I chose to reflect on the position of women in the Church today in the context of what Michael Kelly describes as “the Francis effect”.

Given that the population of the Catholic Church, as reported in 2014, is 1214m, we can safely assume that there are at least 600,000,000 Catholic women in the church today.

What can we say about how women have reacted to the presence, the style and the words of Francis, more importantly, what is their position today? There is, of course, no one answer to this question. Little research has been done. Rather there may be a thousand answers. All I can do is to explore some of them.

One thing I am fairly sure of is that there will be at least two sets of answers to these questions. One set relates more to women in religious life, the other to the rest of us. Those in religious life include a significant number of highly educated, very active women. There is a greater focus in the print media on them and their activities, than there is on the other group.

Women in religious life in the Church are a very significant group, diminishing down from 753,400 in 2006 to 713,000 in 2011 (the latest available figures published in the 2013 Pontifical Yearbook), yet still very influential in the areas in which they work and live. Some of them are actively seeking greater involvement in institutional Church life.

Many of them are saddened that their life’s work is disregarded by the media.

They are vocal, energetic and very focussed. Others, especially in Ireland, are ageing, focussing much on their evangelisation, but equally on how they provide for and look after their ageing sisters. Many of them are saddened that their life’s work is disregarded by the media, which has a tendency to talk so much of the abuse scandals and less of the great contribution made by these noble women. I think that Pope Francis, in his simplify and directness, has brought them hope.

So what is it like to be a woman in the Catholic Church today? I asked a friend of mine what effect the election of Pope Francis had on her. She is an astute lady and her response was, as always, to the point. She said to me that he seemed so grounded and that he seemed to speak from the heart. She said that women were of the heart, that they lived at the heart of society in family, Church, etc.

It gave cause for hope that he did not seem to live alienated from the people. She talked of the experience of women over the years and how she hoped that women might now be treated differently, and might get an opportunity to contribute more than the things they had done so willingly in the past - the making of confirmation dinners, the cleaning of the Church etc. She said to me, “I think some of the things I might say would be helpful to priests!” I know she was right.

The women would then sit to eat afterwards as they do in many countries still.

The Catholic Church in any part of the world, for all its dogma and teaching, is really reflective of the environment within which it operates. Historically women occupied a lesser role in most societies, even prior to the coming of Christ. We know that in his world, for example, the women would feed the men first (note the women would feed the men!) and then sit to eat afterwards as they do in many countries still.

We know that it would not have been expected that he would call them his apostles - only men could be apostles But we know also of Phoebe and Priscilla, the Deaconesses. Phoebe, described by Paul as “a servant and a member of the church which is at Cenchrea”. During the first few centuries of the church, the role of a woman servant (diakonos) was to care for fellow believers who were sick, for the poor, for strangers passing through, and for the imprisoned. They helped baptize and teach new women converts and instructed children and other women.

Generally, in society, women had a limited role which diminished over the centuries, until it reflected the Victorian experience of women - there to bear children, to serve, to nurture, to comfort and to obey. Then it began to grow again.

That situation was reflected in the Church in which I grew up. It was a Church which was changing anyway. Women were no longer required to be churched - a process explained by some as being a blessing to mothers after childbirth, but experienced as being regarded by Church as a necessary cleansing after childbirth. Not an attractive proposition.

A church which recognised that it had been wrong to stigmatise the children of unmarried mothers, to refuse unbaptised babies and those who had committed suicide the benefit of burial in consecrated ground; to tell the mothers of babies miscarried in pregnancy that their babies would be forever in Limbo, with all the unbaptised babies who would never see the face of God; to take babies from young unmarried mothers and send them away to adoption; which ran places like Artane and Letterfrack…

It became acceptable for us not to wear the black mantillas or hats.

I remember the excitement of Vatican II – the novelty of the priest facing the people, and the words of the Mass in English, the excitement of the sisters at my convent school as they laid aside their long black habits for conventional clothing, and began to move out of the convents to live in the community, the Vatican II documents which articulated Catholicism. There were other things too - it became acceptable for us not to wear the black mantillas or hats to cover our hair in Church. Women could enter the Sanctuary and become Readers, girls could be altar servers.

Just as in society the professions (with the exception of education), politics, medicine, accountancy, have only limited numbers of women, so the experience of women in the Church has been limited, but even more so, for ordination within the Church is reserved to men, and one of the consequences of ordination is that it brings with it the right to be a decision maker. If you can’t be ordained within our Church then you cannot ultimately be a decision maker.

Now we are asking ourselves in these changed days, in which not enough has changed for women, what has been the effect of the advent of Pope Francis.

These were heralded as innovative actions, but he was not the first Pope to do things like this.

Initially he definitely gave rise to a sense of hope and expectation: he was so different from the reserved, somewhat austere and intellectual Benedict, and the charismatic, energetic John Paul II. Stories were told of how he went out in Rome at night, anxious to remain in contact with ordinary people, how he visited prisons, washed the prisoners’ feet (even women prisoners).

These were heralded as innovative actions, but he was not the first Pope to do things like this - John XXIII did it, John Paul II did similar things. So did others I am sure. We have just forgotten that that is how it was.

So what is different about Francis and why do we talk about the Francis effect? Why was there such an explosion of hope? There can be no doubt that Francis is a gifted, gentle, intellectually able, humble man. The first thing that struck me when I was in Rome last December was that his shoes were quite battered, and that he had all the appearance of an elderly, burly farmer who had put the Pope’s white robes on top of his normal clothing - no white papal trousers for this man!

He was very willing to give generously of himself. He was still surrounded by what seemed like hundreds of elegant monsignori, wearing the kind of glorious pink silk most women just could not afford, who took precedence over everyone there - not too much evidence of humility or engagement with those who filled St Peter’s Square. They stayed at the top of the steps while the great multitude looked up from below.

You know if the Church employed an image consultant I think they would have something to say about all this! It sends all the wrong images. It is so far removed from Christ who sat on a hill to speak to people. Of course there are pragmatic reasons for the way it is done - raise him up so people can see him, use audiovisual equipment to broadcast to even more people. Dress him in white so that everyone knows who the Pope is. Francis knows all this. He, and we, have to accept that some things are just necessary.

His talk of the smell of the sheep seemed to be slightly offensive at first.

More importantly though I, and I think many other women, believe that deep within him there is something which turns away from the pomp and the ceremony, except where it is appropriate - in the liturgy where it is not pomp and ceremony but rather richness and depth of worship, some thing very different. His talk of the smell of the sheep seemed to be slightly offensive at first. It is not seemly to suggest that we smell!

But there was a much more profound sentiment behind it and what he was saying, I think, was that bishops and priests need to be with their flocks experiencing life as they experience it, not isolated and grand. I think that we cannot expect too much change too quickly though - turning around the great ship that is the institutional church will not be easy.

We all have to recognise that for change to be effective, you have to bring people with you and in the case of the Catholic Church that is 1214m people, and that has to be done once you have discerned what is the right thing to do, taking into account the whole environment, scriptural, cultural, etc within which the Church operates. That is what leadership is about.

It is also about personal example. There is nothing so powerful as seeing someone live what they proclaim They say that this is how the early Church grew. Some say also that this is why we are losing so many young people: because they look and see and hear an institution which says one thing and too often does another.

One of the things that made my heart warm about Francis was hearing that he can and did cook. He refused to move into the papal apartments preferring to live in the Domus Sanctae Martha, portrayed by some of the media as a form of accommodation similar to a student hostel. Actually it is quite comfortable, even quite grand when you look at the pictures on the web, but at least he is sitting down and having his dinners with ordinary people. He has made clear from the beginning that he does not want to be isolated in the Vatican. It almost seems to me that he fears what such isolation might do to his humanity.

He is reported in the Wall Street Journal as having said:

“I don’t like this mythology of Pope Francis. It seems offensive to me to depict the pope as some sort of superman or a kind of star. The pope is a man who laughs, cries, sleeps soundly at night and has friends just like anyone else. A normal person.”

Last year in Ballymena, the parish in which I live, the Parish Priest, Fr Paddy Delargy, asked us to run a seminar on a Saturday afternoon on ‘Women in the Church’. It was very well attended by well over 100 people, from all walks of life, from as far afield as Dublin and Dundalk. You have to be dedicated to give up a glorious Saturday afternoon to sit in our undoubtedly beautiful Parish centre and listen to a series of talks, engage in discussion and report back!

Preparing for the seminar, engaging with the speaker, we had tried to identify the issues which might arise, the things that mattered for women in the Church today. The media has a number of areas of focus when it thinks of women in the Church, and they are very proper areas of focus. One of them is women and priesthood, a matter to which I will return. However, although it is an issue which is regularly raised at conferences and talks, (sometimes there is an assumption that because I am prepared to speak about the word of God and about being a Catholic, I must harbour secret dreams of ordination! I don’t. I never have. Though I must confess that I was somewhat taken by the idea articulated in one newspaper that I should be made a Cardinal. I felt a certain, possibly malicious, fleeting pleasure in contemplating the concern and confusion which might ensue…!) but that is not the issue, and from my experience the ordination of women is not the primary issue for women in the Church today, important though it is. Perhaps it is as well that this seems to be the case: Francis seems to have stated quite clearly “not in my pontificate.”

But there is much about this man and his living of the faith which gives heart to women.

In Evangelii Gaudium, para 103 he stated:

“The Church acknowledges the indispensable contribution which women make to society through the sensitivity, intuition and other distinctive skill sets which they, more than men, tend to possess. I think, for example, of the special concern which women show to others, which finds a particular, even if not exclusive, expression in motherhood. I readily acknowledge that many women share pastoral responsibilities with priests, helping to guide people, families and groups and offering new contributions to theological reflection. But we need to create still broader opportunities for a more incisive female presence in the Church. Because “the feminine genius is needed in all expressions in the life of society, the presence of women must also be guaranteed in the workplace”[72] and in the various other settings where important decisions are made, both in the Church and in social structures.”

This is a very different interpretation of how women interact with the Church than that which we have known in the past.

More informally he said:

“The presence and the role of women in the life and mission of the Church, although not linked to the ministerial priesthood, remain absolutely necessary and irreplaceable. As the Declaration Inter Insigniores points out, ‘The Church desires that Christian women should become fully aware of the greatness of their mission: today their role is of capital importance both for the renewal and humanization of society and for the rediscovery by believers of the true face of the Church.”

What else has he done or said?

  • He undoubtedly focusses on women’s caring role within family, church and society, talking of how families benefit from women’s “gifts of delicateness, special sensitivity and tenderness”;
  • Pope Francis encourages breastfeeding in Sistine Chapel;
  • He seems to be moving to bring more women into roles within the Vatican and the pontifical bodies. This will inevitably be slow work. Membership of such bodies normally lasts for several years so appointments are not made frequently. One would wonder also whether the Presidents have a strong role in the decision making. Traditionally these roles are overwhelmingly held by men, ordained and unordained


  • He increased the number of women on the International Theological Commission from two to five, making them 16% of the Commission;
  • A body tasked with carrying out a detailed inquiry into the Vatican’s administration is made up of seven lay people, including a woman;
  • The Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, (established last year to deal with sexual abuse and related issues) includes five women - and just one cardinal. The women include Marie Collins, described by French journalist Jean-Louis de la Vaissiere, as an “eye-opening appointment”;
  • Just a couple of weeks ago for the first time a woman was appointed as a member of a Vatican Congregation: the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples, in Rome. She is the Superior General of the Combonian Missionary Sisters, Sister Luzia Premoli;
  • The Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education recently appointed a woman Franciscan Sr. Mary Melone, to lead one of Rome’s seven pontifical universities, the Pontifical University Antonianum;
  • The Pontifical Council for the Laity has 24 lay members of whom 11 are women;
  • The Pontifical Council for the Family has a Presidential Committee composed of 15 cardinals and 12 archbishops and bishops, plus 18 married couples from all over the world;
  • The Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace has a Cardinal President who is assisted by a Bishop Secretary and a woman Under-Secretary;
  • The Pontifical Council for Culture consists of 21 Cardinals and 14 Archbishops and bishops. It also has Men of Culture but no women of culture.

Most congregations, councils, commissions, universities have no women members.

Perhaps they should introduce some targets for women’s membership to focus minds.

However the Pope’s new Council of eight cardinals is led by Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras, to reform the Curia, who has said he was backing more posts for women.

In a bid to address women’s issues, the Vatican’s daily newspaper L’Osservatore Romano has launched a women’s supplement. I am not sure about that one!

Maybe things are changing.

Most women, however, will never be in a Vatican Commission. They will not even be in a National Commission. A few hold positions in diocesan commissions. But the vast majority of the Catholic Church’s 600,000,000 women will never work outside their own parishes, and for many of them even parish opportunities are limited.

However, the work of a Catholic woman does not necessarily have to be done within the organisational structure of the Church. The Church lives in society and it is in society that most of us can make choices about how we live our Catholicism.

Before I move on to speak about that, I want to say a more general word about membership of the Church in the world and about how the church itself functions. Being of the Catholic Church, we are often told, is as being of a family. Pope Francis spoke about being of family in February this year. A healthy family life, he has said, requires frequent use of three phrases: “May I?” “Thank you” and “I am sorry.

“It might be legitimate to suggest that some of the difficulties which the Church faces today would not have arisen.”

Why is this relevant to my topic today? It is because the Church is the family of God. As I have said, women over the centuries, and indeed many men, clerical religious and lay, have suffered at the hands of those in power in the Church. Decisions have been made, policies articulated, decrees issued, things have not been done which should be done, and I think it might be legitimate to suggest that some of the difficulties which the Church faces today would not have arisen had there been a consciousness of what Pope Francis has said: that permission may be necessary, that gratitude and sorrow should be expressed.

I do think he missed one thing though. I think for a family and indeed a Church to be healthy there needs to be constant reiteration and articulation of the words “I love you.” John Paul II was very good at using those words, for example how many of us remember, “Young people of Ireland I love you.

But that articulated love has to inform all that is said and done. Where it does not, dysfunction develops, and worse. To say this is not to say that there must always be consensus before a decision can be made, but it does require that there be proper consideration of all aspects and contexts within which any decision is taken or action done.

Those of us who are parents, or carers, or guardians, or even in the presence of small children, know that on occasion the safety of the family requires that immediate action is taken, one does not debate with a small child the wisdom of inserting a screw driver into an electrical socket, for example, before removing the screw driver!

These are the things we must do to enable them to grow in safety and security.

Similarly with teenagers, one will have to enforce certain minimum requirements of them: that they get up at a reasonable hour, that they go to school, that they acknowledge that every other person whom they meet is equally important. These are the things we must do to enable them to grow in safety and security. But there comes a time when we must let them go and allow them to make their own decisions. If that is not done, if they are ignored, patronised, ridiculed, marginalised, they may fight, but eventually they may just walk away. And I think that all that applies in the context of the nourishing of the individual relationship of each of us with the God who made us, by the Church to which we belong.

So my thesis today is that fundamental to being a woman in the Church is faith, and an understanding of what the Church is, not an institutional monolith, but rather the body of Christ here on earth. Starting from that point has the potential to change the perceived reality - Pope Francis has said:

“To understand Christ we must bear the cross. Faith is not a light which scatters all our darkness, but a lamp which guides our steps in the night and suffices for the journey. To those who suffer, God does not provide arguments which explain everything, rather his response is that of an accompanying presence, a history of goodness which touches every story of suffering and opens up a ray of light”

Lumen Fidei 20.06.13

That is both challenging and reassuring, indicating that even the Pope is aware and experiences the questioning and even doubt which all of us probably experience at times. It is also a statement of faith. Pope Benedict made a similar statement in his final audience on 29 February, 2013, saying of his papacy:

“The Lord has given us many days of sunshine and gentle breezes, days in which the catch has been abundant; [then[ there have been times when the seas were rough and the wind against us, as in the whole history of the Church it has ever been, - and the Lord seemed to sleep. I always knew that the Lord is in the barque, that the barque of the Church is not mine, not hrs, but His - and He shall not let her sink It is He who steers her, to be sure he does so through men of His choosing, for he desired that it be so. … my heart is filled with gratitude to God, for he never did leave me or the Church without His consolation, His light, His love.”

For me and for many women that is the role of the Church to which we belong - to nourish our faith, to help us in our journey home to Christ, not in a patronising way but in humility and with grace:-

As I wrote this the memory of Cardinal Cahal Daly came to me. In his later years after retirement, I came to know him a little, and learned a lot in occasional conversations about this business of being “of church” Through him I came to a deeper understanding of what membership of the Church is about, and of how power and authority should be exercised.

In many ways his gentle demeanour masked a ferocious intellect and a steely purpose, all of which were put to the service of bearing witness. As an employer I was much impressed by the views of those who worked for him, who testified that, regardless of whatever errors, mistakes or negligence occurred in his office and for which they were responsible, he was never irritable or critical. He would excuse the failure with a gentle: “It is my fault, I did not explain clearly enough what I intended.” That is a practice I have always tried to emulate.

It is, perhaps some small example of what it is to be a member of the family of the Church, a small example of how we can live faith in our work.

So it is in this context of the mystery of the individual relationship which each of us have with God, of the wonder and power for good in our lives that the Church of Christ can be, and of the fundamental teaching which must underlie not just what our Church does, but how it does it, that women are experiencing these early days of the pontificate of Pope Francis.

There is nevertheless a desire that women be experienced as true actors in the Catholic Church.

For most women who will not be prominent on the public stage, there is nevertheless a desire that women be experienced as true actors in the Catholic Church, that their voice be heard through properly managed structures, even where there is no possibility of ordination (and there are those women who refute this - there are 124 women priests and 10 women bishops, who claim valid ordination in the Catholic Church. Even though many of them have been excommunicated, they refuse to be excommunicated and carry on professing themselves to be Catholic).

Most women want women to be a visible presence in the Church and a real force for good. They want the talents and skills of women harnessed for the good of the Church.

Pope Francis has said that there must be changes to decision-making structures in the Church. The restriction of decision-making power to those who are ordained is not of the gospels, rather it is of canon law, and canon law can, and obviously should be changed to permit women a real role in decision making.

However the Synod of Bishops on the Family will start tomorrow. They will discuss “The vocation and the mission of the family in the Church and in the contemporary world”. Among the 191 Synod Fathers there will be 61 Cardinals, one Cardinal Patriarch, 7 Patriarchs, one major archbishop, 67 metropolitan archbishops, 47 bishops, one auxiliary bishop, 1 priest and 6 religious. There will also be 16 experts, 38 auditors and 8 fraternal delegates.

Cardinal Baldisseri also remarked that since this assembly will consider the theme of the family, special emphasis has been given to married couples, parents and family heads, a total of 12 persons; there is also one married couple within the group of experts.

It is not exactly reassuring. Although all these people came from families, and are of families, the people who have most experience of the living of the vocation of family in the Church are married couples. Surely there should have been space for more than one married couple among the group of experts, and for more lay involvement than the 12 persons identified. One cannot anticipate that woman’s voice will be much heard in this great Synod. What a missed opportunity!

It was John Paul who said that:

“The presence and the role of women in the life and mission of the Church, although not linked to the ministerial priesthood, remain absolutely necessary and irreplaceable.”

Somehow our Church is going to have to find ways to go beyond the rhetoric and to find real ways of giving women a real voice and a role.

  • Perhaps we need targets for the number of women members of pontifical commisions, councils, congregations etc;
  • We need a change in Canon Law to enable female engagement in Church decision making;
  • We need a very real recognition from Rome that whilst the Church in Pope Francis’ native Latin America and in Africa and parts of Eastern Europe is growing stronger, here in the West things need to change because we have a very rapidly defining number of priests and religious, and we have an equally rapid decline in the numbers of young people practising their faith;
  • It is time for a discussion about how we could introduce women deacons, reverting to the situation at the time of St Paul;
  • And finally, because our Church comprises women and lay men as well as those holding institutional power, we need men and women, but especially women of courage and commitment to undertake the necessary spiritual and theological development to enable them to contribute at national and international level. There is even a shortage of women speakers on matters of faith in Ireland. Why is that? How do we women change it? There are things we can do. There are things the Church must do for and with us.

Pope Francis has done a huge amount in the past eighteen months. We must acknowledge what he has achieved, rejoice in the energy of this 77 year old pontiff, and try to work constructively for the more profound role for women in the Church today which he has promised.