Pope Francis has referred to the subject of women several times during his still new but very active pontificate. It is obviously a topic that is close to his heart. For this reason, we think it is appropriate to speak about a recent event that brought over one hundred women together in the Vatican. They came from 24 countries representing every continent. The seminar took place in Palazzo San Calisto from 10 to 12 October last. It was organised by the Pontifical Council for the Laity to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of John Paul II’s apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem.
That document marked a milestone in the reflection of the Church on the dignity and vocation of women. It was in fact the first pontifical document entirely dedicated to this theme. It was published after the Synod of Bishops on the vocation and mission of the lay faithful. During that synod, there was ample discussion on the issue of women in the Church. That is why, if we are to really understand the context of the apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem, we should read it in conjunction with the post-synodal exhortation Christifideles Laici which was published soon afterwards. The first document develops a reflection on the theological and anthropological foundations of the dignity and vocation of women. The second document concentrates on the role of the lay faithful in the Church, and therefore also of women. It contains some aspirations that seem very current to us today: “Above all the acknowledgment in theory of the active and responsible presence of woman in the Church must be realised in practice” (no. 51).
Many things have changed during those twenty five years, in the world and in the Church. The serious anthropological crisis that we see around us is closely associated with the rapid and profound social changes of the late twentieth century and the decline of the cultural involvement of the Christian faith in society. The seminar dealt with questions that we could summarise as follows: what contribution to a solution for the current anthropological crisis could come from renewed awareness of woman as a special custodian of the human? What equilibrium between light and shade can we make of the cultural changes that have been taking place during the last fifty years, in particular the so-called “sexual revolution”? In the light of these analyses, what are the best ways to be taken by the new evangelisation?
The seminar was very full and intense for the participants. Most of them were women, many of whom represented Church organisations. Around forty associations and movements were represented. There were also people who regularly collaborate with the Pontifical Council for the Laity Women’s Section. There were some significant contributions by men at the seminar, but most of the discussion was held by women. These people have vast and tested experience at a human and professional level. They included university lecturers, artists, journalists, diplomats and officials at various levels in Church organisations. It is interesting to note how quickly there arose a positive spirit of collaboration and substantial convergence regarding the challenges being faced in today’s world, in spite of the great variety of cultures and backgrounds. The discussions dealt mainly with the need for the Church to respond with even more courage to the anthropological crisis, and in particular on the opportunity provided by the remarkable resources we have in so many women who are highly prepared and enthusiastic in working for the good of humanity. These resources can be coordinated and networked into common action in order to avoid fragmentation in our initiatives. In spite of the obstacles encountered, nowadays there are women present in very many sectors of cultural and social life. They are precisely in the places where the mission of the Church always needs their experience, competence and professionalism. The subject arose about the renewed self-awareness of women’s role and how it could help to find the way out of the present crisis, according to the guidelines given twenty-five years ago in Mulieris Dignitatem. Without any doubt, the seminar participants were able to confirm their feminine identity above all as disciples of the Lord and daughters of the Church. Indeed, it is in their love for Christ and their belonging to the Christian community that they understand the greatness of their dignity and vocation. They feel in debt to Mulieris Dignitatem which was important in helping each one to find her ecclesial vocation. This awareness freed the discussions from any tendency to give an ideological approach to the feminine question; an approach that is very strong in dominant discourse but that is ineffective is fostering the true well-being of women and society. They mostly spoke about a desire to work as daughters of the Church in dialogue and communion with men. This is reciprocal enrichment for all because everything is done for the good of the Christian community and all humanity.
Pope Francis addressed the seminar participants, and he encouraged us to “[from Mulieris Dignitatem] endeavour once more to deepen and promote an undertaking that I have wished for many times already”. He reminded us that the word “Church” [in Italian] is feminine. It is “woman”, “mother” and “this is beautiful”. The Pope’s words seemed to echo those of Cardinal Stanislaw Rylko, president of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, who summed up the experience of the seminar by speaking of “amazement at the greatness and beauty of God’s plan, for God created us male and female”. The cardinal said that it was noticeable that those present were aware that they were dealing with an issue that is not only anthropological, nor only theological in a technical sense, but that they were looking at an aspect of the very mystery of God who calls to us through creation so that we can appreciate the depth of his love.
Although sexual difference is one of the big questions of our times with issues like the adulterated language of gender, the participants at the seminar see that Christ’s disciples have to deal with this while avoiding the distorted lenses of the dominant ideologies. Sexual difference was desired by God at the creation, and it was redeemed, reconciled and renewed in Christ. It is a great treasure that we are called upon to demonstrate to the world. It is not simply an intellectual or spiritualistic proposal. It is a light that always shines anew. When it is authentic, it requires that specific decisions be taken, that there be options for communion and wholehearted commitment, a capacity for dialogue and appreciation of gifts and the contributions of each person. It follows the logic of complementarity of being rather than of doing. It avoids the seeking of power according to worldly standards, and it is not captured by the anti-logic of victimisation or competition. It follows in the footsteps of Jesus who is here among us as the one who serves, and of Mary, Mother of the Church.