Four benchmarks for confirming our approach to women’s empowerment

By Françoise Lagacé

At our 2022 Orientation Assembly, held last June in Halifax, Nova Scotia, theologian Françoise Lagacé, as a member of the panel discussing approaches to promoting women’s empowerment, gave this talk on the significance of the practice of the Gospel and the social teaching of the Church for issues surrounding partnership and synodality.

1. The practice of the Gospel

If we were to simply ask ourselves how the practice of Jesus might shape our vision of the empowerment of women, I would offer a few passages from the Gospel that can help us in our reflection. Have you ever thought that the most beautiful “theological” conversations Jesus had were with women? And that they are all beautiful stories of empowerment. Here are a few of them.

The Samaritan woman (John 4), a foreigner, not very commendable with her five or six husbands, who, one day at Jacob’s well around noon, has a beautiful exchange about God with Jesus: “Who is the true God, where can I meet him?” And this woman, despised by his disciples, scorned by her village, became his partner in evangelising them.

The Canaanite woman, another foreigner, who dares to come and ask him to heal her daughter, and who opens Jesus’s eyes to the universality, the catholicity, of his mission: “even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” (Matthew 15:27)

Martha, his friend in Bethany, the sister of Mary, the one who listened to Jesus’s teachings like a true disciple: One might well ask what use her knowledge was, if not to pass it on to others. But let’s get back to Martha, who, after the death of her brother Lazarus, has a solid conversation with Jesus about the Resurrection and professes her faith in the same terms as Peter: “you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” (John 11:27)

And what about the nameless woman accused of adultery (John 8)? What stands out for me in this story, beyond the words, are the gestures, the most beautiful choreography of the Gospel. Imagine the scene: Jesus gets up, approaches, crouches down to be at the same level as the accused woman; he scratches the ground so that she can hear his presence at her side; twice, he repeats his gesture. Jesus compromises himself at the risk of being stoned with the woman, of giving his life for her. Then he raises her up, gives her back her voice and sends her away, standing upright, dignified, loved as she has never been loved before, empowered, able to start afresh. Making people feel guilty was never the position of the Jesus of the Gospel.

Finally, the woman with the perfumed ointment, the one who comes uninvited to Simon’s house in the Gospel of Matthew: The gesture of this woman who pours her expensive ointment on Jesus’s head is a true sacramental gesture, but it triggers a wave of indignation from his disciples. “Truly I tell you,” Jesus says to them, “wherever this good news is proclaimed in the whole world [even to us in Halifax on the morning of June 18, 2022], what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.” (Matthew 26:12–13)

We meet bold women in the Gospel, women of faith who crossed the path of Jesus and who felt empowered. Each time, it made a difference for them as well as for him.

There would be many more encounters to tell. But what we must remember above all is the relationship of involvement, of being with the other person, between Jesus and the women of his time. A time that was not so favourable to women. And reminding us that all cultures, all religions have difficulty in integrating this relationship between women and men, this partnership, even today.

In that sense, Jesus’s actions were revolutionary. He included women in a radical way, unimaginable in the life of men. They participated actively in his mission, from Galilee to the cross, witnesses of the Resurrection and the Pentecost in the first Christian communities.

If Jesus had been afraid of scandal, there would not be all these beautiful stories to tell. So we might ask ourselves, where does he continue to wait for us today? With which partners does he continue to compromise himself with us?

2. Towards a culture of partnership

Partnership has been in our DNA since our founding in 1967. The founding bishops wanted Development and Peace to be an organization of the People of God, a new model of collaborative leadership of bishops and lay people in the Church.

How can we breathe new life into this collaboration, which is still under construction, with the dimension of women and men in the Church, a sign of the times today? Without forgetting our relationships with our partners in the Global South, especially those who are working for the empowerment of women. How can we together become this Church that is expert in humanity, a knowledge and know-how proudly acquired over our 55 years, thanks to the work of, among others, our program officers? This Church, as Pope Francis invites us, which has taken on the scent of the people and their struggles. And may this not be just a beautiful slogan.

We want to rebuild this PARTNERSHIP together, to hear the voices of women WITH the voices of men, the voices of the Global North AND South.

3. Synodality: the journey through which the Church exists

Walking together is very concrete: It is… having sore feet together, being thirsty together, being hungry together, being afraid together, facing the unknown, the unprecedented, arriving at a stage, looking back on our journey, breaking bread together and sharing the Word, and celebrating.

I propose a new synodal tradition: Each and every one of us in our diocesan churches, let’s invite our bishop to walk with us and to talk together on the road about the joys and hopes, the sorrows and anguishes of the men and women of our time, while meditating on a passage from the Gospel or from the Church’s social teaching. Let’s do this every spring during the Easter season.

The challenge is great. How can we live this faithfulness to the Gospel, this partnership, this synodality to arouse hope in the women and men of our time, so that together we can fully assume our mission with our partners? We are witnesses to the Gospel, to the presence of God in the world. Let’s not forget, it is not our love that we give, it is the love of God.

4. Last benchmark: the social teaching of the Church

I am thinking in particular of the messages of Pope Francis, unanimously recognised as being inspirational. Let’s not forget that he is the first pope to come from a country in the Global South. Here are two excerpts from messages of Pope Francis to meetings of the Caritas organizations, of which we are one.

In June 2021, for the 50th anniversary of Caritas Italy, he proposed three paths for a Church moving forward: the Path of the Least, the Way of the Gospel, and the Way of Creativity.

In 2019, he offered us three essential elements: the humility of listening, the charism of togetherness, and the courage of renunciation.

What I draw from this is the charism of togetherness, of being and feeling the Church of Jesus. No one has all the charisms. But each and every one of us holds on to the charism of being together. That is essential and it was the secret of the first Christians: they had different sensibilities and different approaches, but they had in them the strength to love one another in the Lord.

So, no empowerment without love. No love without empowerment. Maurice Zundel said that none of our brothers, none of our sisters, should ever be able to complain that they have not encountered in us the tenderness of God.

International solidarity is a grand and beautiful adventure! Let us all come together to be this Church that is expert in humanity, in the manner of Jesus, “like him.” This Church that liberates and empowers women in the manner of Jesus. This Church that is damaged, wounded, and even dirty for having gone out to reach all the peripheries that need the light of the Gospel. This concerns and involves us all.

Let us ask for the grace to take the path indicated by the Word of God. Through Him, with Him and in Him, in us and through us, may we together be the Church of women with men, Witnesses of God’s presence, at every bedside, in the world of our time.

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