Cracking the Vatican stained-glass ceiling

by Mike James

Pope Francis has for the first time named women, not just one but three, to serve as members of the Vatican committee that vets nominations for the Pope to appoint Bishops all over the world.

Italian Sister Raffaella Petrini, French sister Yvonne Reungoat and layperson Dr Maria Lia Zervino will join the previously all-male office, the Vatican said on Wednesday.

The appointments are the latest in a series of significant moves allowing women more say in Catholic Church governance.

The dicastery (Ministry )  oversees the work of most of the church’s 5,300 bishops, who run dioceses around the world. Its members — including cardinals, bishops and now women — meet periodically to evaluate new bishops who are proposed by Vatican ambassadors (Nuncios).

The pope has the final say after  the consultation and vetting process.

Petrini was the first woman to be appointed as the secretary-general of the Vatican City State, in charge of its numerous celebrated museums and other administrative parts of the territory and major source of income of the Vatican 

Sister Reungoat previously served as superior general of the Daughters of Mary the Helper, a religious order also known as the Salesian Sisters.

The most striking  appointment is that of lay woman Maria Lia Zervino, president of a Catholic women’s umbrella group, the World Union of Female Catholic Organisations.

Church doctrine still reserves the priesthood for men, and women have often complained they have a second-class status to the all-male clerical hierarchy of the Holy See.

Last year on the eighth anniversary of Francis’ election as Pope,  Dr Zervino,  a long-standing friend wrote him an open letter in which she thanked him for his years of challenging and healing the church and for expanding women’s roles but told him “women still deserve more.

Among other things, she called for a “synod of the People of God,” because women simply having the right to vote in the synod of bishops is not enough.

Zervino, who has been in Rome since 2013 and knows the pope from when both had roles in Argentina’s Bishops Conference, did not ask for female ordination but demanded more room for women in leadership positions.

“Last year you personally recommended to us to be brave like Mary Magdalene, even when addressing the pope,” she wrote. “That is why I allow myself to tell you, with all respect, trust and affection, that as a woman I feel something is owed to us. You fight against machismo and clericalism, but I think that not enough progress has been made in taking advantage of the wealth of women who make up a large part of the People of God.”

In her letter, Zervino argued that there already is a theology of women in the Church, while in civil society, including the economy, health, education, in caring for the planet, the defence of human rights and many other fields, women already hold leadership positions.

When it comes to women in the Church, she wrote that “it is not a question of occupying positions to be ‘like flower vases,’ just an ornament, because it is fashionable to appoint women, nor is it about reaching posts to ‘climb’ to positions of power.”

“It is about serving the Church with the gifts that the Creator Father has given us: a peculiar intelligence and sensitivity, an affectivity and particular capacity for the gestation and formation of people and a special aptitude for the generation of relational goods,” she wrote. “May the wish expressed by you for women to join decision-making teams together with men cease to be considered a utopia and become something common in the Church.”

 The World Union of Catholic Women’s Organizations (WUCWO) was founded in 1910 and now represents 100 Catholic women’s organizations worldwide, active in around 50 countries, counting on around eight million Catholic women of every walk of life.

Its goal is to promote the presence, participation and co-responsibility of Catholic women in society and the Church, in order to enable them to fulfil their mission of evangelization and to work for human development, particularly in increasing educational opportunities, poverty reduction and the advancement of human rights beginning with the fundamental right to life.

On Jan. 10, 2020, Pope Francis welcomed Zervino along with WUCWO interim secretary general Andrea Ezcurra. Though the encounter was private, the pontiff reportedly encouraged the women of WUCWO to remember that “without craziness there is no holiness,” calling on them to “take charge courageously,” and to “look and follow Mary Magdalene who with courage announced Jesus’ resurrection, even when the apostles didn’t believe them.”

In her letter to the pope, Zervino thanked him for listening to the cries of the poor and the planet with his encyclical Laudato Si, released in 2015 and often labelled as the pontiff’s “green manifesto,” and also thanked him for his 2020 encyclical Fratelli Tutti in which he “discerned that the key to facing the problems of our world, plunged in a third world war fought piecemeal, is a society of brothers and sisters;” and for “continuing the path of ecumenism and interreligious dialogue, undertaken by your predecessors.”

She also thanked Francis “for trying to purify and heal the open sores of the Church, the atrocities of modern abuses and slavery, the violations of the dignity of women and our detachment in living the Gospel daily. Thank you for moving beyond the criticism and the devil’s whirlpool, guiding the boat of humanity in the midst of the storm caused by the Coronavirus.

“Thank you for showing us that it is essential to undertake processes to achieve change and that each change requires an educational process that involves everyone,” Zervino wrote. “Thank you especially for trying to give the Church the feminine face that identifies her by her tenderness, closeness and mercy.”

Giving examples as to what she means by women having more room within the Church, Zervino wrote that she dreams of a Church where suitable women work as judges in all the courts in which matrimonial cases are processed; where women make up the teams of seminaries; give spiritual direction and pastoral care; and be members of any Church-team focused on the care of the planet, the defence of human rights and others, for which “by our nature, women are equally or sometimes better prepared than men.”

The dream of women in these roles, she writes, does not only apply to consecrated women, but to lay women who, all over the globe, are ready to serve. 

“I dream that, during your pontificate, you will inaugurate, together with the Synods of Bishops, a different synod: the synod of the People of God, with proportional representation of the clergy, consecrated men and women, and lay men and women,” she writes. “We will no longer be happy just because a woman votes for the first time but because many prepared lay women, in communion with all the other members of such synod, will have given their contribution and their vote that will add to the conclusions that will be placed in your hands.”

By women having a right to vote in the Synod of Bishops, Zervino is referring to French Sister Nathalie Becquart, recently appointed by Pope Francis as undersecretary of this institution created in the 1960s as a by-product of the Second Vatican Council and has been meeting regularly ever since.

No woman has ever voted in one of these meetings, though they have regularly taken part as observers, advisers, auditors and experts. Becquart could become the first woman to cast a vote.

Pope Francis in appointing Dr Maria Zervino and two religious sisters, with votes, to the critical committee that vets submissions for appointments of Bishops has responded to her letter as he so often does, in actions and example rather than just in words. The patriarchal stained-glass ceiling blocking women from playing genuine leadership roles in the Church has received a just a crack through which a handful of women have been able to squeeze (now 8 of an estimated 95 top Vatican posts). But  an irreversible precedent has been set for women in the church to play their long denied roles in leading the People of God.

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