Bruyn Bartholomaeus, the Elder (c 1493- 1553/1557) (called Barthel)
Fragment of a Diptych: The Virgin, Saint John, Saint Mary Magdalene and a Holy Woman, c 1530/40
Oil on wood
67.9 x 48.3 cm
The National Gallery, London
Thursday 22nd July 2010 was the Feast of St Mary Magdalene.
That day L`Osservatore Romano published a piece by Flaminia Giovannelli, undersecretary at the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, one of the Church's leading women
She called for wider recognition in the Church of the contribution women make, particularly as spiritual guides.
""My image of the Church is that of John Paul II and Mother Teresa shaking hands," Giovannelli reflected.
The 62-year-old expert in economics and political science spoke of the role that women play in the Church, specifically in women's religious congregations.
"When I think of so many women religious who in their congregations, at various levels, carry out extraordinary roles in a totally independent way, not only to exercise charity but also to manage patrimonies, organize schools and hospitals, and above all to support the spiritual lives of their sisters, enjoying the respect of all because of their admirable work, I think their value is affirmed on its own," she said.
According to Giovannelli, who has been working at the pontifical council since 1974, "women are outstanding in some ecclesial realms, I am thinking especially of spiritual direction."
"If it is essential for the Christian to receive the sacrament of reconciliation, as it reconciles him with God, spiritual direction is of fundamental importance for life: to know rationally that our sin has been forgiven is not always the same as feeling that one is forgiven," she noted.
"How important is the help of someone to recognize and back the plan that the Lord has for each one of us," Giovannelli continued. "And how many times this help comes to us from a woman, precisely because of the sensitivity and affectivity that are hers."
Giovannelli says she believes that giving importance to the task of spiritual support could be at the same time a recognition of the role of women.
On a personal level the pontifical council undersecretary affirms she has "always had the sensation that my ideas are taken into account precisely because they are the ideas of a woman, complementary and hence necessary in order to come to an objective judgment on the issues on which she has been consulted."
"And this is essential," Giovannelli asserted. "It does not take away from the fact that, depending on the organizations and women's level of preparation, facilitated ultimately by their access to more properly ecclesiastical studies, they could also assume roles of greater responsibility.
"And it is quite probable that this will happen." "
Now that the Vatican as quite firmly ruled out the ordination of women to holy orders as being the red lines of the debate which no one can cross, perhaps now will follow the greater formal recognition of the role of women in the Church.
It is hard to believe that it is 22 years since Pope John Paul II published his Apostolic Letter Mulieris Dignitatem (On the Dignity and Vocation of Women) (15th August 1988)
On 29th June 1995, Pope John Paul II wrote his Letter to Women
He referred repeatedly to Mulieris Dignitatem.
He apologised for the role played by the Church in the subordination of women in society:
"Unfortunately, we are heirs to a history which has conditioned us to a remarkable extent. In every time and place, this conditioning has been an obstacle to the progress of women.
Women's dignity has often been unacknowledged and their prerogatives misrepresented; they have often been relegated to the margins of society and even reduced to servitude. This has prevented women from truly being themselves and it has resulted in a spiritual impoverishment of humanity.
Certainly it is no easy task to assign the blame for this, considering the many kinds of cultural conditioning which down the centuries have shaped ways of thinking and acting.
And if objective blame, especially in particular historical contexts, has belonged to not just a few members of the Church, for this I am truly sorry. May this regret be transformed, on the part of the whole Church, into a renewed commitment of fidelity to the Gospel vision. When it comes to setting women free from every kind of exploitation and domination, the Gospel contains an ever relevant message which goes back to the attitude of Jesus Christ himself.
Transcending the established norms of his own culture, Jesus treated women with openness, respect, acceptance and tenderness. In this way he honoured the dignity which women have always possessed according to God's plan and in his love. As we look to Christ at the end of this Second Millennium, it is natural to ask ourselves: how much of his message has been heard and acted upon?"
He went on:
"10. It is thus my hope, dear sisters, that you will reflect carefully on what it means to speak of the "genius of women", not only in order to be able to see in this phrase a specific part of God's plan which needs to be accepted and appreciated, but also in order to let this genius be more fully expressed in the life of society as a whole, as well as in the life of the Church.
This subject came up frequently during the Marian Year and I myself dwelt on it at length in my Apostolic Letter Mulieris Dignitatem (1988).
In addition, this year in the Letter which I customarily send to priests for Holy Thursday, I invited them to reread Mulieris Dignitatem and reflect on the important roles which women have played in their lives as mothers, sisters and co-workers in the apostolate. This is another aspect-different from the conjugal aspect, but also important-of that "help" which women, according to the Book of Genesis, are called to give to men."
Some have wondered why there has not been greater progress in the role of women in the Church. The question was put to Pope Benedict XVI in an interview in August 2006.
Here is the extract from the interview:
"BR: Holy Father, women are very active in many different areas of the Catholic Church. Should not their contribution become more clearly visible, even in positions of higher responsibility in the Church?
Benedict XVI: We reflect a lot about this subject, of course. As you know, we believe that our faith and the constitution of the College of the Apostles binds us and does not allow us to confer priestly ordination on women. But we should not think either that the only role of importance one can have in the Church is that of being a priest.
There are many tasks and functions in the history of the Church: Starting with the Sisters of the Fathers of the Church up to the Middle Ages, when great women played fundamental roles until modern times. Think of Hildegard of Bingen who protested strongly before the Bishops and the Pope, of Catherine of Siena and Bridget of Sweden.
In our own time too women - and us with them - must always seek their proper place. Today, they are very present in the Dicasteries of the Holy See. But there is a juridical problem: according to Canon Law the power to take legally binding decisions is limited to Sacred Orders. So there are limitations from this point of view, but I believe that women themselves, with their energy and strength, with their predominance, so to speak, with what I would call their "spiritual power", will know how to make their own space.
And we will have to try and listen to God so as not to oppose him but, on the contrary, to rejoice when the female element achieves the fully effective place in the Church best suited to it, starting with the Mother of God and with Mary Magdalene"
However one would like to know more about what Pope Benedict XVI referred to as the " juridical problem: according to Canon Law the power to take legally binding decisions is limited to Sacred Orders."