What an amazing experience it was to attend Releasing Those Unjustly Bound, an international conference on the trafficking of persons from April 8-11, 2019, in Rome. It was organized by the Migrants and Refugees Section of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development at the Vatican.
These were extremely challenging and emotionally exhausting days, as participants faced the grievous reality of human trafficking throughout our world. Nevertheless, most left energized and hopeful, knowing that our Pope is calling all Catholics to become involved in the elimination of this “open wound on the body of contemporary society, a profound scourge in the humanity of those who suffer it and of its perpetrators.”
Pope Francis said trafficking “profoundly disfigures the humanity of the victim, offending his or her freedom and dignity.”
The conference was held at the Fraterna Domus in Sacrofano, on the outskirts of Rome, which was a very quiet, rural picturesque setting, in contrast to the intensity of facing the global reality of trafficking. After hearing presentations on various dimensions of human trafficking such as labour and sex trafficking, organ trafficking, child labour, or forced marriage, we were challenged to discern practical ways in which the Church could address these issues.
Our prime goal was to name concrete strategies for the implementation of the Pastoral Orientations on Human Trafficking (POHT), which was approved by Pope Francis and published in January 2019. The sessions, highly interactive and participatory with simultaneous translation, resulted in a draft of 42 proposals for action throughout the various organizations and institutions of the Catholic Church.
As Pope Francis stated in his 2015 World Day of Peace address, “we are facing a global phenomenon that exceeds the competence of any one community or country,” and therefore, “we need a mobilization comparable in size to that of the phenomenon itself.”
Among the 200 participants were representatives of Catholic organizations, experts on the various aspects of trafficking, men and women religious, priests and bishops, representing many different parts of the world. There were two representatives from Canada: Sister Pauline Gagne who represented PACT Ottawa, and I represented the Anti-Human Trafficking Committee of the Archdiocese of Vancouver.
The conversations at the tables were enriched by the presence and sharing of survivors of human trafficking. Survivors often reminded us to do nothing for them without them.
On the final day, our sessions concluded with a private audience with Pope Francis in the New Synod Hall at the Vatican. During this session, Father Michael Czerny, SJ. presented our work to the Pope, summarizing our 42 proposals for implementation.
Then, Pope Francis addressed us, emphasizing that trafficking constitutes “an unjustifiable violation of the freedom and dignity of its victims, of these constitutive dimensions of the human being that are willed and created by God.”
spoke about the urgency of this ministry and gave special thanks
“to the many
religious congregations that have worked and continue to work in this field,
even online, thus acting as the ‘avant-garde’ of the Church’s missionary action
against all forms of trafficking.”
Our time in Rome was short, but concluded with high energy and ambitious goals. Now, the real work begins, with each participant returning home to implement in their various locales and organizations the spirit of these proposals, thus fulfilling the mission of Jesus Christ: to offer the fullness of life to all men and women of every age.
As Pope Francis referred in his address, the Gospel of John states, “I came that they may have life and have it to the full.” May all survivors of trafficking come to enjoy the fullness of life.
Sister Nancy Brown, a Sister of Charity of Halifax, has dedicated decades to fighting for women who have been sold into the sex trade. She currently works with the Anti Human Trafficking Committee of the Archdiocese of Vancouver and REED (Resist Exploitation Embrace Dignity).