Every year on 8 March, the United Nations observes International Women’s Day. Passing over the question that arises as to why slightly more than half the planet gets one day out of 365, we can note that the day helps focus attention and gratitude toward the women of our world and helps renew our commitment to overcome the often overwhelming challenges they face in every part of the world.
Not coincidentally, 8 March begins Catholic Sisters Week, formerly National Catholic Sisters Week. Given the view from the front pew, it might not be immediately evident that throughout the world the majority of Catholic believers — especially practicing believers — are women. In the U.S. alone, the gender ratio for Catholics is 47 percent male and 53 percent female. It is estimated that women believers of all faiths worldwide are 3.5 percent more numerous than men.
While such statistics are interesting, they do not even begin to tell the full story of the importance and significance of women in the church. For reasons I hope will be clear, in this piece I am going to focus on women religious because a) it is Catholic Sisters Week and b) they play an absolutely crucial role in the mission of CNEWA. However, to a great extent, whatever we say about women who belong to religious communities can be said for lay women whose witness and service — often under the most difficult and dangerous situations — are nothing short of heroic.
One need only remember the four “Martyrs of El Salvador,” who were brutally murdered 40 years ago on 2 December 1980. Three were women religious — Sisters Ita Ford and Maura Clarke of Maryknoll, Sister Dorothy Kazel, an Ursuline sister — and one, Jean Marie Donovan, was a lay missionary. Each woman laid down her life in service and defense of the poor.
It is no secret that in our world the abuse of women is a pandemic that dwarfs COVID-19 and for which there is no vaccine. What is easy to overlook is that this makes women an easy “target of opportunity” for oppressors and dictators. Women are often in the forefront of the struggle for justice and equality and are on the frontline, opposing violence, war and oppression. Very often, because of their education, women religious are leaders in organizing resistance. As a result, they are easy targets. Many are modern martyrs. The horrifying truth is that in many parts of our world it is easy to kill and abuse women and get away with it.
Martyr primarily means “witness.” However, because of persecutions in the early church, the term “martyr” came to be used almost exclusively to refer to those who shed their blood. Since the Second Vatican Council, the older meaning of “martyr” is re-emerging — that is, one who gives witness to the good news of Christ.
CNEWA works in countries throughout the Middle East, Northeast Africa, Eastern Europe and India. We sponsor hospitals, clinics, schools, educational and leadership training programs. In every country where we work, we are greatly dependent on the expertise, commitment and, yes, witness of the many women, both religious sisters and lay women, who direct and run these programs.
It would be unfair to overlook the huge service that women play in many different roles in the CNEWA offices around the world. Their professionalism and their impressive dedication to the mission of CNEWA are deep sources of energy for all of us.
If one day a year seems inadequate to highlight the contributions of women and the challenges they face, one week is scarcely enough to express our gratitude to God and to the women who make our work possible and are powerful witnesses to the Gospel in our world.
A Franciscan Friar of the Atonement, Father Elias Mallon is the external affairs officer for CNEWA.