ROME – Argentine María Lía Zervino, President of the World Union of Catholic Women’s Organizations, has penned an open letter to Pope Francis, thanking him for expanding women’s roles during the past eight years as Roman pontiff, while also demanding “a further step.”
Among other things, she calls for a “synod of the People of God,” because women simply having the right to vote in the synod of bishops is not enough.
Zervino, who has been in Rome since 2013 and knows the pope from when both had roles in Argentina’s bishops conference, did not ask for female ordination to the priesthood, something which Francis has already stated is a no-go. Instead, she demanded more room for women in leadership positions.
“Last year you personally recommended to us to be brave like Mary Magdalene, even when addressing the pope,” she wrote. “That is why I allow myself to tell you, with all respect, trust and affection, that as a woman I feel something is owed to us. You fight against machismo and clericalism, but I think that not enough progress has been made in taking advantage of the wealth of women who make up a large part of the People of God.”
In her letter, sent on Saturday to coincide with the March 13 anniversary of the election of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as the successor of Benedict XVI, Zervino argues that there already is a theology of women in the Church, while in civil society, including the economy, health, education, in caring for the planet, the defense of human rights and many other fields, women already hold leadership positions.
When it comes to women in the Church, she writes that “it is not a question of occupying positions to be ‘like flower vases’, just an ornament, because it is fashionable to appoint women, nor is it about reaching posts to ‘climb’ to positions of power.”
“It is about serving the Church with the gifts that the Creator Father has given us: a peculiar intelligence and sensitivity, an affectivity and particular capacity for the gestation and formation of people and a special aptitude for the generation of relational goods,” she wrote. “May the wish expressed by you for women to join decision-making teams together with men cease to be considered a utopia and become something common in the Church.”
According to their website, the World Union of Catholic Women’s Organizations (WUCWO) was founded in 1910 and now represents nearly 100 Catholic women’s organizations worldwide, active in around 50 countries, counting on around eight million Catholic women of every walk of life.
Its goal is to promote the presence, participation and co-responsibility of Catholic women in society and the Church, in order to enable them to fulfil their mission of evangelization and to work for human development, particularly in increasing educational opportunities, poverty reduction and the advancement of human rights beginning with the fundamental right to life.
On Jan. 10, 2020, Pope Francis welcomed Zervino along with WUCWO interim secretary general Andrea Ezcurra, both of them consecrated, as well as Father Gerard Whelan, an Irish Jesuit based at Rome’s Gregorian University who serves as the group’s ecclesiastical assistant.
Though the encounter was private, the pontiff reportedly encouraged the women of WUCWO to remember that “without craziness there is no holiness,” calling on them to “take charge courageously,” and to “look and follow Mary Magdalene who with courage announced Jesus’ resurrection, even when the apostles didn’t believe them.”
In her letter to the pope, Zervino thanks him for listening to the cries of the poor and the planet with his encyclical Laudato Si, released in 2015 and often labeled as the pontiff’s “green manifesto,” and also thanks him for his 2020 encyclical Fratelli Tutti in which he “discerned that the key to facing the problems of our world, plunged in a third world war fought piecemeal, is a society of brothers and sisters;” and for “continuing the path of ecumenism and interreligious dialogue, undertaken by your predecessors.”
She also thanks Francis “for trying to purify and heal the open sores of the Church, the atrocities of modern abuses and slavery, the violations of the dignity of women and our detachment in living the Gospel daily. Thank you for moving beyond the criticism and the devil’s whirlpool, guiding the boat of humanity in the midst of the storm caused by the Coronavirus.
“Thank you for showing us that it is essential to undertake processes to achieve change and that each change requires an educational process that involves everyone,” Zervino wrote. “Thank you especially for trying to give the Church the feminine face that identifies her by her tenderness, closeness and mercy.”
Giving examples as to what she means by women having more room within the Church, Zervino writes that she dreams of a Church where suitable women work as judges in all the courts in which matrimonial cases are processed; where women make up the teams of seminaries; give spiritual direction and pastoral care; and be members of any Church-team focused on the care of the planet, the defense of human rights and others, for which “by our nature, women are equally or sometimes better prepared than men.”
The dream of women in these roles, she writes, does not only apply to consecrated women, but to lay women who, all over the globe, are ready to serve.
“I dream that, during your pontificate, you will inaugurate, together with the Synods of Bishops, a different synod: the synod of the People of God, with proportional representation of the clergy, consecrated men and women, and lay men and women,” she writes. “We will no longer be happy just because a woman votes for the first time but because many prepared lay women, in communion with all the other members of such synod, will have given their contribution and their vote that will add to the conclusions that will be placed in your hands.”
By women having a right to vote in the Synod of Bishops, Zervino is referring to French Sister Nathalie Becquart, recently appointed by Pope Francis as undersecretary of this institution created in the 1960s as a byproduct of the Second Vatican Council, and has been meeting regularly ever since.
No woman has ever voted in one of these meetings, though they have regularly taken part as observers, advisers, auditors and experts. Becquart could become the first woman to cast a vote.
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma