Just down the road from St. Peter's Basilica, a crowd of almost 200 packed into an audience hall to hear a panel discussion on the witness of modern women in the Church.
The occasion for this event was the publication of a book in Italian, “Tenacious Women,” which profiles 12 very different modern women throughout the world who have chosen to live their lives as a daily testimony to their faith.
Italian journalist Marina Ricci, who moderated the panel, opened the event by explaining that “we begin with experience for this reason: we live in a world and in a society in which rarely does someone see him or her self beginning from reality.”
The stories in the book range from that of a 28-year-old mother who died from a malignant tumor while postponing treatment because she was pregnant with her third child, to a successful financial analyst at Walt Disney who converted to Catholicism and founded a house for young veterans injured in war.
Two of the women featured in the book spoke at the discussion event, sharing their stories as a living witness to the power of conversion and a life of faith.
Jocelyne Khouriey had the audience riveted with her description of her time in the Lebanese army during the country's civil war in the mid-1970s.
Having joined the Lebanese resistance at age 16, Khoueiry was told, “choose Jesus or choose Lebanon.” Although hindsight has allowed her to see the false dichotomy, at the time, she said, “I chose Lebanon.”
Khoueiry admitted that although her choice was fueled by a desire to protect her country, “behind the sense of patriotism” was “a will to prove myself.” She wanted to show, “I can do what others do.”
The young woman cut her hair short, wore bulky men's clothing and decided to form a group of the best women to fight in their own company. They chose to go to the farthest, most dangerous outpost to prove themselves capable of defending their country.
Then came Khoueiry's brush with death.
Nine young woman sat guarding a remote outpost when the opposing milita approached. Khoueiry was acting as scout and was the first to hear them coming.
“All of a sudden,” she recounted, “I felt a presence. I had never felt it before. And in that moment I prayed my first prayer – my first real, sincere, prayer.”
“I prayed to the Madonna because we were accustomed to doing that in my home.”
In that moment, said Khoueiry, “I was completely changed. Completely.”
After she returned to the other women, they heard the first of three rockets. “They were shocked,” Khoueiry remembered, “but I said, I will go, I am here until the end.” The group fought for four hours before running out of ammunition. Just as they thought they had reached the end, relief appeared in the form of several other women and their enemies were defeated.
A small group of young women had successfully defended the Lebanese outpost: newspapers were abuzz, and Khoueiry “forgot all about the prayer. I forgot that I had felt a presence.”
But “after a while, I began to think…why? Why this prayer? Why this miracle after the prayer?”
Thus “began a path, of about one year – I finally decided to consecrate myself and was seeking a convent to join.”
Then, a military commander called her with a strange request: to continue to form the youth of Lebanon.
“I felt a new means of responsibility,” said Khoueiry. She decided to privately consecrate herself to the Lord rather than joining a convent, so that she could remain in the world, working with the youth of the military.
As her story is recounted in “Tenacious Women,” Jocelyne “accepted guidance of the women’s departments of the army…and formed 'red quadrants' specializing in the ability to assume positions in especially para-military areas, such as communications, administration, first aid, and giving life to the Council of spiritual care for combatants: a troop of thirty priests, monks, and religious willing to go to the front lines for confessions and saying mass.”
Eventually Khoueiry resigned from the army, but founded a Catholic women's movement, “The Lebanese Women of May 31” to give a “feminine witness” in promoting peace in Lebanon.
Since then Khoueiry's apostolic activity has expanded, including the foundation of the John Paul II Center for social services, which offers counseling and aid to families experiencing the aftermath of war, poverty, divorce, or other difficulties.
Marcella Sonnino's life story – although perhaps less dramatic than Khoueiry's – conveyed the same conviction to the audience gathered to hear her testimony.
“I had always wanted to become a mother,” Sonnino began, “and although I am not married, for 31 years I have been a mother in a family house of the John XIII Community.”
The family homes of the community house the most marginalized of society: those suffering from mental or physical disabilities, poverty, psychological difficulties and juvenile delinquency.
Sonnino spoke of the importance of including everyone in community life, particularly in the Church, which she described as a “people that journeys.”
“But a people that journeys leaving someone behind,” she cautioned, “isn’t truly a people.”
This mother of many insisted that “it is necessary” to embrace “those who don’t walk, those who don’t see, those who don’t understand…to be always with others. This is our philosophy of life.”
The people that Sonnino has mothered in her 31 years with the community “have determined my life.” They “have made me understand how much life is worth living,” she declared.
Unfortunately, “I feel that this world isn’t made for them…and also sometimes (it is this way) in the Church. I’m sorry that it is this way,” she lamented.
Sonnino then asserted the need to “make a way in which they can be the protagonists, remaining with us always, because they are protagonists of history in which they are the professors and we are the students.”
“To live outside of a community – it is very difficult to succeed at life,” she continued, “because (although) there are moments when one tires of living with others, it helps you move forward: and this is the experience of the Church, because God saves us as a community!”
Sonnino's conviction was palpable as many disabled members of her community house sat in the audience. Her eyes filled with tears as one little boy waved continually at her.
“To be a mother doesn’t always mean to succeed,” she said, explaining that in her 31 years, she had seen many sufferings.
“But this, for me, doesn’t mean a failure of experience, it just means that our life is like this, here – on the other side, no!” she added, indicating heaven.
Lucetta Scaraffia, a professor of contemporary history at Rome’s Sapienza University who sat on the panel, took up Sonnino’s theme, pointing to the need for women to give witness to their struggles as well as their achievements.
“It’s impossible that a modern women would have only accomplishments and no problems!” she exclaimed.
It is the reality of a life lived through trials and joys that gives a true witness of faith, Scaraffia pointed out.
“Tenacious Women” authors Alessandra Buzzetti and Cristiana Caricato shared with the audience their hope that the witness of the women in their book would inspire and encourage others.
The event was sponsored by the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization and Pauline Books, publisher of “Tenacious Women.”
Cardinal Rino Fisichella, president of the Pontifical Council, expressed his gratitude for the book and the discussion surrounding it.
“Before there are ‘roles,’ there is mission,” he explained. This mission is the “vocation to announce the gospel.”
“The work that women do is the great work of evangelization,” he said.