Catholic women do most of the work of the Church in schools, hospitals, and pass on the faith to future generations, but have long complained of second-class status in an institution that reserves the priesthood for men.
Words aside, Francis has overseen a marked increase in the number and percentage of women working in the Vatican in his 10 years as pope, from 19.3% in 2013 to 23.4% today, according to statistics reported by Vatican News.
In the Curia alone – the offices of the Holy See that effectively run the universal Catholic Church – the percentage of women is now 26%, making one in four employees female.
And while no woman heads a Vatican office, more women hold top positions than at any other time in Vatican history.
Among them is Sister Raffaella Petrini, the first-ever female Secretary General of the Vatican City, responsible for the health care system, the police and the main source of income, the Vatican Museums.
Petrini, a member of the in Meriden, Conn. established Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharistic religious order, speaking Wednesday on Women’s Day, said her appointment raised eyebrows, “more than I expected in my ingenuity.”
She acknowledged that her philosophy of organizational leadership met with some resistance, especially within the Vatican’s old guard, but that younger employees were more open to the collaborative teamwork she promotes.
“Even in secular organizations, resistance is part of the process of change,” said Petrini, professor of welfare economics at Rome’s Pontifical Angelicum University.
In addition to appointing more women to the Vatican, Francis has launched a multi-year consultation process on the future of the church that has increasingly pointed to concrete demands from Catholic women for more leadership and decision-making roles.
María Lía Zervino, president of the World Union of Catholic Women’s Organizations, said the process of the Consultative Synod of Francis was a big step towards making women’s voices heard. She published preliminary results of a survey of female participants showing that the majority believed they had been listened to, even though obstacles remained.
Zervino, who was named by Francis last year along with Petrini as the first-ever female members of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Bishops, said 43% of respondents identified “ordained ministers” as the biggest obstacle to the consultation process, evidence that clergy remained resistant to women’s full participation.
Another study released Wednesday by researchers at the University of Newcastle, Australia, identified abuses of power and clericalism as barriers to women’s participation in the Church, finding that the vast majority of respondents of a non-random sample of Catholic women supported the ordination of women to the priesthood. and the opportunity to preach homilies at Mass.
Zervino said her own experience in the Vatican helping to appoint bishops had not met resistance from church leaders. But she said it hadn’t been easy either.
“I never thought I’d do this in my life, and it requires an awful lot of effort from me because I have to be at a high level that I’m still learning,” she told a Women’s Day event at the Vatican .
She said her experience taught her that the Church needs to train women to be leaders in the hierarchy, as those positions are now open to them thanks to Francis’ reforms.
“I thank the church for this, it’s an important, wonderful step forward,” she said. “There is no way to go back.”