Maria Voce’s talk was at the heart of the three weeks study event in Paris of the 2012 Semaines Sociales (23-25 November). She spoke in the plenary session on the afternoon of the 24th, on the topic of ‘Men and Women in the Church’. It is not a question of power but of love was the message that emerged from what she said. She was speaking in conjunction with the theologian Alphonse Borras and Anne Ponce, editor in chief of the Roman Catholic journal Pèlerin.
In an institution where the hierarchy is all male, what recognition can be given to the increasing contribution given by women? This question arose in the afternoon. Maria Voce was happy to speak to it and giving a witness from the perspective of women at the head of a Movement with wide-ranging membership, spread throughout the world and founded by a woman, Chiara Lubich. This Movement, according to its Statutes, will always have a woman at its head. Nonetheless, unity in distinction is part of the Movement’s DNA and so the exercise of leadership is conducted jointly by men and women.
Maria Voce emphasized in first place how the role of men and women must be understood ‘in the light of God’s plan for humanity. Created by God “in his image and likeness” (Gn 2:26), they are called to participate in the intimacy of his inner life and to live in a mutual communion of love, following the model of God who is Love, Trinity. Hence the dignity of men and women is rooted in God the creator. If women cannot have ecclesiastical roles, they have the greatest of charisms: love. Women can mirror Mary, the greatest creature that exists, the One who lived love in a perfect way.’
Having outlined the history and make-up of the Focolare Movement, Maria Voce put the question: ‘How is it possible to keep all these persons united, in a single family? In the Focolare Movement more importance is given to life than to structures, even though these latter are useful.’ In the past the Church frequently tested this structure ‘in particular with regard to its having a woman, Chiara Lubich, as its founder and President. The attempts at putting it under another body or its being absorbed by the ecclesiastical hierarchy were numerous. To begin with it seemed that the head of the Movement should be a man and if possible a priest. Chiara, and with her the whole Movement, always maintained unconditional obedience to the will of the Church. The words of the gospel ‘Whoever listens to you listens to me’ (Lk 10:16) were to be respected, even if it seemed to her that a man at the head of this Work of God would have altered its very nature which, no one knew better than she, was born of God and not as a human project.’
Her comments emphasized that the ‘recognition of women in the Church demands a kind of “struggle”, that is of faithfulness to oneself, to one’s conscience and, in the final analysis, to God’s plan. But in this case it is a “struggle” that for Chiara had “Easter” characteristics, that is, of death and resurrection, which allow the full manifestation of God’s plan, of his will, for the role of women.’
‘The fact of having female presidency,’ Maria Voce continued, ‘is very significant. It indicates a distinction between the power to govern and the importance of the charismatic dimension.’ This was the message launched to the Church ‘to underline the priority of love, a priority that is not simply a feminine monopoly. Certainly women, given their predisposition to maternity, have a tremendous capacity for love which gives them the ability to perceive within themselves what the other person is living, as only a mother can.’ Maria Voce emphasized that ‘true’ power rests in gospel love that generates the presence of Jesus in the midst of the community, affirming that when something is built on this basis ‘an amazing and radical transformation takes place.’
Afterwards Maria Voce also said, ‘Unity between men and women is always a delicate balance. Each must rediscover the value of the other, and both must not forget that diversity is a richness – and neither they must tire of constantly beginning again on the royal road of dialogue.’ And a Movement that ‘wishes to witness to the unity of the human family must, before all else, make certain of its own unity within itself.’ In conclusion she recalled that we must be aware ‘that no ecclesiastical structure exists for itself alone but for the good of humanity that surrounds it.’