My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,
Several weeks ago, the Pontifical Council for Culture conducted a conference entitled “The Feminine Cultures: Equality and Difference.” The conference, held by this Vatican department, was meant to bring understanding to the role of women in our culture and in our Church.
This Council had a great influence on the direction of the New Evangelization, especially by bringing forth the concept of encountering cultures and different ideas in neutral places. They used the phrase, “the Courtyard of the Gentiles” to describe a place where those who do not believe can be encountered. The image comes from the Temple of Jerusalem which had a special courtyard dedicated for worship by Gentiles who wished to come to the Temple to pray. Gentiles were not allowed to enter the Temple precincts; however, they could pray in this one space allocated to them. The Council for Culture has endeavored to engage in dialogue atheists and others who do not share our theology or culture.
The conference had an opportunity to hear an address by our Holy Father, Pope Francis. In effect, the Pope summarized the proceedings that had gone before his talk during the three-day conference. In a previous interview, the Holy Father, said, regarding his desire to “investigate further the role of women in the Church. We have to work harder to develop a profound theology of the woman. Only by making this step will it be possible to better reflect on their functions within the Church. The feminine genius is needed wherever we make important decisions.”
If we look to our own Church in the United States and our own Diocese here in Brooklyn and Queens, we recognize that the majority of worshipers are women, as well as the majority of those who work for the Church in chanceries, schools and parish offices. Women are the heart and soul of the life of the Church. And, yet, somehow many feel that their feminine genius is not taken into account.
During the conference, the issue of equality and difference, and search of a balance, was discussed. The Holy Father himself said that it is “an equilibrium that is harmonious, not just balanced” which we are trying to find for an enhanced role for women in the administration and life of the Church today. Another topic that was discussed was feminine generativity which seeks to understand the nurturing role of women as mothers, as protectors of life and as those who “desire to bring into the world, to take care of and to let go” of life that they themselves bring into the world. In addition, another topic discussed at the conference was the feminine body between culture and biology. This reminds us of the beauty and harmony of the body that God has given to woman, but also mindful of the painful wounds inflicted, sometimes with cruel violence, on them as women.
Many times when we hear the story of the creation of woman from Adam’s rib there are various interpretations. The old rabbinical wisdom explained in the passage of Genesis in this way, “God had a choice of where he would take the bone from man to create woman.” If he were to take the bone from man’s head, then woman would have dominated man. Or, if he had taken the bone from man’s leg, then woman would have been the slave of man. But God understood what to do when he took the rib close to Adam’s heart, so that man would always be reminded that the woman was his equal and that he had to love her as himself. At the last World Meeting of Families held in 2012 in Milan, I heard Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, head of the Council for Culture, use that very image, an image of which I already knew. Sometimes Biblical images say more than what we can say ourselves can say with words.
Finally, the conference discussed woman and religion, and posed the question, “Are they fleeing or seeking participation in the life of the Church?” Perhaps both are occurring. There are women seeking greater participation in the Church and those who feel they have no real place in the Church and seemed to have abandoned the mother who has given them life. I am awaiting the full documentation from the conference, however, I know that there will be some insights to be shared. In the meantime, in the past year I have begun in our diocese a council of women who are in the employ of the diocese to ensure the feminine perspective on important decisions we make in our male dominated structure. It is my hope that as time goes on, more women will take more responsible positions in the life of the Church. Although they are represented, the desire of Pope Francis is that wherever possible women should have a greater role in the life of the Church.
It is never easy to change cultural patterns or old ways of thinking. We are being urged by our Holy Father, Pope Francis, however, to put out into the deep by exploring the genius that women have to offer to the life of the Church. I take this opportunity to thank all the women who nurture our Church and who make it evermore a mother to us all.