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This morning as I stepped out of a café in Rome, I was greeted by a smiling man offering me a sprig of mimosa flowers.
Today is the Festa della Donna, or Women’s Day in Italy, and the mimosa is the flower traditionally given to women on this day.
I found it perfectly appropriate that I began a week long trip in Rome for the upcoming papal conclave on Woman’s Day. With the Catholic Church at the forefront of international news given recent events, many are using the opportunity to frame the Vatican and the Catholic Church more broadly as a place that excludes women. The next pope will be a man elected by 115 men, therefore women must have no role in the life of the faith, the logic goes.
I returned to my home for the next week, a friend’s apartment, with two cappuccinos in hand. My friend, a woman, is studying to be a canon lawyer, an ecclesiastical role that entails tremendous authority in adjudicating church matters.
When we couldn’t figure out the credentialing process, she called a friend who is a Vatican journalist, or a Vaticanista as they are known around here. But she was too busy carting around journalists and cardinals.
So I emailed an American friend, a woman, who is a Catholic journalist. She referred me to “the Americans” in Rome, two of the more media savvy ones, also women.
Later in the morning, as I walked to the Vatican, I slipped coming down a step. The young nun passing by, gave me gave a friendly laugh, her veil lifted in the breeze and a blonde curl peeking out from the front.
I was on my way to meet another friend, Carolina Rea, who works in the office for the Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums. She greeted me at St. Ann’s Gate, and as she shuttled me through the door of the Apostolic Palace, a Swiss Guard quietly saluted her.
She led me through the San Dammasso Courtyard, where the flagpoles stood barren because of the sede vacante. As we walked down a long hallway, empty but for the silent scuttle of painters, faint laughter could be heard around the corner. As we turned and entered her office, Carolina pushed back the door and female laughter burst out onto the stone. There stood four women, one of whom smiled and stretched out her hand, joking that, “this is where we have all the fun.”
One by one, I spoke with these women, asking them especially about life as a woman in the Vatican. When I told Sara, an Italian mother of two, that many in the American press have an impression that women are underrepresented in the Vatican and the Catholic Church, her eyebrow arched with suspicion and she leaned back, almost as if offended. “No,” she said. “Maybe twenty years ago.” (She was working at the Vatican then as well.) “Very important women are leading Vatican offices. Women are very, very important [here].”
Carolina chimed in, saying:
“We have a special place here. Because so many of the men here are priests, we have a different form of brightness and character that we come in with, it’s lightened the mood and the ambiance here.”
She continued: When we come in the door, they’re all wearing their clerics. And us lay women, we really bring it when we come in. When people see us come in and out, they do a double take. Romina leaves on her moped, Sara’s driving in with her Badgley Mischka Carter shades. People are looking through the gates and they can’t believe how many women are coming out. Fabulous women that are very well-educated and very well put-together.”
Carolina, who has a degree from Notre Dame, is wearing floral skinny jeans, black suede boots, purple cat-eye glasses, and her voluminous blonde waves are tied up in a chignon.
The women pointed out that the growing presence of women in the Vatican has led to a very pro-family environment. The Vatican, whose workforce is approximately 40 percent female, has a very progressive maternity leave policy, allowing women paid leave beginning two months before their due date and allowing them a year of paid leave after birth. When the women return, they are allowed to create a “milk schedule” so that they can structure their hours around their nursing needs.
By contrast, the United States only ensures that women cannot be fired for becoming pregnant and mandates that women who have given birth be granted a certain period of “disability” leave and mandates that a woman’s job be held for her for three months.
Romina, a new mother, nodded her head in vigorous agreement with the suggestion that the Vatican is a pro-mother environment.
Each of the five women of the office has a mimosa on her desk, brought in by the director of the office, Father Mark.
When I asked Father Mark, an affable young priest from Akron, Ohio, about his take on the contribution of women to the Vatican he says, “Huge. Any endeavor should involve their expertise.” He admitted that the Vatican’s “public image is very masculine.” But, he continued, “Anyone who is inside understands the amazing amount of authority and influence that women have in the daily operations of the Vatican.” Regarding gender politics, he waved his hand and said, “We’re past all that. The important thing is the professional qualities and expertise you bring to the table, more than if you are male or female.”
Just before I left Carolina’s office, Father Mark gathered everyone in to say the Angelus, a prayer Catholics traditionally say at noon. A prayer directed almost entirely to Mary, Father Mark devoted the day’s Angelus to women everywhere, and concluded by wishing his entirely female staff a happy woman’s day. “May you all be models of Mary,” he said.
The conclave, set to begin in just a few days, will only further exemplify the powerful voice many Catholic women have. I don’t know a single man being “sent” to Rome. I know at least two women other than myself: Kim Daniels of Catholic Voices and Kathryn Lopez, the editor of National Review Online and a prolific voice in the Catholic blogosphere. I will be on a new show on EWTN tomorrow anchored by, you guessed it, a woman, Colleen Carroll Campbell. And I will undoubtedly rub shoulders with Sister Mary Ann Walsh, sent here to represent the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Wind and repeat. Yes, the person sent to represent an entirely male body is a woman. A nun.
So there you have it, folks. This is not a men’s-only club. And to suggest otherwise does a great disservice to every fabulous woman working in the church, whether she wears Badgley Mischka or a habit.
Ashley E. McGuire is a senior fellow with the Catholic Association and editor of www.Altcatholicah.com.