Students Meet With Republican Staff Director and Member of the Human Rights Commission

By Emily Hausheer

The Human Rights Masters students met with Piero Tozzi, Republican Staff Director, Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission. The Capitol building holds great significance in both US History and current events. It is a building of immense beauty, and its walls have beheld great turmoil. These halls are painted with great scenes from history, and great human rights heroes from around the world find themselves in the tableau of Capitol art. Just like the Capitol hallways depict people as different as Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, Kosciuszko, Garibaldi, Kossuth, Bolivar and other heroes from around the world- the committees dealing with human rights hold an amount of unity bringing together people from different walks of life that you may never expect.

Tozzi discussed the daily life of working on a committee and having to work with bipartisanism when it came to addressing global issues. He mentioned how on the international stage many Americans can agree on issues such as Sudan and China grossly violating human rights. He shared anecdotes of people from the left and the right who came together in defense of human rights, and helping to bring a light to Chen Guangcheng’s situation in China. People put their partisan differences aside in the name of rights, an issue we can all unite under.

Tozzi explained that people as different as Rep. Chris Smith and Rep. Nancy Pelosi can find common ground on many issues and work together such as helping a Chinese dissident escape China. Across the board on the issue of China, everybody on Capitol Hill expresses disapproval of the way the Chinese government has been handling minority groups and silencing their right to free speech.

Regardless of our background or political differences we are all called to be a voice for those who do not have one. The policy world is an important place to do just that. While working with others in the Capitol on the important big issues, you may find your most unlikely ally in the human rights field was sitting across from you all this time. While policy work with Rep. Pelosi and the humanitarian spirit of Josephine Bakhita may look different on the outside- on the heart of the issue liberty is the foundation bound together by the social contract of humanity. Much like the pillars of the Capitol crypt (or a cathedral!) hold a building by balancing off each other- our rights do also and depend on all of us (regardless of politics) holding it up.

Human Rights Program Director Reflects on the 71st Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

By William Saunders, JD

This is a year of many anniversaries related to human rights, such as the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, the 20th anniversary of the crackdown by the Chinese Communist Party against the Falun Gong, and the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.  But there is another anniversary, too often forgotten, that, in many ways, serves as a basis for our evaluation of, and judgments on, current events in light of our shared commitment to human rights.

On December 10, 1948, the United Nations General Assembly announced and adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  The Declaration, adopted unanimously, states certain rights that must be respected, among them the right to life, the right to religious freedom, and the right to marry and found a family.   It is a remarkable achievement, reflecting a consensus among the diverse collection of nations that make up the UN, nations that hardly ever agree on anything.  But they agreed this time.  Why?  Because, following the utter devastation of World War II, which was unlike anything that had preceded it, they believed that a commitment to human rights was the only thing that could prevent the world from falling into a third world war, one that might mean the very end of humanity itself.

The Declaration is not perfect, and some criticize it on various grounds, such as that it is an incoherent “shopping list”.  Those alive today face the perennial question: is the glass half full or half empty?  The Popes, particularly John Paul II, have not stinted from seeing the glass as half full.  True, it fails to enunciate a coherent underlying theory that would unify the rights recognized; however, it, at least, recognizes the existence of these rights and it insists they must be respected.  So the glass is half-full. To vary the metaphor, we can build on that.

And how are we to go about building a sturdy doctrine of human rights?  Just as John Paul II did – by proposing, to all people of good will, an understanding of human rights built upon the teaching of the Church in its social doctrine.  That deeper understanding will unify the “list,” as well as guide us when we need to consider whether to add to the list.  And this deeper understanding is what we aim to provide in our master of arts degree in human rights.  The Declaration is a fundamental tool in this dialogue among people of good will, and we celebrate its anniversary.

M.A. in Human Rights Students Meet with the Rev. Dr. Andrew P.W. Bennett

By Steven Howard

On Thursday, November 7, Program Director William Saunders hosted a conversation between the MA in human rights students and Rev. Dr. Andrew P.W. Bennett, Director of the Cardus Religious Freedom Institute, a nonpartisan, faith-based think-tank that educates Canadians about the importance of religious freedom to a deeply pluralistic society. Director Saunders, Joseph Enzler, Emily Hausheer, and myself received Father Deacon Bennett for a meeting on campus. To begin with, Father Deacon Bennett shared about his professional and personal journey, which took him to places such as McGill University in Montreal, to service as Canada’s first Ambassador for Religious Freedom, and ordination to the deaconate in the Ukranian Greek Catholic Church.

The conversation then shifted to the decline of Catholicism in Quebec, the rise of French-style laïcité in the province, and how that is used to discriminate against Catholics as well as Muslims. ‘What was interesting to note is that most of the legislation against Muslim women wearing headscarves is supported by an odd coalition of anti-Catholic activists on the left who live in Montreal and the province’s more conservative rural population who are more hostile towards immigrants. He also shared how the province has no conscious objections for medical professionals and how many Catholics will have to close shop unless Canada’s judicial system hears their case and rules to protect a right to conscientious objection. This is vital because the province has been forcing Catholic healthcare professionals to carry out procedures and treatments considered intrinsically evil or sinful in Catholicism.

What impacted me was how much the U.S. and Canada share in common when it comes to religious freedom issues. There is definitely a need in wider North American culture to reinforce the importance of religious pluralism and religious liberty for all.

Unborn Human Life and Fundamental Rights: <br> Leading Constitutional Cases under Scrutiny

This book, co-edited by IHE Fellow and Human Rights Program Director William Saunders, J.D., presents a collection of studies by top scholars (including Saunders himself, Gerard Bradley of Notre Dame, and William Binchy of Ireland) on leading cases from twelve different countries defining the legal status of unborn human life. The cases under study pertain to three distinctive cultural and constitutional systems: Latin American Constitutional Courts and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, European Constitutional Courts and the European Court on Human Rights, as well as Common Law jurisdictions. With a special conclusion by Professor John Finnis, drawing together the many treads of the individual chapters into a comprehensive whole, this book lays the basis for further comparative study of the legal and moral reasoning underlying judicial decisions which either recognize or deny legal personhood and/or equal dignity to unborn human beings.

Order the book here

Trading Ordinary Times for Advent

By Lucia A. Silecchia

Recently, I was standing in a checkout line behind two women deep in conversation. I could not help overhearing that one was recently widowed and struggling to adjust to this new season of life.  Most of their conversation, however, was drowned out by the lilting strains of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” playing over the loudspeakers while Halloween candy was still in the aisles.

I could – but won’t! – gripe about the seasonal creep that may soon have us singing “Jingle Bells” on the 4th of July. Instead, that moment of odd juxtaposition reminded me that, for many, the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas holds a measure of sorrow.

Like the stranger shopping with me, many are dreading their first Christmas without a loved one.  Others are facing their second, or ninth, or twenty-seventh Christmas without a loved one when the blessed numbness of the first year has passed and the reality of loss has truly sunk in. There are some who expect with dread that this may be the last Christmas they will share with a suffering family member or friend. There are some passing the first season when an adult child will not be able to come home. This may be the first Christmas away from the family home because downsizing or simple economics mean the home was sold and the large table that had long been the setting for family feasts is no more. It may be the season when a deployment keeps a member of the military away from home – knowing he or she will miss a child’s first Christmas or a grandparent’s last.

This may be the first Christmas season that the elders of a family, with both relief and regret, surrender hosting duties to a younger generation – or the first time that the family chef can no longer make a cherished traditional dish. This may be the season when images of joyful families hurt the hearts of those whose families have borne the pain of divorce and estrangement. The centrality of children in this season centered on the birth of a child can take a toll on those who ache to have a child and do not or cannot.

Some face the season in poverty, knowing they cannot give their loved ones grand tokens of their affection and fearing that they will disappoint those nearest and dearest. Others have seen some manifestation of a dark side to human nature in this past year – and whatever they have seen has made it far too difficult to hope or rejoice. Others have no time or energy to celebrate because they silently work multiple jobs or scramble to care for those unable to care for themselves. Still others know they will not celebrate Christmas in their own homes because they will be keeping vigil with loved ones in hospitals, hospices, and nursing homes.

Some parents will face a pang of loss this season if their children announce they have grown skeptical of Santa. Other parents will face a far greater, more poignant pain if their children confide they have grown skeptical of God.

For some, the cares of life may have robbed them of a bit of their own faith in a season when it is yearned for the most.

As we leave Ordinary Time for a spell and begin Advent, we enter the season that seems particularly meant for those who carry great burdens. All appearances to the contrary, Advent is not the season of the jolly songs and frantic festivities of Christmas. It comes in the darkest days of the year when the nights are the longest and light most scarce. It is a season that recalls the ancient world’s aching wait for Christ, yearning for the tidings of great joy that had not yet come. It is not a season of red and green and gold and silver, but of purple – because the joy promised is hoped for, but not yet here.

If you are facing Christmas this year with sorrow in your heart, I hope that you will find comfort in believing that, truly, Advent is the season for you. It is the season for all those who hope for what they do not have, and who yearn to see light after a season of darkness.

If you are seeking a new tradition this year, particularly if this year has treated you well, I have a gentle suggestion. On the first Sunday of Advent, remember all those you know whose hearts might be aching a bit. Devote some time to them that day as we enter this season of yearning, waiting, and hoping in the darkness. A visit, an email, a text, a letter, a phone call or the promise of prayer might be exactly what they need to know that they do not wait alone for the light to dawn.

The first Sunday of Advent seems the perfect time to assure those who suffer that Advent is, in the words of ancient carols, a time to “rest beside the weary road” until, once again, “a weary world rejoices.” It is a season to help each other move toward Christmas peace by sharing the burdens of ordinary times.

Lucia A. Silecchia is a Professor of Law at the Catholic University of America. “On Ordinary Times” is a biweekly column reflecting on the ways to find the sacred in the simple. Email her at

Past columns in the series may be found here. 

Saint Josephine Bakhita Honored In Museum of the Bible Exhibit

By Emily Hausheer, M.A. student

Josephine Bakhita’s life was an inspiring story of compassion. This Sudanese heroine has a prominent display on her life story at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC. As you enter the museum, you can see a large picture of her on the second floor window looking out. Once you are on the second floor there are exhibits commemorating the great fights for justice that took place throughout history against slavery, including that of William Wilberforce. Throughout the world, the Bible and various denominations of Christianity were able to change hearts spiritually and change the world. Bakhita’s story is included in this exhibit as a 20th century story of a woman who went from slavery to freedom. There is a picture of her, as well as a short and engaging video that narrates her life story.

As a young girl in Sudan Bakhita was captured by slave traders. Bakhita recalled much anguish and fear when she was captured and torn from her family. She was sold to an Arab man and later a Turkish general. She suffered great distress as his slave. Eventually, she was sold to an Italian man after bringing him a cup of coffee. Bakhita was brought to Italy where her life improved greatly and she found her freedom. It was in Italy where she yearned to know more about Christianity and God. She was accepted into a religious community and devoted herself to a life of compassion and serving others. Bakhita helped wounded soldiers during World War I and was known to have a kind face full of life. She died in 1947, leaving behind a legacy of true freedom.

In 2000, the Catholic Church proclaimed her as a saint (saints are people from the Catholic Church who performed great works and are set apart for honor). Professor Saunders, who founded an NGO to help the persecuted Church in Sudan, was traveling throughout Rome and Vatican City during the ceremony and witnessed it! It was a very special moment for everybody involved, and a story that deserves to be told to the world. She continues to serve as an inspiration to people throughout Sudan, Italy and the world as a resolute woman who brought kindness and love to a dark world. Bakhita sought truth and freedom, and although she faced many obstacles she found her liberty. Saint Bakhita is the patron of our Master of Arts in Human Rights program.

Robert George Discusses Dialogue, Consensus <br> and the “New Natural Law” School

By Michael Moss, M.A. student

The Masters of Arts in Human Rights program met for a personal conversation with Robert George, who serves on our program’s Advisory Board, before he spoke for the Catholic Information Center’s JPII New Evangelization award dinner. It was a delightful conversation, especially because of the rich relationship between him and the director of the M.A. program, Professor Bill Saunders. We spoke briefly about his professional history, which reaches far beyond academia into the world of international commissions for human rights work and international and interreligious dialogue. We discussed theories for the bases of human rights at length, noting the broad but fraught consensus on natural rights present at the time of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Professor George spoke about the type of consensus possible between Catholics and other groups, religious or otherwise. He highlighted the importance of actual dialogue between individuals who can always, if they try, find a basis for agreement and development. That may be an agreement as basic as the embrace of free intellectual inquiry, but it nonetheless provides a starting point for joint efforts toward a vision of the common good. His experience of working internationally for the protection of human rights provided unexpected examples of moral consensus between supposedly opposed groups. Professor George delivered an introduction to what some call the “New Natural Law” school, an increasingly popular basis for talking about human rights that can be extracted from the common experience of human life.

Fr. Kitima Comments on Human Rights in Tanzania

By Michael Moss, M.A. student

The students in the Masters of Arts in Human Rights program met with Fr. Charles Kitima, Secretary General of the Tanzanian Conference of Bishops. Fr. Kitima is performing research at The Catholic University of America as well as with Professor Saunders on several projects during this academic year. We discussed the geopolitical situation in Tanzania and the surrounding countries. Fr. Kitima explained the connection of religious populations (especially Christian and Muslim) with the political history and current organization of the country. Tanzania’s constitution explicitly incorporates the protection of human rights as described in the UN’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This bases political legitimacy in a regime’s protection of rights and enables direct coordination with international treaties. Fr. Kitima has also been instrumental in the rapid development of a university system in Tanzania, so he shared his story of involvement in that project.

Master’s Student Reflects on Work With the National Center on Sexual Exploitation

By Joseph Enzler

As part of the program’s firsthand experience element, we met with the administrative staff at the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE). During our conversation, we discussed how the Center was established, difficulties they have faced, and accomplishments they have achieved. Throughout our time at NCOSE’s headquarters, I was struck by the kind and welcoming atmosphere of the office and the geniality of the staff. The staff members’ gentle and genuine demeanor was especially comforting and consoling considering that they deal with graphic and explicitly evil content in our culture, fighting to protect the eyes of the innocent.

Having aided in the campaign to block pornography on The Catholic University of America’s campus network, I was surprised to find a non-profit dedicated to exactly that. The work NOSCE does is a benefit for all of society and its staff should receive much praise for their accomplishments. They have successfully gotten billion-dollar companies to remove pornographic content from their platforms. This work is amazing and should be supported by all. I am grateful to have been granted this opportunity to meet with the founders of NCOSE and thankful they shared their struggles and successes with us. Their work and achievements are inspirational and instill hope in young supporters of human rights, like me. The Master of Arts in Human Rights is giving me the tools necessary to identify the evils that exist in our world as well as the tools to combat them. I am grateful for the education I am receiving and the knowledge imparted by those we meet in the human rights field.

Student Helps Teach English To Human Rights Hero Chen Guangcheng

By Abigail Wilkinson

During orientation for the Human Rights program, our cohort had the opportunity to hear from human rights hero and Chinese dissident, Chen Guangcheng. He spoke to us about his experience as a “barefoot lawyer” in China, his work to expose forced abortions, and his subsequent persecution at the hands of the CCPR. Having fled to the United States, Guangcheng is now a Fellow of the Center for Human Rights at the Catholic University of America.

Afterward, I was presented with the opportunity to help Guangcheng with his English–an opportunity which I could not seize fast enough. Over the past few years, I have enjoyed volunteering as an ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) tutor at local libraries, and here was a chance to put these skills to use at the University.

Guangcheng speaks to students and audiences around the country and often has to rely, in part, on the help of a translator. He also records podcasts for both Chinese- and English-speaking audiences. As his English improves, his impact will broaden. During our meetings, I am able to ask for Guangcheng’s input on some of the debates that we are having in class. He also speaks with me about the current state of the human rights battles that are being fought in Asia today. Meeting once a week with a hero of the human rights movement has been an incredible supplement to my courses in the Master’s program.

MA in Human Rights students meet with law professor Lucia Silecchia

By Emily Hausheer (MA in Human Rights, Class of 2021)

Prof. Lucia Silecchia participated in a discussion with Catholic University’s new Masters of Arts in Human Rights program students on the topics of environmental law and ethics. Silecchia shared with the students about her interest in environmental law, and conveyed that we have a duty to preserve God’s creation for future generations. She engaged with the students in a lively discussion about the proper place of being a protector of the resources of the world, and the importance of a Christian perspective in all areas of life. Prof. Silecchia’s faith and values impact the way she advocates for pro-life causes and helping the environment. She expressed the importance of discussions and engaging with those we disagree with to find common ground.

Prof. Silecchia shared with her students the key components in her life when it came to her pursuing a path in environmental law and ethics. She has been teaching at Catholic University’s Columbus School of law since 1991! The image of God is an important principle for ethics that Silecchia defends. She mentioned how Christians should have a distinct approach to environmental law because unlike some people who see this as their only hope and despair, we have hope. However, we also have a calling to be wise caretakers of the environment. In addition, Silecchia works as an expert advisor to the Vatican City’s permanent observer mission at the United Nations. In addition, she participated in a 2007 conference on the environment in Vatican City.

Abortion Comes To The Supreme Court: <br> High Court Will Review Case on Louisiana Law

By William L. Saunders

On Oct. 4, the U.S. Supreme Court granted review of an abortion case. The case, June Medical Services, LLC v. Gee, involves a law in Louisiana that requires abortionists to have admitting privileges at a local hospital. If they do not have them, they cannot commit abortions.

Oddly, at first glance, this issue appears to have already been decided by the Supreme Court. On June 27, 2016, that is, two and a half years ago, the court decided Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt. In that decision, the high court struck down a Texas law that, among other things, required abortionists to have admitting privileges in a local hospital. The two cases seem more or less identical. What has changed? Why would the court consider the issue again? Is not the court bound by “precedent”? There are several answers to these questions, all of which bode well for the pro-life cause.

Read more here.

Originally published at the National Catholic Register.

Program Director William Saunders Addresses Human Rights in China with Chen Guangcheng

By William Saunders, J.D.

On October 9, the program in human rights held its second annual human rights lecture/discussion, “Thirty Years after Tiananmen Square – Human Rights in China Today.” Last year, the series was inaugurated in a conversation with Princeton professor and former Chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, Robert P. George, who also serves on the Advisory Board of the MA in human rights.  This year the speaker was Chen Guangcheng, a Distinguished Fellow at CUA.

Program director, William Saunders, began the event by referring to three anniversaries occurring this year – the four month anniversary of the demonstrations in Hong Kong, the seventieth anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party in China, and the thirtieth anniversary of the suppression of the pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square in Beijing.  He noted that human rights in China was regularly in the news – only a few days earlier a public furor had erupted due to a tweet by the general manager of the Houston Rockets basketball team in favor of the Hong Kong protests; the Chinese government replied that “Freedom of speech does not include the right to criticize the government,” and threatened to ban the NBA from China.

Noting that those under thirty-seven years of age might be unfamiliar with the events of Tiananmen Square, Saunders discussed those protests and the suppression of them by the Communist Party and the army.  He noted that we can get a good idea of what had happened in China afterwards by looking at the life of Guangcheng.

Guangcheng, who was born in 1971 in a poor village and who became blind in infancy because of inadequate rural medical care, became an advocate for the disabled and for the rural poor, becoming in the process the most famous of China’s “barefoot lawyers.” After several years in illegal detention, he was confined to his home, which was closely guarded.  Yet, he managed to escape to the U.S. embassy, and then on to the U.S.

Since coming to the U.S., he has been a tireless advocate for democracy in China, finding effective ways around the electronic wall China created to keep such information from reaching its people.  His lecture on human rights in China was followed by a question-and-answer session with Saunders. Then the event was opened to audience questions.

You can view the entire event here.

Anything that threatens Communism is a target, Chinese human rights advocate says

By JD Flynn

A Chinese human rights activist and former political prisoner has called for renewed focus on the country’s practices of mass detention, religious oppression, and reports of organ harvesting.

Speaking at an event Wednesday, Chen Guangcheng told listeners at the Catholic University of America that there is no doubt about the Communist regime’s determination to hold onto power by any means necessary.

“Human rights have declined and today are very bad,” Chen said of the current situation in China. The ruling Chinese Communist Party is “afraid of losing power,” he said, and so “anything that threatens its power will be a target for violence.”

Read more here.

Originally published at Catholic News Agency.

The event was hosted by the MA in Human Rights program at The Catholic University, lead by director William Saunders, J.D.. Learn more about the program here.

New graduate program in Human Rights delves into Catholic thought and perspective on human rights

By Elizabeth Bachmann

WASHINGTON (CNS) – This fall, five graduate students will embark on a unique, one-year journey back to the origins of thought on human nature.

They will study natural law and natural rights, anthropology, international law, religious liberty, global politics and papal encyclicals, emerging from the program with a fully formed, Catholic understanding of human rights and a zeal to defend and explain these rights.

The Institute for Human Ecology at The Catholic University of America is offering this master of arts degree in human rights for the first time in the fall of 2019. The program, headed and organized by William Saunders, lawyer and longtime human rights scholar and activist, is interdisciplinary, drawing classes from five of Catholic University’s schools.

Read more here.

Originally published on 23 August 2019 at Mississippi Catholic

Professor Robert George Addresses Human Rights in Conversation with Program Director William Saunders

More than 80 students, faculty, and members of the local community gathered for a discussion of human rights and religious liberty with Robert George, Princeton University’s McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at The Catholic University of America’s Heritage Hall.

The discussion, which was hosted by the Institute for Human Ecology, was held to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The lecture also marked the opening of a new Center for the Study of Human Rights at Catholic University, along with an interdisciplinary degree, a Master of Arts in Human Rights.

Throughout the hour-long conversation, George answered questions from William Saunders, an IHE fellow who serves as director of the master’s program and the Center for the study of Human Rights in the School of Arts and Sciences.

George, who is a member of the Center’s advisory council, began the conversation by discussing the positive influence the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has had on the world since it was issued on Dec. 10, 1948, as a response to the horrific violence seen during the two World Wars.

He called the declaration “an extraordinary achievement” that brought together people from many different faiths and backgrounds to “make a profound statement of the dignity of the human person … and an affirmation of the rights that human beings have, not in virtue of any special strengths — beauty, intelligence, social standing — but simply in virtue of their humanity.”

Though he noted that the document is “not self-executing,” George said that it “gives civil society an instrument in the name of which to demand of repressive governments and offending regimes respect for the dignity of the human person and his rights.”

Continuing the conversation, Saunders and George discussed how the declaration — in Saunders’ words — is “not a perfect document.” Among the dangers of the declaration, the two professors noted, is how easily its language can be used to promote specific ideologies.

“Whenever the rhetoric of a good thing becomes the dominant rhetoric, then people are going to seize upon that rhetoric to advance whatever agenda, whatever ideology they have,” said George. “People will try to win at ideological battles, advance their agendas whatever they are, with the language of human rights. So they’ll inflate claims, whatever they desire, and treat it not as a desire, a want, a feeling, a passion, but a human right.

“We lose our sense of the power and importance of the fundamental rights because of the inflation that happens when you conflate whatever it is you desire, whatever is on your agenda, with rights,” George said.

Saunders and George also spoke about the many responsibilities that go along with human rights, and the differences between positive and negative rights, and how the idea of religious freedom ties in with the declaration of human rights.

At the beginning of the night’s event, George spoke highly of Catholic University’s new Center for the Study of Human Rights, which seeks to bring the Catholic perspective to bear on the discussion and understanding of human rights. The master’s program, which is accepting students now, will begin officially in Fall 2019.

“I think this institution will really bring something new to the table,” George said. “That is an understanding of human rights rooted in the deep tradition of thought that takes us back to Athens and to Jerusalem, an approach to human rights that really anchors human rights in the truth about the human person and the flourishing of the human person. … We need that kind of deep understanding.”

In his introductory statements, Moral Theology Professor Joseph Capizzi, executive director of the Institute for Human Ecology, spoke about the new center and master’s program. He said the program is unique because it “draws on the interdisciplinary strength of this University and also the Catholic intellectual tradition.” Aaron Dominguez, the Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, also gave introductory remarks welcoming the establishment of the Center and of the master of arts degree.

For more information about the new master’s program in human rights, please contact William Saunders, Program Director at

This article was originally published by The Catholic University of America on October 1, 2018. Watch the video from the event here.

Photos by Deirdre McQuade/DMcQuade Studios.

Heroines of Ordinary Times

by Lucia A. Silecchia

Since March began, Women’s History Month has highlighted famous women and their places in our collective history. However, the private histories of our families hold countless ordinary women who lived extraordinary, but hidden, lives of faith, hope and love. Women’s History Month is much impoverished if we let it pass without honoring the ordinary women in our own families.

I am blessed to have such women in my own family tree. History does not know them, but through family stories I do. Two beautiful biographies come to mind:

My great grandmother was born in southern Italy’s bucolic hills. When I visit her homeland, it seems like paradise. But, rural life was difficult in nineteenth century paradise. So, she watched her husband leave Italy’s shores to see if the United States held more promise for their growing family. Determining it would, he sent word back to her. I am told that she endured a long transatlantic voyage with toddler boys before arriving in New York the same winter as the notorious Blizzard of ’88. I often wonder what went through the heart of this young woman from the tropical Mediterranean, as a blizzard engulfed her new hometown. She never again saw the family or country she left behind. She delivered twelve children into the world, but only six of them survived infancy. Her husband died in the winter of 1902, leaving her the single mother of six in a country whose language and customs were still new to her.

Yet, her home became a much-loved gathering place and her life a bridge between the old world and the new. She lived to see her children’s children thrive. She was the matriarch of her large family through World War One and the Great Depression, passing from this life in the midst of World War Two. She lived a courageous life lost to history but filled with faith, hope, and love – the same faith, hope and love of so many women who, through the ages, have held the world together.

Her youngest child was another remarkable woman and my maternal grandmother. Born in New York in 1902, she never knew the father who died right after her birth. American women could not yet vote and their opportunities were limited. Yet, my grandmother graduated high school, leaving behind notebooks that reveal a meticulous student with handwriting and mathematical skills that I envy. Serious photographs of her during high school Shakespearean plays show a surprising dramatic flair. She worked at a department store to help support her family and married a dashing Italian mechanic with a pompadour and a motorcycle. She welcomed two daughters just as the country plummeted into the Great Depression that devastated her family. Her meticulous budgets for those years survive, tabulating all her family’s income and the minutest of their expenditures. Long before Airbnb, my grandmother took guests into her home during the 1939 World’s Fair to help pay her mortgage and feed her family. She guided my mother through college, graduate school, marriage, and motherhood – making sure her younger daughter’s dreams knew no limits.

But her greatest legacy was her love for her older daughter – a beautiful firstborn with bright eyes, dark curls, and a crushing brain injury during her birth. My grandmother devoted herself wholeheartedly to this daughter’s care, knowing that love often demands giving away one’s life for another. She sewed her beautiful dresses and gave her Christmas presents. Family photographs always show my grandmother next to this beloved daughter, feeding her patiently from the same good china as everyone else. With the exception of one road trip, my grandmother likely never again traveled more than fifty miles from her home; love for her daughter was her world. “Mama” was the only word I ever heard my aunt say. This was the heartfelt, more-than-eloquent tribute to my grandmother, another unknown woman who lived her life with faith, hope and love – the same faith, hope and love of so many women who, through the ages, have held the world together.

These brief portraits capture only two of the good, holy women whose lives are intertwined with mine. I pray that women such as these have also blessed yours. Their lives, like those of so many women, will go unknown and uncelebrated this month – if we let that happen. But, maybe we owe them more. It is women such as these who are the heroines of ordinary times.

Lucia A. Silecchia is a Professor Law at the Catholic University of America. “On Ordinary Times” is a biweekly column reflecting on the ways to find the sacred in the simple.

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