WASHINGTON (OSV News) — Ask leaders of women religious performing humanitarian missions around the world what it takes to balance their spiritual lives and their perilous work to keep families together and connected to their communities.
The answer is the same: perseverance.
“I think we need to get fired up, we need to be decisive and we need to get out there right now,” said Missionaries of Jesus Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley and the leader of the Humanitarian Respite Center for families fleeing violence in Central America.
Sister Norma spoke as part of a Sept. 14 online panel co-sponsored by Georgetown University’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life and its Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs.
Sister Norma called for “living radically the presence of the Gospel in our daily lives.”
The panel discussion was intended to examine how more than 700,000 Catholic sisters worldwide, typically serving the poor and the young and the disadvantaged who face hostile local and national governments, exemplify Catholic social teaching in action.
“You’ve got to walk together,” said Maryknoll Sister Patricia “Pat” Ryan, who has lived in Peru since 1971, working with Indigenous farmers in the Andes Mountains. She called living out the preferential option for the poor, one of the foundations of Catholic social teaching, “who we have to be as Catholics.”
Sister Pauline Acayo, a member of the Little Sisters of Mary Immaculate of Gulu, Uganda, said she was drawn to religious life for the opportunity of “giving life to the hopeless” and “giving voice to the voiceless.”
That means for her, working in Kenya for Catholic Relief Services, teaching fathers as well as mothers how to best supply their children’s emotional and physical needs, “bringing couples together to strengthen relationships in their house.”
Catholic doctrine about human dignity and the human good “calls us to pay attention to the needs of the poor … and help with their spiritual as well as material needs,” she said.
And leadership in all of these areas doesn’t mean putting one’s self above others, said Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe, a member of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Gulu, who directs the St. Monica’s Girls’ Tailoring Center, working with victims of violence.
“We are all the same,” she observed. “Lead by example. Be present. The church calls us to say, ‘What can I give them? What can mend their brokenness?'”
This also means, said Sister Pat, “reaching each and every person” and working with people in ways where they can “know their dignity.”
For the Indigenous people she serves, “Their lives are just not taken as valuable.” Last year, she added, the Peruvian military opened fire on a group of Indigenous people “because their lives don’t matter and the military believes they can get away with that.”
Sister Norma observed that in the U.S., caring for the poor, especially on the Mexican border, has been “hijacked by political platforms that try to build a narrative of fear.”
Which is why in 2021 she encouraged President Joe Biden to visit the border for more than a photo op. Sister Norma said she told him, “You must see the faces of those mothers.”
– – –
Kurt Jensen writes for OSV News from Washington.