ROME— There’s no such thing as a news-free day in the Vatican in the Pope Francis era, who’s a perpetual whirlwind, and Black Friday was no exception.
The day after Thanksgiving, Pope Francis once again endorsed the fight to eliminate violence against women, hosted atheist scientist Stephen Hawking while he gave a 20-minute lecture on the origins of the universe, and watched his new papal commission to study the role of female deacons 2,000 years ago hold its first meeting.
Francis calls for an end of violence against women
Through a tweet sent out on Friday 25, the United Nations-sponsored International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, Pope Francis regretted that so many women today are overwhelmed with the drama of violence:
So many women are overwhelmed with the burdens of life and the drama of violence! The Lord wants them to be free and their dignity respected
— Pope Francis (@Pontifex) November 25, 2016
According to the UN, this day is needed because violence against women is a global pandemic that represents a human rights violation.
“Violence against women is a consequence of discrimination against women, in law and also in practice, and of persisting inequalities between men and women,” the UN website says, adding that preventing violence against women and girls is not only possible but essential.
Violence against women impedes progress in many areas, including poverty eradication, combating HIV/AIDS, and peace and security.
According to UNICEF, one in three women and girls will experience sexual or physical violence in their lifetimes.
Francis’s commission to study female deacons is meeting in Rome
Through a statement, the Vatican announced on Friday that the newly established commission for the study of the female diaconate was holding its first meeting at the offices of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
The two-day meeting will be headed by Archbishop Luis Francisco Ladaria Ferrer, president of said commission set up by Pope Francis last August, following a May 12th meeting with participants at a plenary assembly of female religious superiors, who asked him about the possibility of restoring the permanent diaconate for women.
Ladaria also serves as Secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
According to the Vatican statement, during this week’s meeting, the 12 members- six men and six women, from 8 different countries- will study the situation of women deacons in the early centuries of Church history.
The members represent a wide variety of theological perspectives, with some openly in favor of female deacons, others against, and some undecided. Five of the members teach at pontifical universities in Rome, while four are members of the Vatican’s International Theological Commission.
Interestingly enough, there are no deacons in the mix.
Pope Francis’s position on the issue has been a matter of debate. On the one hand, he called for the matter to be studied- as his predecessor Benedict XVI had- but last June, on his way back from Armenia, he expressed surprise at the magnitude of the reaction to his decision to create the group.
“The next day, it was as if the Church had opened the door to women deacons, but that’s not true,” he said, saying its primary role will be to ascertain the role of female deacons in the early Church.
“I believe this theme has been studied a lot, and it won’t be difficult to shed light,” the pope said.
More important, Francis said, is making sure the voices of women are heard in the decision-making process.
“Women think in a different way than us men, and you can’t make a good or correct decision without hearing women,” he said.
The pontiff also said he’s committed to trying to boost the role of women theologians in the Vatican.
Stephen Hawking at the Vatican
On Friday, renowned British cosmologist Stephen Hawking spoke at the Vatican, at the plenary session of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, headed by Argentine Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo.
Hawking’s talk was titled “The Origin of the Universe” and he delivered it on day one of the November 25-29 plenary session of the Pontifical Academy for Science, which gathers some of the world’s top scientists, including several dozen Nobel laureates. Membership to the world’s oldest scientific academy is without regard to religious affiliation.
This is far from being Hawking’s first appearance in the Vatican. He has been a member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences (PAS) since 1986.
Three Popes so far have acknowledged Professor Stephen Hawking’s crucial contribution to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences pic.twitter.com/dUu9jlJXTs
— Casina Pio IV (@CasinaPioIV) November 25, 2016
This year’s session is focused on the contributions science can bring to sustainability, meaning the impacts of scientific knowledge and technology on society and the environment.
Pope Francis is expected to address the group on Monday. The last time he addressed the plenary session of the PAS, he said that evolution in nature is not inconsistent with the notion of creation, warning against thinking of God’s act of creation as “God [being] a magician, with a magic wand able to do everything.”
In his 1988 book A Brief History of Time, Hawking credited Pope St. John Paul II with reawakening his interest in the origin and fate of the universe.
In a June, 2015, interview, Hawking told Spanish newspaper El Mundo that science has brought us too far to believe in an all-powerful deity.
“Before we understand science, it is natural to believe that God created the universe. But now science offers a more convincing explanation. What I meant by ‘we would know the mind of God’ is, we would know everything that God would know, if there were a God, which there isn’t. I’m an atheist,” he said.
‘Tis the season
The Thanksgiving leftovers are all but gone, the frenzy over Black Friday discounts left behind, and come Sunday, the Catholic Church will enter the Advent season, a period of preparation, extending over four Sundays, before Christmas.
For many, it means the season for Christmas shopping, baking and party planning has begun.
For others, way beyond Vatican walls, but under the watchful eye of the pope, it’s the moment to send a timely reminder that millions won’t have a tree, decorations or gifts.
Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), a papal charity focused on helping Christians around the world who suffer because of their faith in countries such as Iraq, Syria, Nigeria or India, is asking for people to consider making “a gift of faith” to put under the tree.
“This Christmas, you can give a gift to children in Syria and Iraq, help families with essentials to survive the winter,” their website says. There’s a wide selection to choose from: giving a Christmas parcel to displaced children, provide transport to allow priests and Sisters to spread the word of God or support a refugee family in the Middle East.
ACN is currently redoubling efforts to raise awareness of anti-Christian persecution around the world. They’re asking those who can’t make monetary donations to “light a candle this advent, and shine a light on Christian persecution.”
On Wednesday, in England, they presented the annual Religious Freedom in the World 2016 Report, in which they warn of worsening religious persecution which threatens to wipe out the presence of minorities such as Christians and Yazidis in parts of the Middle East and other centers of conflict around the world.
The launch of the report was highlighted by Red Wednesday, an initiative in which buildings all over England were lit up in red including London’s iconic House of Parliament, Westminster Cathedral, Westminster Abbey as well as the London Eye and Lambeth Palace.
Other buildings lit up in red included the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in St John’s Wood, London, Bolton Town Hall, Birmingham University’s “Old Joe” Clock Tower, Liverpool Hope University and Brentwood Cathedral.
Westminster Cathedral turned red to highlight the persecution of Christians, in the Middle East and around the world. Pic: James Kelligher. pic.twitter.com/6oN0wSLPyN
— Ines San Martin (@inesanma) November 23, 2016
It’s not the first time ACN has used the color red, which symbolizes blood, to bring attention to those who are persecuted or killed for their faith.
Another papal charity focused on helping Christians in the Middle East is the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA), currently headed by Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York.