More than 120 women from 40 countries from around the world gathered in Bari, Italy from October 19-23, 2016 for the second Conference with Women from the Middle East organized by the World Union of Catholic Women’s Organisations (WUCWO). The first of these meetings was held in Amman, Jordan in 2013 and we were delighted to have this opportunity to gather together again. With a theme of Women, Workers of Peace towards a meeting of Culture and Dialogue, attendees joined in formal and informal sessions designed to illuminate the reality of the lives of women from the Middle East and their ability to practice their faith and to make clear some of the consequences that result from being practicing Catholics in that part of the world. Women from Albania, Egypt, Greece, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine, Syria, and the United Arab Emirates joined with Catholic women from around the globe.  Some of the attendees were refugees from Syria who are presently living in Italy.  It was invaluable to hear their testimony and led those present to feel an even closer bond with their sisters from this region.
All came away with a renewed mission to keep that ancient and troubled area of the world in our thoughts and prayers and to do all we can to alleviate the suffering of the refugees and those trapped in the war torn zones.    As one of the innate attributes of women is to bond at a very realistic level with each other, strong friendships were formed as we listened, spoke, prayed, dined, and explored the area together.  

Scheduled visits to the tomb of Saint Padre Pio and the Old City of Bari, an ecumenical prayer session at Saint Nicholas Basilica, and beautiful Masses served to provide opportunities for deep spiritual and personal reflection.  

The opening session took place at the University of Bari.  Dignitaries present included Archbishop Francesco Cacucci, Archbishop of Bari Bitonto, the President of the Puglia Region, the Mayor of Bari, and the Mayor of Bitonto. We also heard a talk given by Flaminia Giovanelli, Undersecretary of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, who came to us from the Vatican.  Speaking of coming to us from the Vatican, a highlight of the evening was a video greeting sent from Pope Francis who ended the video by bestowing his Apostolic Blessing on all at the Conference.  We then returned to the Hotel Park Elizabeth in Bari where we stayed and where the rest of the Conference was held with some exceptions I’ll note later.

The next morning began with Lauds (Morning Prayer) and we then took turns introducing ourselves.  We enjoyed a brief greeting and presentation from the Voices of Faith, an organization that is based at the Vatican and that holds events and recording sessions around the world to let women tell their stories of faith, overcoming adversity, and their important contributions to our Church.  We then heard a biblical and theological reflection from a nun who lives in an area of the Holy Land where even her home is divided by the wall erected between Israel and Palestine.  She is an advocate in both Israel and Palestine for human rights and states that she believes that God loves all without exclusion.  She sees women serving as bridges between cultures by living as Christ.  She has worked extensively with the Bedouin and witnesses to the beauty of interfaith dialogue and peace.  Following her very inspiring talk, we went to Holy Mass.  In the afternoon, we heard from 4 panels of women from the Middle East and the Mediterranean who gave testimonies to their everyday life, their experiences prior to the conflict, now during the wars, and some spoke of their experiences as refugees.

After Evening Prayer, we broke into small groups divided by our preferred language.  We went to tables of 10, each table having representatives from a different Middle East country.  We were able to select the table we wished to join and then spent time long into the night speaking with each other freely and honestly about conditions in the Middle East, their cause, escalation, how they have affected everyday life and the practice of our faith in the area.  This, along with our meals together, provided invaluable time to get to know each other and to bond closely.

We were delighted when later that night, the President General and the Vice President General were approached by two groups of women from the Middle East who wished to form organisations that would become members of WUCWO.  We now see the fruit of these two meetings with the women from this region!

The next day, after Morning Prayer, we worked on exploring signs of hope for collaboration and worked in small groups addressing the topics of family, youth, and suffering women, for in all conflicts, it is the women and children who suffer the most.  After gathering together to share the results of these discussions, we had lunch and then left for a beautiful ecumenical meeting for peace and reconciliation that was held at the Basilica of Saint Nicholas in the Old City part of Bari.  Bari has always been called the Gateway to the East because it served as the point where many pilgrims left for the Holy Land for centuries.  The Basilica of Saint Nicholas houses the remains of the Saint who is revered by the Orthodox and all Christians and all our brothers and sisters from all these religions regularly pray at this site.  So, it was here that we held our Ecumenical Service for Peace and Reconciliation.  From the opening strains of the beautiful Sibelius anthem, A Song of Peace, through Scripture readings done in many languages, a lovely Ethiopian Orthodox dance, and the final hymn, Lumiére du Monde (Light of the World) we prayed, watched, listened, and sang, united as one; women from 40 different countries, different cultures, languages, living conditions, tied together in our common prayer for peace.  A stunningly beautiful and deeply felt moment in time.  After the service, we descended to the crypt of the Basilica and prayed at the burial site of Saint Nicholas.  We then had some free time to explore the Old City of Bari which consists of a giant citadel on the water, narrow twisting streets lined with centuries old three story stone houses, several very ancient churches, and some shops and restaurants.  We ended our visit to the Old City by gathering at the Bari Cathedral for Holy Mass.

The next morning, our last full day together, we began our pilgrimage to San Giovanni Rotondo, home of the friary where St. Padre Pio lived and worked and where his incorrupt body is enshrined, driving through gorgeous countryside as we wound our way up steep terraced hillsides.  We attended Mass in the new church and were then free to explore the area.  I chose to go to the tomb of Saint Padre Pio which is in a magnificent room full of mosaics and gold -and somehow the thought came to me that this is probably exactly what he would not wish -but it was beautiful and made a spectacular setting to pray and place intentions in an area reserved for this beneath his body.  I then went to the area of the city where the old church is located where he said Mass and heard confessions during his lifetime and where his confessional is preserved behind glass.  Adjacent is the building where he lived and pilgrims are able to visit his cell, left exactly as it was when he lived and died there.  All too soon it was time to return to Bari but we all left with a great reverence for this time spent with each other and with Saint Padre Pio.  That evening, I drafted our Final Declaration for the meeting.  When finished, I found some friends from the Middle East and we reviewed it together to ensure that it stated all we wished to say.

The following morning, we went to Mass together and then the Final Declaration from the meeting was read. After this, we said goodbye to our conference attendees as the Board remained to begin our work.  Even as we waved farewell, we knew that this time together would always remain in our thoughts and in our hearts.  We must never forget their words and their experiences.  They have lived through and seen things we can scarcely imagine.  Scenes of depraved cruelty, and lessons in extraordinary courage.  Their faith is so strong and inspiring.  When asked why they do not leave and take their children somewhere safe, the unfailing response was that if they leave, who would be there to provide a Christian presence in the Holy Land?  Truly, they are the living stones of that sacred area and we must do all we can to secure peace for them and for that region that bears the beginning footprints of our faith.

Those who were fortunate to experience this gathering will never forget the lessons learned nor will they cease to pray for and stay in touch with the women from the Middle East via WUCWO.  There is a duty to others that we carry with us as citizens of the Earth and a bond between Christian women that cannot be transcended by war, politics, or geography.  We hold each other in our hearts and in our prayers forever.  And that is perhaps the greatest grace received from this historic and important meeting.

The World Union of Catholic Women’s Organisations (WUCWO), founded in 1910, is a Public International Association of the Faithful, responsible to the Pontifical Council of the Laity, made up of more than 100 Catholic women’s organisations from over sixty countries from all continents with representation at the United Nations in New York, at the Human Rights Council in Geneva, the FAO in Rome, UNESCO in Paris, and the Council of Europe.  Our members work to accomplish the mission of promoting the presence, participation, and co-responsibility of women in the Church and Society. Our NCCW is a member organization of WUCWO since 1921 and thus, through our NCCW, we have a voice on the world stage. All women of WUCWO stand in solidarity with our sisters from the Middle East and call for dialogue and a lasting peace in that region and around the world.

-Maribeth Stewart
WUCWO Vice President General
NCCW President-Elect