never met before, we were tired after a long day of meetings, we needed translation as we spoke different languages, we came from different backgrounds and experiences: academics, grassroots workers, activists, administrators, young and not so young, some with many years of experience with the Society of Jesus, others less.
It was a deeply moving experience. At that moment we felt that “the God of the dawn”, as Fr. Melo said in that same congress, was truly present among us. We knew that despite our differences, we shared a deep mission and commitment to the service of the faith that struggles for the justice of the gospel, and to do so as women.
It was not hard to come up with what we wanted to say to Fr. General who welcomed us with joy and openness the next day, in the beautiful Chapel of the Annunciation, for what extended to be a 45 minute meeting! We wanted first of all to express our gratitude to him for inviting everyone at the Congress to reflect with courage on the role that women play in the processes of discernment and decision-making in the Society of Jesus, as well raising questions about their role in the Church. These are in fact the key questions that reflect our own preoccupations and feelings
We commended him for some important statements that he has made in the past on the role of women in the Church such as when he spoke at the Voices of Faith conference. We also noted that an important decree was written in General Congregation 34 on the role of women.
We offered our availability to reflect on how to best respond to this felt need. We proposed that he create a commission to develop a process of reflection in the Society of Jesus on the questions that he raised, as well as to bring to life again Decree 14 of GC 34. We are convinced that this reflection would not only help the Society of Jesus, but it could also help the Church as a whole.
We were encouraged by Fr. General‘ s positive response. He asked the group to work on Terms of Reference for such a commission, with details on the mandate, composition and timeline. We agreed that the commission should be composed of men and women, lay and religious, who represent not only the social sector, but the different sectors of the Society of Jesus.
After some moments of laughter and photo taking, there was a strong feeling in the room of being together on a shared mission for justice and reconciliation. We are all aware, that like all struggles for justice and all paths to reconciliation, there will be differences and conflict and that honest listening will be required. But as Fr. General said “We know well that the discernment requires boldness; the audacity to seek what seems impossible, because we count on God’s grace, which is enough for us.”
As we gathered together, we felt that we are all ready to enter this moment of Kairos to reflect on the role of women with the same boldness and audacity which we learn from our brothers and sisters living on the margins of society.
This article first appeared on Companions on 13 December 2019. It was the fourth article that the members of delegation contributed to the publication. Jenny Cafiso is Executive Director of Canadian Jesuits International and Assistant to the Provincial for International Ministries. She was one of a 4 member delegation from this province who attended the 50th Anniversary Celebration of the Rome Congress celebrating the fifty years of the Secretariat for Social Justice and Integral Ecology (SJES).