Story

By Elise Gower

Four women leaders in the Society of Jesus in Canada. From left to right, Laurence Loubières, xmcj, Élodie Ekobena,
Marcelle DeFreitas, and Jenny Cafiso

To walk with Jesus is to walk with women, to witness the exclusion, violence, and other injustices they suffer, but it is also to recognise their leadership in promoting full inclusion as well as dignity for all. The following highlights the prophetic efforts of four women who collaborate with the Jesuits of Canada. They speak of their contributions to the mission of the Society of Jesus, of their progressive inclusion and participation in a historically male-dominated context, and of their desires.

Rooted in the Gospel

There are multiple Gospel scenes and biblical women that I draw upon as I share the story of women leadership in Jesuit organisations. Scripture illustrates their significance in the life and mission of Christ. Élodie Ekobena, project manager for the Vivre ensemble sector of the Centre justice et foi, reminds us of the high esteem in which Jesus held women.  “The stories revealing the graces that women’s leadership can produce are those of the women who accompanied Christ on the way to the cross when his disciples had either betrayed, abandoned, or simply denied him. The others are the women who witnessed the resurrection. These images are edifying for me insofar as the presence of women, though crucial, has remained invisible. Yet, they were witnesses to the unspeakable, that is, to the injustice, violence, brutality, false witness, and ostracism that Christ suffered. They watched over the dehumanized, reviled, and crucified body.”

photo : Centre Justice et Foi Facebook page

Ekobena continues, “Moreover, they appeared on the first day of the week to give voice to the resurrection. They are therefore the faithful guardians of faith, of hope, and [they] prefigure a world to come. This makes me say that in Jesuit bodies, their voice is crucial because they are witnesses and actors of the decisive questions of our time.”

“This makes me say that in Jesuit bodies, their voice is crucial because they are witnesses and actors of the decisive questions of our time.”

This important context frames a way of proceeding that uplifts women’s voices and contributions today.

Towards diversity and representation

Jenny Cafiso, Executive Director of Canadian Jesuits International, references an important shift in our understanding of mission. Concerning solidarity between the Global North and Global South (her work’s focus), she shares, “There’s greater awareness that we cannot speak ‘on behalf of.’ People have to speak for themselves, with their own voice. The same can be said for women in the Church. We need to be at the table and have a voice as equals — not have our words interpreted by someone else. We need to speak out of our own experience.”

“The mission of the Society of Jesus and its spirituality leads us to be actors in the world and to be present in the world,” Cafiso notes. In Ignatian terms, contemplatives in action. “We cannot be active in the world and exclude the voice of 50% of its population [women].”

“The mission of the Society of Jesus and its spirituality leads us to be actors in the world and to be present in the world,” Cafiso notes.

There are both graces and tensions in how this is lived out. There are strong examples of women moving the Jesuit mission forward, both at the forefront and behind the scenes — the Marys and Marthas of today.

Marcelle DeFreitas, President of Loyola High School in Montreal says, “I am surrounded by strong female leaders, including both of our vice-principals for the junior and senior schools, our campus ministry coordinator, teachers, learning specialists, and so on. This is a change from only a few decades ago, when only a few women were employed at the school. This is a trend seen in Jesuit schools throughout North America — and an opportunity for transformational change in the way our schools approach leadership.”

Marcelle DeFreitas, President of Loyola High School. Photo : Loyola High School Montreal Facebook page

Sr. Laurence Loubières, XMCJ, the first Director of the Service for Common Discernment of the province and assistant to the provincial for Common Discernment, reflects, “My Jesuit colleagues and the other lay collaborators of the province are, for me, companions who seek together and explicitly to witness to Jesus Christ in Canada within the apostolic body of the province. I am fortunate to work more closely with some Jesuits in common discernment missions, and I very much appreciate these opportunities for collaboration which I find very rich.”

In reflecting on her work toward a co-educational future, DeFreitas writes, “Jesuit education forms people of compassion, competence, commitment, and conscience. These values transcend gender, but fostering them requires a diversity of perspective and voice for them to be lived and understood fully. The female voice is a critical aspect of that diversity of experience and is thus an integral part in ensuring the works of the Society of Jesus resonate with all youth.”

“Jesuit education forms people of compassion, competence, commitment, and conscience. These values transcend gender, but fostering them requires a diversity of perspective and voice for them to be lived and understood fully.”

Institutional progress

Fr. General Arturo Sosa, SJ, Superior General of the Society of Jesus, participates in visioning greater recognition of women. The Commission on the Role and Responsibilities of Women in the Society of Jesus demonstrates “an important step in recognizing the strong role women have played and will continue to play in the Ignatian tradition,” DeFreitas remarks.

Cafiso shares the lesser-known story that gave birth to this commission. During the 2019 meeting at the Social Justice and Ecology Secretariat in Rome, Fr. General raised important challenges the Society needs to prioritize, the role of women listed among them. The women in attendance recognized the opportunity in Fr. General’s message and promptly requested a meeting with him. The next morning, they met with Fr. General to present a proposal. From this, the commission was established. As she remembers what followed in order to set up the commission, Cafiso notes, “It wasn’t easy.” Like the woman of the Gospels, Cafiso recalls, “We experienced some resistance. We experienced some fear; it’s part of the process. It’s a long road.” This road, she suggests, is the path to living out the Gospel message. “We believe everyone is born and made in the full image of God, and therefore they deserve to be treated with dignity and equal voice. In order for us to fulfill that mission, we have to have a gendered analysis of everything that we do to ask how is this affecting women.”

Jenny Cafiso (center) at the 50th Anniversary Congress of the SJES in Rome, Jesuit World. Photo: General Curia in Rome

Ekobena conveys her hope that “it will not be limited to the roles of women leaders, but that it will be extended to other women who have other responsibilities and roles, certainly of lesser importance, but nevertheless important in Jesuit social works.”

Cafiso points to the intersectional reality that must be acknowledged.

“We cannot speak about racial issues, Indigenous issues, Global South issues, ecology, health or any issue that affects the lives of people in the world, without including the voice of women because all of these issues particularly affect women,” she says.

“Poverty has a racial face; poverty has a woman’s face; therefore, the solution has to include women.”

“Poverty has a racial face; poverty has a woman’s face; therefore, the solution has to include women.”

Sr. Loubières proposes, “I think that the current health crisis can perhaps help to create the conditions for the emergence of a new face of the Church. Perhaps there is an opportunity to imagine a Church of tomorrow that is more inclusive, less clerical, more aware of its fragility but also more creative and attentive to being a leaven of communion wherever it is, starting with the way it considers and integrates the women who are active in it.”

These women leaders, prophets of Jesuit works, bring life to women discipleship.

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