The Australian Embassy to the Holy See celebrated the 103rd annual International Women’s Day with a very distinct focus — on those women who have played a critical role within the organization of the Catholic Church.
Held March 10 in the embassy’s Rome office, located only a river’s width away from the Vatican, the event began with remarks by John McCarthy, the Australian ambassador to the Holy See, honoring fellow Australian Rosemary Goldie.
Appointed undersecretary to the Pontifical Council for the Laity in 1967, Goldie was "the first woman to hold ministerial office in the Holy See," McCarthy said, and she was one of 23 privileged women Pope Paul VI asked to participate in the Second Vatican Council.
After honoring pioneers of the past, McCarthy then introduced the seminar’s three guest speakers, a panel of women representing the present female face of the Vatican.
First to speak was Ana Cristina Villa Betancourt, the current head of the women’s section of the Pontifical Council for the Laity. After founding lay apostolates in her native Colombia, as well as Peru and the U.K., Betancourt recalled her shock when she first came to Rome: A priest told her she could not run a youth retreat because she was a woman.
"I have to confess," Betancourt shared, "I never thought that this was a Church issue, but a personal issue of that priest."
Nevertheless, this encounter raised concerns in Betancourt’s mind. Whether an anomaly or something more widely present, this type of treatment of women in the Church was a reality that Betancourt believed needed to be addressed, and she used the International Women’s Day event as an opportunity to do so.
Betancourt first highlighted the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, which defined the Church as a "holy people of God, all baptized with the same dignity, the same work, the same universal call to the mission of the Church, each according to their own vocation."
Then, borrowing language from Mulieris Dignitatem, Blessed Pope John Paul II’s 1988 apostolic letter dedicated to the vocation of women, Betancourt highlighted the equality between the two sexes, stemming from their "common ‘beginning’" as "created in God’s image." Equal in human dignity, woman is taken from man’s side "to be different, but with the same personal essence." The difference is not a source of conflict, Betancourt explained, but should be viewed as a sign of complementary natures that, through collaboration, lead to mutual enrichment.
Betancourt pointed out that this message was harmonious with the recent words of Pope Francis, who acknowledged in a recent interview with Corriere della Sera that male-female collaboration is essential to the Church. "The Marian principle guides the Church aside the Petrine," the Pope said.
Betancourt said this means that both principles are necessary yet distinct. "Mary is Queen of the Apostles, but she does not pretend to have their power. She has another greater power," Betancourt stated.
Betancourt said her "wider ecclesial experience" has shown her that the teachings on women of Vatican II and Mulieris Dignitatem have not yet been fully realized. She closed her presentation by asking: "Will attaining the Church’s vision of women entail a platform where the female voice can dialogue, where the ‘feminine genius’ can contribute more concretely?"
Lucetta Scaraffia, the seminar’s second speaker, answered that question in the affirmative by pointing to L’Osservatore Romano’s "Women, Church, World" supplement, of which she is the founder.
The aim of the supplement, Scaraffia began, "is to let the voice of the women in the Church be heard and to make the important contribution that women give to life of the Catholic world visible and known."
"Women belong to the Church in an invisible way, as a ‘hidden treasure,’ as an asset one does not exploit as often and as much as one could and should," she said. Mulieris Dignitatem, Scaraffia noted, not only refers to the "feminine genius" as an asset or treasure, but, moreover, as "fundamental for the life of the Church."
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that the Church’s structure "is totally ordered to the holiness of Christ’s members. And holiness is measured according to the ‘great mystery’ in which the Bride responds with the gift of love to the gift of the Bridegroom. Mary goes before us all in the holiness that is the Church’s mystery as ‘the bride without spot or wrinkle’ (Ephesians 5:27). This is why the ‘Marian’ dimension of the Church precedes the ‘Petrine’" (773).
In the Corriere della Sera interview, Pope Francis also recognized "that woman can and must be more present in places of decision-making of the Church." Otherwise, the consequences are detrimental, Scaraffia summarized, because the Church must be "able to breathe with both lungs, the female and the male."
The last of the speakers was Maria Cristina Carlo Stella, head of the Fabbrica di San Pietro, the office overseeing maintenance of St. Peter’s Basilica.
Stella stressed that to preserve the Church’s rich cultural heritage means to preserve the faith. Stella outlined women’s central and privileged place in the Church, revealed through that heritage.
For instance, Stella referenced the two colossal female statues, depicting Fortitude and Generosity, at the heart of the basilica, towering over its "very foundations." Also mentioned were statues of two queens resting within the basilica’s walls — one with the papal tiara in hand that personifies Rome, which some have incorrectly assumed is an indication that women should be eligible for the papacy — and of St. Helena, who discovered the True Cross.
Concluding, Stella considered Michelangelo’s famous Pietà, which conveys Christ’s death and the subsequent birth of the Church, the heart of which is the Madonna.
Constructive change will occur, the presenters believe, but time must be given for this to take place.
"I am hopeful," said Betancourt. "The problem is we want it to move faster, but we must be aware of its heritage. It will move according to its nature."
writes from Rome.