Pope Francis caught the attention of the world again when the media reported his remarks made during the 28 July 2013 press conference on the flight home from World Youth Day in Rio de Janiero. In Catholic and secular media, many commentaries and misunderstandings circulated regarding the Pope’s comments on a “gay lobby”. I offer this reflection on another subject that Pope Francis spoke about in the same press conference, “Catholic Womanhood”.
Apparently the media pressed Pope Francis to offer his plan for the future expansion of the role of women in the Church. His impromptu statement is worthy of deeper consideration. He said, “A Church without women is like the Apostolic College without Mary. The role of women in the Church is not only maternity, the mother of the family, but it’s stronger: It is, in fact, the icon of the Virgin, of Our Lady, the one who helps the Church grow!” Pope Francis continued, “Our Lady is more important than the apostles! …The Church is feminine: She is Church; she is spouse, she is Mother.” Furthermore, the Holy Father said, “we have not yet made a profound theology of women in the Church. She can only do this or that: Now she is an altar server, then she does the reading, she is president of Caritas. But there is more. A profound theology must be made of woman.” In August, during an interview with America Magazine, Pope Francis repeated similar thoughts.
His comments should be kept in the context of the example that Pope Francis gave to illustrate their meaning. The Holy Father offers a “historical example” of some women from Paraguay. After the War of the Triple Alliance in 1864-1870 the death toll left most women without husbands. How did the women respond? Pope Francis said, “Some made a difficult decision and chose to have children to save the homeland, the culture, the faith and language.” Faced with a desperate situation, these women made a selfless choice for good—to remarry and raise large families. The women of Paraguay exemplify the feminine genius at work—they made room for the other by their self-offering receptivity to life.
One response to Pope Francis’ comments about the role of women in the Church came from a priest friend who said that a group of Catholic men voiced their concern that men will exit the daily life of the Church the more women take leadership in the Church. Some priests confided they have difficulty working with women in the Church who do not reflect Marian virtues of humility, joy, patience, gentleness, obedience and prudence. While at first we may be offended by such comments, it would be more helpful to realize these opinions are formed from their experience. This is a sad commentary on how some women are perceived in the Church. We are all aware of the countless good women working in the church and priests admit that without them the parish or diocesan life would not function well. But I understand the concerns offered by some men and priests regarding the Pope’s statements because I have interacted with women in the church who were less than welcoming.
I can offer this next comment because I am a woman who fell into the entrapment of worldly thinking at one time. Twenty- three years ago, I experienced a profound conversion of heart through the intercession of Mary—thanks be to God! Shortly afterward, I was invited to help start Magnificat, A Ministry to Catholic Women in my diocese. At first, I resisted because of my experience of some women leaders in the Church. I feared losing my femininity because I felt that some women in the Church led like men, not women. Then, I was led to a scripture that helped me to say yes to leadership of an ecclesial women’s ministry. Isaiah 11:6 states, “a little child shall lead them”. Of course the prophet Isaiah is referring to Jesus Christ who came into the world as a child. Jesus was led not by his will, but by the Father’s will, and he followed the prompting of the Holy Spirit. The passage from Isaiah struck me. If I could keep a childlike dependence on God, and be led by the Holy Spirit, I could serve the Church as Mary did, without losing my femininity. Mary is the model of femininity that is authentic, the epitome of the feminine genius.
Too many women have been evangelized by the spirit of the world and adopted attitudes that are not welcoming, not receptive to marriage or motherhood (physical or spiritual maternity). Recently on my Radio Maria program, I dialogued with Marge Fenelon, author of “Imitating Mary: Ten Marian Virtues for Modern Moms”. We had a lively conversation regarding the need for modern women to be mentored by Mary in the way of virtue to better bless husbands, children and the Church. We also discussed how women are desecrating themselves and the child in the womb to the detriment of humanity.
Pope Francis suggests the Church needs a profound theology of Catholic womanhood. Indeed, there is a great need to catechize women on their dignity and vocation, to undo the falsehood of secular philosophy that has infected too many. Archbishop Fulton Sheen considered women the barometers of western civilization. It would be fruitful to work towards transforming the “interiority” of women in the Church. Many women are busily focused on “doing” and are robbed of the joy of “being” a woman who like Mary ponders Christ to magnify him. Marian pondering is not an optional luxury but a necessary formation for the feminine person. Mary was a contemplative in action. A profound theology of Catholic womanhood should begin and end in Mary, icon of the Church who is feminine, spouse and Mother. We need Mary to help us rediscover the beauty of a healed, holy, hospitable feminine heart.
Mary, the New Eve, pray for us sinners.