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“Rooted in Ignatian spirituality, I continue in my commitment alongside the thousands of women who work in Jesuit institutions, knowing that the presence of women is essential and that together we can realize the vision of a world where the dignity of each person is respected—if only we dare to be bold.” This quote from Jenny Cafiso (director of Canadian Jesuits International) underpins the issue of recognizing the role of women within the Church and the Society of Jesus, a role traditionally considered less important than that of consecrated men.

Father General Sosa and women collaborators during the 50th anniversary of justice and ecology.
Father General Sosa and women collaborators during the 50th anniversary of justice and ecology.

Since his election as pope, Francis has often promoted a greater place for women in the Church, calling for “a Church in which the role of women is central.” According to him, women are “the protagonists of a Church that is emerging.” Last October, for example, in his prayer intention, he called for prayers for more women in leadership roles in the Church.

For their part, since the 34th General Congregation of 1995, the Jesuits have been committed to supporting the promotion of women in society and in the Church through Decree 14, which emphasizes this attitude.

We have been part of a civil and ecclesial tradition that has offended against women. And, like many men, we have a tendency to convince ourselves that there is no problem. However unwittingly, we have often contributed to a form of clericalism which has reinforced male domination with an ostensibly divine sanction. By making this declaration we wish to react personally and collectively, and do what we can to change this regrettable situation.

According to Élisabeth Garant, Executive Director of the Centre justice et foi, this decree, which sparked hope, was “the result of important work carried out together, men and women at the heart of the mission, and the significant experiences that Jesuits had had through their contact with women.”

Élisabeth Garant, from the Center for Justice and Faith (right) with others.
Élisabeth Garant, from the Center for Justice and Faith (right).

Today, 26 years after Decree 14, what is the role of women and how are their contributions to the global Society of Jesus and the Jesuit Province of Canada recognized? In order to understand the current context, four women who have been working with the Jesuits for many years have agreed to draw a comprehensive and honest portrait of the situation. I would like to thank Elisabeth Garant (executive director of the Centre justice et foi), Sr. Laurence Loubières (director of the Service for Discernment in Common), Jenny Cafiso (director of Canadian Jesuits International), and Maria Kelsey (pastoral assistant at St. Pius X parish) for their generosity in agreeing to share their experience with us.

Women and the Church

As mentioned above, Pope Francis’ discourse and efforts are an attempt to recognize and put greater value on the contribution of women and to include them in certain roles within the Church. One example is the recent appointment of Xavière sister Nathalie Becquart as undersecretary of the Synod of Bishops.

Despite these efforts, however, the marginalization of women within the universal Catholic Church remains a problem. According to Elisabeth:

The Roman discourse that tends to assign us to well-defined roles without questioning the fundamental vision that created this institutional hierarchization between clerics and laity, and also between men and women, remains dominant and does not seem to be questioned in any way.

Thus, as Sr. Laurence points out, in some Church bodies, such as parishes, “the role of priests is still often overvalued, and the contribution of women, although often decisive in the animation and life of the parish, is still considered peripheral or less important.”

Maria has often experienced this as a lay woman working in a parish.

I remember one time I attended the 11:00 a.m. Sunday mass, during which many of our family programs, for which I am responsible, take place. I was standing at the end of the main aisle and the Jesuit priest was giving a homily on vocation. He told three vocation stories from the Bible, all about men. After Mass, I told him that I was disappointed because he gave the impression that only men are called to have a vocation, and that even if the same homily were given to a group of men, it should also have at least one story about a woman. Otherwise, it perpetuates the stereotype that women have no vocation or that it would be less important than that of men. He hadn’t thought of that, he said. And he was a forward-thinking Jesuit! It’s still obviously a new way of thinking.

Other experiences, not so long ago, reveal a culture of “service” to the Jesuits in Rome, where relationships between women and Jesuits can vary greatly depending on the individuals involved.

Elisabeth continues, “While the words and commitment of Pope Francis on ecology, poverty, immigration, and many other issues challenge the Society of Jesus to do more and to do better, on the issue of women, it is undeniably the responsibility of the Society to help lead the universal Church forward.” How does the Society of Jesus in Canada welcome the work and vocation of women?

Women and Jesuits in the last quarter century

Whereas all the women interviewed expressed that working with the Jesuits is a source of consolation, they also acknowledged that there is a lot of work to do to recognize the role that women play. Elisabeth highlights the fact that, for several female colleagues, “the Society of Jesus has offered significant ways for us to live our faith in a climate of respect, trust, and freedom, in the appreciation of our vocation as baptized women.” She adds:

The Society has given us and continues to give us abundant freedom to engage in reflection and to go beyond the historically significant institutional confines of our Church. I am grateful especially to the Jesuits of the former Province of French Canada, with whom I have been fortunate to work during most of these past years, for this true partnership of equality and genuine sharing of mission.

Sr. Laurence Loubières

Sr. Laurence agrees: “It seems to me that the Jesuit Province of Canada is open to collaboration with women and to what they can bring to help the mission flourish.”

In fact, all the interviewees highlighted the fact that several important positions within the province are now occupied by women, and that they are invited to be members of Jesuit boards of directors, and that they are involved in the apostolic planning process of the provinces of the Society. As Jenny points out, “The Jesuits have become aware that they must speak credibly about social justice, about putting the Gospel into practice, and about walking with the excluded. They must be ready to make radical changes regarding the role of women in the Society of Jesus.”

Thus, for Sr. Laurence, whose work for the province is grounded in the spiritual friendship that exists between the Jesuits and the Xavière sisters, there is no difference in the way she works with male colleagues in the private sector or within the Society of Jesus.

What changes, however, is the collaboration created by sharing the same spirituality, which transforms the work into a common mission that engages us at an existential level. My Jesuit colleagues and the other lay collaborators of the province are for me companions, and together we seek explicitly to witness to Jesus Christ in Canada within the apostolic body of the province.

I am touched by the trust placed in me by the Jesuit Province of Canada and by all the collaborators with whom I am connected. I have very good working conditions in terms of material and technical resources, and I feel tremendous freedom in working together with these colleagues to propose ideas, make suggestions, undertake various activities, and engage in reflection: it is energizing. I do not feel any “clericalism” towards me that would confine me to a subordinate role as a woman.

Uta Sievers met Fr. Peter Bisson in Rome in 2008 for an advocacy project on ecology. In 2010, the Jesuits in English Canada held an ecological retreat for the entire province (men, women, religious, and laity), and Fr. Bisson invited her to attend, all expenses paid except airfare.

This incredible retreat in Guelph was a gift from the Canadian Jesuits to thank me for my ecological work at SJES. Afterwards I visited Toronto and stayed in a Jesuit community. I made friends with some Jesuits, such as Dan Leckman, who is a feminist! I spent a lot of time with Gilles Mongeau who showed me around the city. I feel like an honorary member of the Jesuits of Canada; they have been very generous to me.

The Jesuits in Canada care about the lives of women. It is obvious that they have an openness that is not found everywhere.

Jenny has been inspired by the work and commitment of so many people associated with Jesuit initiatives:

I have been working with the Society of Jesus for over 25 years. During this time, I have had the privilege of working side by side with women and men who work every day for justice, peace, equality, and the care of our common home. They do so with courage, dedication, and deep faith.

Like me, they have been inspired by the Society of Jesus’ commitment to social justice. For some, men and women, this has meant persecution, oppression, and sometimes even death. When they accompany the poor and the excluded of the earth, they see firsthand that poverty and oppression have a feminine face, and that peace, justice, and reconciliation will only be possible if women can live in dignity and have equal rights. Like me, they know that much work needs to be done to bring about justice in our world, in the Society of Jesus, and in the Church, including a stronger voice and greater justice for women, and yet they do not give up.

Rooted in Ignatian spirituality, I continue my commitment alongside thousands of women who work in Jesuit institutions, knowing that the presence of women is essential and that together we can realize the vision of a world where the dignity of each person is respected—if only we dare to be audacious.

The global Society of Jesus, 26 years after Decree 14

Despite these encouraging signs in Canada, much remains to be done in order for the Society of Jesus worldwide to fully recognize the contribution of women. Elisabeth and Jenny saw this at the International Congress to mark the 50th anniversary of the Society of Jesus’ Secretariat for Justice and Ecology in 2019.

Jenny Cafiso with Father General Sosa
Jenny Cafiso with Father General Sosa.

During this event, Father General Arturo Sosa challenged the participants to reflect “with transparency and courage” on “the place of women in our institutions and social priorities.” This challenge echoed previous statements he had made on the subject and similar statements by Pope Francis, not to mention all that women have been saying for years. Fr. Sosa 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 of a Church that is reluctant to recognize its co-responsibility in the leadership of the community of the disciples of the Lord Jesus?

Jenny explains that reactions to Fr. General’s questions have ranged from enthusiasm, relief, and excitement to pessimism and fear.

This mixed reaction reflects the reality that we live within the Society of Jesus, the Church, and society in general. If we take a “long and loving look” at the world today, we see that poverty, exclusion, and oppression have a feminine face.

Likewise, during this event, Elisabeth understood that “the transformative potential of Decree 14, lived with conviction by Jesuits, aroused within the same Society of Jesus a fear among a significant number of Jesuits and that there was strong pressure to prevent this decree from having any major impact on the life of the Society, even though it had real and significant consequences in the lives of individuals, Jesuits and female collaborators (probably also male collaborators).”

I could feel the tension that this decree generated in the Society at the 2008 Continental Meeting of the Social Apostolate in Denver when I dared to put this question at the heart of the exchanges, and the discussion was quickly closed by people in authority at the time. Likewise, I felt this fear, less powerfully but still present, in November 2019 in Rome when the participating women collaborators asked to have a closed-door meeting with Fr. Arturo Sosa and when it was announced that he was authorizing a commission process on the question of women in the Society today.

Today, 26 years after Decree 14 on the place of women, we still need to call for changes in structures and attitudes that generate fear and are painful, and there needs to be a concerted effort to eliminate clericalism in the Society of Jesus and in the Church as a whole, a process that has already begun among the Jesuits of Canada. But it is not easy. “As long as change is seen as a loss of power rather than the fulfillment of our mission of faith that does justice and sets us free, fear and resistance will prevail,” warns Jenny.

The Society of Jesus is on the right path toward truly recognizing the contribution of its female colleagues. On March 8, Father General created a commission on the role and responsibilities of women in the Society of Jesus. Among other things, the commission is to “evaluate the appropriation of Decree 14 of GC 34 in a world that has changed since 1995 and to verify the extent to which co-responsibility, collaboration and inclusion of women in apostolic planning have been promoted.” At the end of a three-year period, the commission will submit a report that, among other things, will propose changes in the formation and structure of the Society.

Going further, together

Maria Kelsey with Dr. Andrew Furey founder and CEO of Team Broken Earth, and one of her former students.
Maria Kelsey with Dr. Andrew Furey founder and CEO of Team Broken Earth, and one of her former students.

How can we move in the direction indicated by Fr. Sosa, toward sharing not only responsibilities but also power and control of the mission? Since the interviews were conducted before Father General’s announcement, the women interviewed proposed their own solutions, all of which include the active participation of women. They also stressed that in a context where it is difficult to renounce clericalism and its multiple manifestations in the Church, it is important that Jesuits agree to continue to live the tension between fidelity to the Church and the ability to read the signs of the times, including the experience of women. “It is essential that we be able to count on the Society to take a courageous stand regarding the situation of women in society, but also in the Church,” added Elisabeth.

For Maria, the fact that Fr. Erik Oland recognized women as marginalized people was an important step. She now hopes that there will be a meeting between the Jesuit provincial administration and its women collaborators to put in place measures that will ensure the greater inclusion of women within the province. It is necessary to show that this is a priority. According to Maria:

There must be a follow-up with the apostolates, not just recommendations. We need to ask pastors, for example: What are you doing about this? What are you going to do about it? What works or doesn’t work? What lessons can we learn for the next step?

Jenny’s recommendation is along the same lines: What’s required is a gendered analysis of the context and a gendered response.

Our “long, loving look” at the world must have the eyes to see how women are disproportionately affected by injustice and exclusion, and it must have the tools to develop a gendered apostolic response that counteracts the inequality between men and women. This is a task not only for the social apostolate but for all Jesuit apostolates, whether educational, pastoral, or spiritual.

Is the society of Jesus, as a men’s religious order, equipped for this task? I believe that it is only to the extent that it lives fully its own commitment to social justice and the accompaniment of those who live on the margins of society, not as a service, but as a co-responsibility.

What we have learned, often with great difficulty (just ask our First Nations brothers and sisters), is that we cannot talk about accompaniment, much less social justice, if those who are marginalized are not at the table where discernment takes place, where issues are discussed and decisions are made, where apostolic plans are developed, where decisions on resource allocation are made, where strategies for youth education or spiritual direction are developed. These processes must include women and, in particular, indigenous women, women of color, working-class women, and girls. In addition, the processes must be based on transparency, participation, and co-responsibility—to use Fr. Sosa’s words.

Elisabeth also suggests that we need to shift the focus of our commitment in order to continually resituate ourselves in a mission that is first and foremost that of God (which was specifically highlighted during the 36th General Congregation).

We must never stop challenging the holding of power and the structures that are oppressive, that prevent us from giving life in abundance, that prevent us from being fully engaged in mission. But we know that the courage of the Society with respect to these issues will always depend on the perseverance of women and their allies who believe in the value of this collaboration.

In this sense, then, in setting up the commission, it is important to highlight an experience from the recent past, namely, the inspiring process of the Society of Jesus in Latin America that asked women to nominate representatives to be presented to Father General. This way of proceeding is the result of a process that began more than two years ago within CPAL on the issue of recognition and of how to work within the apostolates and the conference, taking into account the issue of women and a feminist analysis. It should also be noted that some provinces set up their provincial commissions as soon as Fr. Sosa announced this initiative.

For Sr. Laurence, the current health crisis can perhaps help create the conditions for the emergence of a new face of the Church, since it gives us “a chance to imagine a Church of tomorrow that is more inclusive, less clerical, and more aware of its fragility, but also more creative and attentive to being a source of communion wherever it is, beginning with the way it considers and integrates the women active within it.”

Although the last decades have been encouraging with regard to the inclusion of women in the Society of Jesus, the journey towards a true sharing of responsibilities continues.

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