VATICAN CITY — At the end of his general audience in St. Peter’s Square March 8, International Women’s Day, Pope Francis led a round of applause for women.
He thanked the world’s women “for their commitment to building a more humane society” through their ability to see and understand the world “with a creative gaze and tender heart.”
“It is right for them to be able to express these skills in every sphere, not just within the family,” he wrote in the preface to a book, “More Women’s Leadership for a Better World: Caring as the Engine for Our Common Home.”
In the preface, published by Vatican News on Women’s Day, the pope wrote that “the church can also benefit from the valorization of women” by allowing them to do more than just perform a particular function or job and actually transform the culture to be more caring.
In his 10 years as pontiff, Pope Francis has sought to include more women in the work and governance of Vatican commissions and Roman Curia offices.
According to the latest statistics, there has been a significant increase in the number and percentage of female employees the past decade, and the number of women in Vatican leadership positions has also grown.
Today there are 1,165 women working at the Vatican compared to 846 in 2013, making up 23.4% of the total workforce, according to Vatican News March 8. When it comes to roles in the Roman Curia, more than one in four employees is now a woman.
Within the Curia, five women hold the rank of undersecretary, and one has the rank of secretary: Salesian Sister Alessandra Smerilli, whom the pope appointed to the No. 2 position at the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development in 2021. It is the highest post ever held by a woman at the Holy See.
The pope has said he intends to appoint the first female prefect now that it is possible for laypeople, and, therefore, women, to lead dicasteries, according to “Praedicate Evangelium,” the pope’s constitution reforming the Curia.
Pope Francis has also, for the first time, appointed women as full members of Vatican dicasteries, when previously that role was reserved to cardinals and some bishops. Members play a key role and vote along with prefects and secretaries at plenary assemblies.
So, while the pope has been bringing more women to “a place at the table” in Rome, he also has opened up new ways for women’s voices to be heard.
His Synod of Bishops on synodality has inspired some groups to create surveys specifically for women and compile the findings to send to the synod. The synodal process is meant to be an ongoing exercise for the entire church to learn to come together, to listen more intently and discern what the Holy Spirit is saying.
The World Women’s Observatory’s of the World Union of Catholic Women’s Organizations (WUCWO) created a survey, which is open until March 15, for women who held leadership positions during any phase of the synodal process to reflect on concerns regarding the role of women in the church.
Also, researchers from Australia’s University of Newcastle produced the International Survey of Catholic Women for the Catholic Women Speak network as a way to contribute their voices to the synod. It received more than 17,000 responses from 104 countries and those findings with recommendations were sent to the synod in September. The complete report was presented at the Vatican March 8 by Tracy McEwan, a theologian and sociologist of religion affiliated with the University of Newcastle and a member of the research team.
The presentation, sponsored by Chiara Porro, Australia’s ambassador to the Holy See, also included María Lía Zervino, a sociologist and president of WUCWO, who gave the preliminary findings of their survey of more than 400 women who played a leadership role during the synodal process.
Zervino said 26% of respondents said they experienced no obstacles during the synodal process, while 43% of respondents said their “main obstacle” was an ordained minister and 18% said other members of the community were obstacles. Smaller percentages felt a lack of experience or difficulty speaking before a formal audience of church hierarchy was their main obstacle.
Some 69% of respondents felt “effectively involved in decision making” during the synodal process while 20% said they did not. Asked if their opinion had been listened to: 21% said “always,” 41% said “usually yes,” 12% said “several times,” while 23% responded “rarely” or “no.”
Both surveys had overlapping findings, one of the most important being that women’s views are not a “monolith” and it is the diversity of their experiences, challenges and hopes that can enrich everyone.
Some common threads when it came to findings and recommendations in both surveys were: the women surveyed were enthusiastic and deeply identified with their faith; they desired more inclusion, especially of those who have been marginalized; there is a need for greater formation for everyone, including male members and leaders of the church. Both surveys found the desire for ordained ministry for women was more predominant in North America and some European countries.
The women they surveyed were “deeply concerned” about transparency and accountability in church leadership and governance, McEwan said, and concerned about abuse, racism and sexism in church environments.
McEwan said she handed Pope Francis their report at the end of his general audience, where he met them as well as some of the 29 resident women ambassadors to the Holy See.
Zervino, who is also one of the three women members the pope appointed to the Dicastery for Bishops, said she hopes all the “words” contained in these findings have an impact.
The pope has said that “the church cannot and should not remain just with words,” she said, adding that she believed the time for concrete action has come.
“I am convinced this synodal process will have many concrete results that will change a bit the way things work in the church, perhaps in the structure, perhaps in daily life,” in reaching out to others and other faiths — all areas where women are, in fact, already active, she said.
The pope has opened a “fantastic” new road, she said, so “let’s go” and forge ahead because “we can do concrete things because we women are concrete.”