“We need to create still broader opportunities for a more incisive female presence in the Church.”
—Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium §103
These words of Pope Francis sound fresh and new. He’s certainly not the first to express these sentiments, not even the first pope to do so. Yet something about Pope Francis and his words have captured the attention, and perhaps more importantly, the imagination, of many. He pushes us to think more broadly and deeply about what leadership in the Catholic Church entails.
In the spirit of Vatican II, Pope Francis roots leadership and service clearly in baptism. He notes that ministerial priesthood is a crucial role in the Church, but leadership and decision-making need not be limited to the ordained (Evangelii Gaudium §104). Thus, he expands our understanding of ecclesial leadership to include the laity, and thus both women and men.
And Pope Francis has put action to his words, seeking opportunities to appoint women to leadership roles within the Vatican itself. The Catholic News Agency has reported on the rise of appointments of women and lay men to roles in Vatican offices, calling it a new springtime of leadership: http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/is-a-springtime-of-leadership-blooming-for-women-in-the-vatican-30844/
Women, of course, have made significant contributions to the life of the Church from its beginnings, although often unnoticed or unrecognized as leaders. Earlier this year, the selection of Sister Donna Markham, OP, as the first female president of Catholic Charities caught the eye of the media.
Suddenly, women’s leadership in the Catholic Church received much notice as a number of news outlets reported the fact that three major Catholic organizations in the United States would now be led by women: Catholic Relief Services led by Carolyn Woo, the Catholic Health Association led by Sister Carol Keehan, DC, and Catholic Charities led by Markham.
An excellent article from that January news cycle includes quotes from two of our keynote speakers, Carolyn Woo and Kathleen Sprows Cummings: http://www.cruxnow.com/church/2015/01/15/women-lead-in-the-church-even-as-catholics-debate-their-role/?p1=emtaf.