Christ’s words in St Mark’s Gospel have inspired a network against human trafficking that could revolutionise how the Catholic Church works. Joanna Moorhead reports from Rome.
Sister Gabriella Bottani, in brown slacks and a brown jumper, looks like most Italian nuns I’ve ever met. And her office – all beige walls and photos of the Pope, on the third floor of a block beside the Tiber in Rome – is pretty much like every church office I’ve ever visited. But appearances can be deceptive: Sister Gabriella and her colleagues, based a stone’s throw from the Vatican, just might be the touchlight for a revolution that could entirely reshape the Catholic Church.
How so? Well, Sister Gabriella is international co-ordinator of a network of nuns who work across the globe to reduce human trafficking. The organisation’s name is taken from an expression in St Mark’s Gospel, in the story about the 12-year-old daughter of Jairus, who was lying lifeless until Christ took her by the hand and spoke the Aramaic words Talitha Kum, which mean, ‘young girl, I say to you: arise’.
After Jesus said this, the girl got up immediately from the bed, and walked away. As a result, the phrase has come to encapsulate the power to transform lives: and for the sisters of Talitha Kum, that’s especially lives that have been horribly exploited, by people who have lost touch with the compassion and mercy that all human beings have and need to keep in their hearts. Human trafficking, Sister Gabriella explains, is a complicated and multidimensional issue, and it damages the lives not only of the tens of millions directly affected – many of them children and women – but also the whole of humanity, which is diminished by its presence. So Talitha Kum is an invitation not only to the exploited to rise up with the help of others, but also a call to the entire world to recognise that a world without human trafficking would be a better world for every single one of us.
Many are working to end human trafficking at all levels in society – from world forums to government initiatives to NGOs to faith organisations – but many Roman Catholic sisters in particular, from different congregations and in different parts of the world, have made it their special focus, especially over the last 20 years. And Talitha Kum seeks to unite them for both the exchange of ideas, and to help amplify the messages that will end trafficking in the wider world. ‘We’re serving nuns who work all over the world – we aim to listen to those working in the field, and to give visibility,’ says Sister Gabriella. ‘Human trafficking is one of the most important priorities of our time, and it connects to the other really important issues of our time, particularly environmental issues, war and famine, and migration.’
How, then, could Talitha Kum change not only human trafficking, but also the way the Catholic Church is run? It all comes down to a model of organisation that’s women-centred and non-hierarchical – a very different model, in other words, from the one practised up the road at the Vatican. ‘We follow a different way of leadership – a shared way of leadership,’ explains Sister Gabriella. ‘For us it’s all about being properly rooted in the gospels, and we believe we should be able to do this work together without relationships breaking down. In our network we have sisters who are very conservative, and we have sisters who are very progressive. I don’t like those labels, but they give you an idea about what I mean.’ At the Vatican, rows between so-called conservatives and so-called progressives have dominated the agenda for the last few years, overshadowing the good work being done in the name of the Catholic Church. ‘We’re all about bringing sisters together and working together despite differences – because what we’re here for is what matters most,’ she says.
At the heart of Talitha Kum, says Sister Gabriella, are two images: the image of Christ, and the image of a trafficked human being. ‘These are the people we must always keep at the centre of our minds,’ she says. ‘Our way is to sit together, to be accountable to one another, to look at the problem and to connect with our thoughts. So we sit together, we share together, and we pray together. This is about a horizontal model of running an organisation, and a model that stays close to
Remaining close to the people it’s all about – those who have been trafficked, or have escaped from trafficking – is another crucial plank of the Talitha Kum way of operating. ‘We’ve all had personal encounters with survivors, and staying connected to them is really important,’ says Sister Gabriella. ‘They have names: they’re not numbers, they’re real people. We’re conscious of how important it is to found work like this on a real relationship with real people – their reality is what we need to be rooted in. It’s not one person’s story: it’s about being together.’
Pope Francis has gone out of his way to be supportive of Talitha Kum – and indeed, fighting the horrors of human trafficking is one of the key action areas of his papacy. But he’s also made clear that he sees the very way the network operates as offering a blueprint to the wider church. In September 2019 he met with Sister Gabriella and others from the network and told them that the way they worked together ‘is an example for the whole church, also for us, men, priests, bishops. An example. Keep going like this.’
Keeping going is absolutely what Sister Gabriella and her team intend to do, in order to support the nuns across the world who work in their own countries and communities to help stop trafficking, across a broad range of initiatives. In Thailand, for example, nuns connected with Talitha Kum work with local leaders, trying to find people who have been trafficked or are in danger of being trafficked. In other parts of Asia, nuns run schools in communities where people are at particular risk of trafficking; education is key to removing or reducing the risk. In other parts of the world, nuns work with women to help them train in industries where they can get jobs, have independence, and be less vulnerable to the opportunists who might otherwise try to encourage them to go for ‘jobs’ that are, in effect, enslavement.
The truth about trafficking, says Sister Gabriella, is that it touches on many areas of life, and a huge range of humanitarian and ecological work helps defend people against being trafficked. ‘The enormous problem is the absence of real alternatives for people,’ says Sister Gabriella. ‘It’s hard to separate human trafficking from, for example, environmental problems. I spent time in the Amazon, and I saw the way the dams were flooding, and this made it impossible for people to remain where they’d always lived. They had to leave – but what could they do next? Everything is connected.’
If one thing lies at the heart of improving the situation, she believes, it’s education. ‘Education gives women power over their own lives, and that makes all the difference. The more education a woman has, the more choices she has and the more she can avoid being trafficked.’
This, of course, is basic card-carrying feminism: women need and deserve education, they need and deserve equality, and they need and deserve choices. That matters when it comes to trafficking, because women, and their children, are the human beings most at risk. Sister Gabriella says she’s well aware of all this; and the powers that be in the Church are realising it as well. But at the heart of everything is the gospel. ‘That’s what we’re living,’ she says. ‘That’s what we have to try to do with