“By giving a voice to those who are frequently voiceless, you bear witness to the God-given dignity of every person,” Pope Francis told a group of women and other representatives of Catholic Extension, a fundraising organization that supports disadvantaged communities across the USA, on April 26, 2023. The seven women, five sisters and two lay women, spoke in a press conference about their work serving the most marginalized, from refugees at the US border to communities that witnessed school shootings. They explained how they have felt empowered by Pope Francis’ attention to women and the synodal process, and are grateful for having had the opportunity to bring to the Vatican the stories of those they serve.
“The presence of us women is an important and vital part of the Church and so for the Holy Father to welcome this voice is truly crucial,” said Sister Norma Pimentel, of the Missionaries of Jesus, who cares for immigrants at the US-Mexico border. “Pope Francis is truly present to us with the work that we are doing, as we reach out to the most vulnerable, those who are at the peripheries, to welcome them as part of the Church.”
This group of women was in Rome from April 23 to 28 to meet with the Pontiff and other Vatican officials, including the Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin. Cardinal Blase Cupich, Archbishop of Chicago, was also present as the Chancellor of the board of governors of the organization.
Catholic Extension is a pontifical organization founded in 1905 and today is present in 87 dioceses, including in Puerto Rico.
No greater gift than knowing the Holy Father supports you
“Listening to and including the experiences and perspectives of all, especially those on the margins of society, enriches the Church’s life and ministry,” Pope Francis told the representatives of Catholic Extension during the audience. “For the Church is like a rich tapestry, made up of many individual threads that come from various peoples, languages and cultures, yet woven into a unity by the Holy Spirit.”
In his speech Pope Francis congratulated Sister Pimentel, who received Catholic Extension’s 2023 Spirit of Francis award for her service to migrants at the border, which he described as “caliente, caliente” (hot in Spanish). She said she was “humbled and honored” and that this prize “acknowledges the amazing presence of the Holy Father, his mission and who he is” to the organization.
Sister Carol Keehan, of the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul, who has promoted affordable healthcare in the US and was the recipient of the award last year, said she had also received a letter from Pope Francis congratulating her and expressing his support.
“You can’t have a greater gift. For people who are Catholic and want to serve the Church and live the Church’s message, that was just an incredible moment, ” Sister Keehan said. If caring for the most vulnerable “is the priority of the Vicar of Christ on earth it makes even more real the Gospels where Jesus talks about it being his priority as well. […] It means so much to people working so hard to know that the Holy Father’s heart is with them.”
“Dear friends, I encourage you as well to continue to express ‘God’s style’ in the work that you do. God’s style is never distant, detached or indifferent. Instead, it is one of closeness, compassion and tender love,” Pope Francis said in his speech.
“This is not a superficial synod, it says “I want to hear you and I demand to hear you””
Pope Francis also told the Catholic Extension delegation that their work bringing out the voices of the disadvantaged is especially important in the context of the “path of synodality” that the Church is currently taking and which the Pontiff began in 2021. This process has so far featured a diocesan and continental phase, where Catholic faithful all over the world were able to share and discern on how they see the Church today and in the future. During the press conference the women in fact spoke about how valuable and enriching this moment had been for them.
“This was such an exciting time in our little community, […] we are only 200 people, but it was so full of enthusiasm and especially full of wisdom,” said 80-year-old Sister Marie Paule Willem, of the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary, who lives in a small village in New Mexico and supports women in the local detention center.
“This has not been a superficial gathering of opinions, insights, challenges, […] these people, who before you only saw as needy, have wisdom beyond belief. That is why the way the Holy Father has organized this synod is so important. This is not a superficial synod … this is an ‘I want to hear you and I demand to hear you,’” added Sister Keehan.
A new right to vote for women
The third and final phase of the synodal process will occur in October when the Synod of Bishops, a Vatican body that brings together the world’s bishops, will gather in Rome. These women were speaking a day after the General Secretariat of the Synod announced that the October meeting will feature, in addition to the bishops, 80 Catholics with the right to vote, of whom half are to be women. This is a significant change as those selected, which will have to be approved by Pope Francis, can be lay people, priests, religious or other.
“I love our Pope appointing women and now giving them voting rights. He is thinking of so many things, which is very encouraging for us,” said Sister Fatima Santiago, a Missionary Sister of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, who works at an outreach center that helps immigrants at the US-Mexico border. She explained that in her immigrant community the women “carry on the work of the Church,” as most of the men are busy in their employment.
“Anytime you have a body of people, such as the Church, you have a great deal of competence, intellect, wisdom and devotion. You should use all of it,” added Sister Keehan. “I think it will enrich the Church so much from every perspective. From the perspective of married people, single people, men, women, religious, lay people. It’s part of the genius and the openness of this Pope.”