Two ambassadors accredited to the Holy See, Callista Gingrich of the United States and Britain’s Sally Axworthy this morning co-chaired an online symposium about women religious on the frontlines in the wars on human trafficking and exploitation, on violence against children, often sold into slavery or prostitution, and how they are challenged in a world dominated by the coronavirus pandemic.

The hour-long program, conducted online via Zoom, allowed participants toward the end to ask questions of or make comments about the presentations by three amazing, women religious: Sr. Stan Terese Mario Mumuni spoke of her work in Ghana, Sr. Imelda Poole, a Sister of the Blessed Virgin Mary spoke of her work with victims of human trafficking in Albania, and native Italian, Sr. Alicia Vacass, a Comboni Sister working in Jerusalem who told the story of how her community in Bergamo was affected by the Coronavirus.

This was one of the most riveting hours I have spent in recent weeks. I was glued to my screen as each nun told her particular story and the most riveting part was that they never saw themselves as the center of the story. These unsung heroines – and there are tens of thousands of them around the world – focused on the people they were trying to help, mostly women and children. They focused on the challenges and difficulties that societies and governments (and now the pandemic) brought to their work. If they had a degree of success in their work, they said, it was because of community, because of solidarity and, in many cases, because of the help they received from laypeople.

If you have time – or are willing to make time – you can spend an hour that might change you in a number of ways, the first being a new awareness of the horrible scourge of human trafficking, a new awareness of violence (including murder) inflicted on children in certain societies simply because they were born with a birth defect or born blind or born without a limb (Sr. Mumuni may well leave you in tears). Click here for the video encounter:

The stories are not told with bitterness or rancor. They reflect the love these sisters have for their faith, for their calling, and for their fellow religious but above all, their love of humanity, of their brothers and sisters around the globe who need their help and, when they receive it, can offer nothing in return, except perhaps love.

The following brief biographies are from I took the pictures from my iPad screen during the symposium.

Frontline work amid pandemic
Sr. Stan Terese Mario Mumuni spoke of her work in Ghana.

In 2009 she opened an orphanage for children with birth defects who would otherwise have been killed. The work that she and her sisters do is also recognized by the Muslim population, she said. The pandemic caught them by surprise. All of a sudden one day the Sisters were called to pick up the children they care for from the schools where they receive education. All of their support systems fell apart overnight due to the pandemic. Now the Sisters are trying to feed and support the children round the clock. Some are blind, others are deaf, others have spinal and other defects…. They continue to get calls from people who beg them to come and take in children who would otherwise be killed. Sister Stan said that they rely completely on God’s Providence and marvelled at what they are able to do with next to nothing.

Human trafficking
Sr Imelda Poole, a Sister of the Blessed Virgin Mary spoke of her work with victims of human trafficking in Albania.

The NGO she founded, called Mary Ward Loreto, addresses the root causes of human trafficking. In her work with RENATE (Religious in Europe Networking Against Trafficking and Exploitation), she sees three shifts that have taken place since the lockdown began. RENATE is now working 70-80% online, which includes counseling victims, she said. This, Sr Imelda said, is vital to people who have become victims to human trafficking. The second major shift she cited is a massive increase of starvation and hunger, and the third is an explosion of children going online leading to an increase in sexual exploitation. “Together we need to break the chains of the exploiters,” she said. “We call on the governments to ensure that law is implemented at this time”. Her organization is also, therefore, in touch with law enforcement responsible for human trafficking crimes and encouraging them not to lower their guard in this area.

Helping friends in need
A Comboni Sister working in Jerusalem, Sr Alicia Vacas recounted the story of how her community in Bergamo was affected by the Coronavirus.

She and other sisters who are nurses traveled there to help. Sr Alicia said that about 45 sisters and staff out of a total of 55 or 60 sisters were sick with the virus. Their main concern, she said, was lack of protection. This need was met by others religious communities, one as far away as Hong Kong, who sent material and protection. Even a contemplative community in Bergamo helped them. As a Comboni Sister, Sr Alicia underlined it is part of their DNA to share the tragedies that others go through. Being able to communicate care, affection and gratitude to her older sisters was a blessing, she said. She also spoke of what other Comboni sisters are doing to care for people in mission territories. “They are bearing the burdens of their people”, she said. “They live witnessing to the love that God has for all his children”.

Sr Jolanda Kafka, President of the Union of Superiors General, closed the event saying that the examples the sisters recounted are touching, and have brought us to touch concrete reality and persons. About 650,000 sisters are working at the grass roots providing sisterly and motherly care, she noted. “This is what consecration means”, she said, “giving our lives and serving Him through humanity.”

Here are links to the opening remarks by Ambassadors Callista Gingrich and Sally Axworthy: