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Nun in South Africa Lauds Pope Francis for Spotlighting Women Religious in February Prayer

Sr. Nkhensani Shibambu, Superior General of the Companions of St. Angela and doubles as the President of the Leadership Conference of Consecrated Life (LCCL) in Southern Africa. Credit: ACI Africa

A Catholic Nun in South Africa has lauded Pope Francis for putting a spotlight on women Religious in his prayer intention for February this year.

In an interview with ACI Africa, Sr. Nkhensani Shibambu who is the Superior General of the Companions of St. Angela and doubles as the President of the Leadership Conference of Consecrated Life (LCCL) in Southern Africa underscored the significant role of women Religious in the life of the Church, including catechism and youth formation among other outreach programs.

Pope Francis’ prayer intention for February 2022 focuses on Religious Sisters and Consecrated Women. In a video message, the Holy Father invites Catholics to “pray for religious sisters and consecrated women; thanking them for their mission and their courage.”

“May they (religious sisters and consecrated women) continue to find new responses to the challenges of our times,” Pope Francis says in the video message in which he asks what the Church would be without women Religious. 

Women Religious are an “integral part of the Church,” Sr. Shibambu told ACI Africa, and added, “The Church would not have grown as far as it has without that role that consecrated men and women have played. You look at education. Most of us have been educated in Catholic schools which were predominantly run by women religious.”

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“We make up a very integral part of the Church and the Church whose mission is to evangelize the Religious, then becomes that instrument of evangelizing the nations,” the LCCL President that brings together those in Consecrated Life in Botswana, Eswatini, and South Africa further said during the February 3 interview.

Sr. Shibambu acknowledged with appreciation the decision by the Holy Father to dedicate February to praying for women Religious.

“I appreciate what Pope Francis has done to not side-line men religious, but to put the spotlight on women Religious, because as I've indicated, a lot of this work is actually done by us women Religious. We were taught by women Religious in our schools. Most of the work that is done out, the outreach work is done by women Religious. So, by all means, that is why we have to put the spotlight on them,” she said.

The LCCL President revealed that the place of women Religious in the Church is one of the topics being discussed in the countries of Botswana, Eswatini, and South Africa in the ongoing preparations for the Synod on Synodality.

“This is a very important process because we were reflecting as women religious saying we've been side-lined by the Church in many ways, especially when I look at my own Diocese, even the previous local Diocesan Synod in 2019, women religious did not feature; if they did, it was quite minimal,” Sr. Shibambu said making reference to South Africa’s Archdiocese of Johannesburg.

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She highlighted listening as an important component of the Synod on Synodality saying preparations for Synod that is scheduled to take place in 2023 “focuses on listening.”

Credit: ACI Africa

“And how do we do that listening if we don't pay attention to those marginalized voices?” she posed, adding, “I would maybe even refer to ourselves as women Religious as having been marginalized by the Church.”

“The Synod is calling the Church to listen to the voices of those marginalized. And I think as the Southern African Church, it's very important that we pay attention to what women Religious have to say, because when you listen, you are called to transformation,” Sr. Shibambu who has been at the helm of LCCL for the last two years said.

She went on to applaud Pope Francis for considering women in his appointments, saying, “Pope Francis has raised our hopes a little with all the measures he had put in place to appoint women Religious and ordinary women to prominent roles within the Church, especially in his own administration. It's as if he was giving us a sneak preview of what to expect.”

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What the Holy Father has implemented in empowering women, the Superior General of the Companions of St. Angela for the last six years said, has unfortunately not “been translated to action in our own spaces. Women are still treated as second class citizens, and this includes women religious.”

As a way forward, she said, “some of the changes that I think should happen would include us having greater inclusion of women in decision making bodies and in leadership roles within the Church.”

We have seen, Sr. Shibambu further said in reference to initiatives by the leadership of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference, “from the SACBC how we have tried as a Conference to have women as part of the Secretariat, something which is not happening in some other Episcopal Conferences.”