VATICAN CITY — One doesn't necessarily plan to work in the Vatican. But once the offer is made, it's hard to refuse.

Such was the experience of Lucienne Sallé, a French woman who has been working as an official at the Pontifical Council for the Laity since 1978.

“I worked in Rome for nine years before joining the Vatican,” she said, referring to her time at the international secretariat for Catholic Action, a worldwide lay organization. “The Pontifical Council for the Laity wanted someone like me, a lay woman. But when I was asked to join, it was a difficult decision for me.”

The choice involved leaving a job she already loved, which involved greater independence, in order to enter a vast organization with a more rigid structure.

“But then I realized I couldn't refuse,” she said. “After all, I had already asked the Vatican's Council for the Laity to hire more lay women during previous meetings with its members.”

The New Movements

Since then, Lucienne Sallé has devoted herself to the Council's primary mission, namely, to work with Catholic ecclesial movements and communities around the world, and help them “be united to the universal Church.” The Council works with about 160 international Catholic movements, some of them begun as recently as the 1980s.

“Our job is to get to know their statutes,” said Salle, “their president and their members. They send us summaries of their work. We give them feedback. It's a never-ending process.”

Council for the Laity officials make an effort to attend the international meetings of Catholic movements, a job which involves substantial travel, though movement leaders are also frequently invited to Rome.

Sallé's office is teeming with mementos from such trips — African wooden statues, Latin American prints, Far Eastern decorations — an eloquent testament to the diversity of Catholic life. Her bookshelves also reflect the range of issues covered in her job, with such topics as feminism, charisms and liturgy.

“What impresses me the most about Lucienne,” said Giorgia Stelasalatielo, who teaches philosophy at the Gregorian University of Rome, “besides her great intellectual and spiritual openess, are her constant efforts in the field. I know that outside her official work, she even does things personally to help these groups.”

In fact, Sallé is often spotted around Rome, attending prayer meetings and liturgies for different groups in the area, ready to share her counsel and support.

“I had the opportunity to organize a meeting at Lucienne's initiative after Beijing,” said Professor Carmen Aparicio, referring to the 1996 U.N. conference on women.

Aparicio worked at the Council for the Laity from 1989 to 1999 and currently teaches fundamental theology at the Gregorian.

“Lucienne wanted to continue the experience we had just had,” he said. “She brought the whole project forward. Many Eastern European women came to give testimonies about their lives. Lucienne has great attention for those who have lesser voice.”

Feminism and the Church

It is precisely the issue of feminism and women in the Church for which she is most often in demand — due to her years in the Vatican and two books she has authored: Women in the Vatican (1997) and Women Who Love (2000).

“The first women to work in the Vatican came in 1961,” said Sallé. “A Canadian priest noticed that there weren't any women at all and offered to lend a few from the order he had founded.”

By the time Sallé arrived, it was no longer a rarity to see women within Vatican buildings. “No one stops and stares at us,” she said, “though we are still few in number.”

Professionally speaking, there are no differences. Women receive equal pay for equal work.

“But the curia is based on a hierarchy. We first depend on the Pope and then on the people around him, who are all cardinals and priests. There are no females in the top positions of responsibility,” she said, explaining that all congregations and pontifical councils are led by cardinals or archbishops.

The Council for the Laity has the highest ranking lay person in the entire Vatican, Guzman Carriquiry, as undersecretary, a position normally reserved for archbishops, bishops or priests.

“But with regards to the lay people who work in the Vatican, men and women are considered the same,” she said.

The U.N. Conference on Women in Beijing seems to have been a turning point, however.

“The fact that Prof. Mary Ann Glendon was named as the head of the Holy See delegation broke a tradition and introduced a new possibility,” said Sallé, referring to the Harvard Law School professor. “She did a great, [professional] job. Everything functioned very well within the delegation, and everyone was happy.”

According to Sallé, the impact of the conference was immense and “there is no going back.” The conference underscored that without the collaboration of women, the urgent issues of the world could not be resolved.

However, Sallé is also quick to point out the problems with the brand of feminism prevalent at Beijing. Feminism, which focuses only on women, as though they were disconnected from humanity — without any relation to men — is weak, she said. The same holds true for a feminism that is only concerned about achieving parity with men.

“The idea of parity is limited,” said Sallé. “We need to talk about reciprocity, the unity of man and woman and the true gift of self. This would bring about better relations between men and women, in love. And this is an idea which is beyond feminism.”

The Michelets

An example she gives involves the Michelets, a couple from France who arenow deceased. From the first day that Edmond Michelet met his wife, they decided to pray for each other at the same time every day. This practice continued during World War II and especially when Edmond was sent to a concentration camp. “The story shows how reciprocity is stronger than parity.” The Michelets are now being considered for beatification.

When asked about the Church and feminism, Sallé emphasizes that the Church has “made great strides with John Paul II.” Many of these strides, however, are still only written in documents, and have yet to be fully absorbed at all levels of the Church. Instead of delving deeper into the Christian message, some people stop at feminism.

“But the Christian message is deeper than feminism,” insists Sallé.

She also firmly believes that the leaders of the Catholic Church need the contribution of women to do their work. “In the Book of Revelation, the heavenly Jerusalem is depicted as a feminine bride resting on the 12 columns of the Apostles. The Apostles needed women to do their work. They and their successors need to root themselves in the Church's femininity.” Sallé cites the vivid example of the Holy Father's trip to Calcutta in 1986. When the Pope visited the Missionary of Charity's Home for the Dying, Mother Teresa led him around the center by the hand.

“He needed her to introduce him,” she said, “so that he could meet the sick and dying.”

Sallé also notes that priests who have a devotion to Mary seem to have an instinctive understanding of the gifts that women bring to the Church. This explains John Paul II's tremendous respect for women, “especially because he calls Mary the first Church.”

Sallé is hard pressed to choose among countless treasured moments. She remembers a meeting in 1987 connected to the Synod for the Laity.

The Council for the Laity had invited 400 people from various movements — names like Focolare, Communion and Liberation, Emmanuel. The idea was for people to meet and freely share information. They milled about, in and out of 12 rooms especially set up for them. “One man came up to me, so excited. He gasped ‘We've discovered so many new movements. I had no idea!'”

But Lucienne Sallé knew all along. After all, it's her job.

Sabrina Arena Ferrisi writes from Rome.