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For Women's Day, Group Takes A Messge To The Vatican


Today is International Women's Day, and the Vatican is opening its doors to a group of women from all over the world pressing for greater participation in the Catholic Church. Today's event was inspired by Pope Francis' statements that women should have a fuller role in the life of the church. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli has the story.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Today's Voices of Faith event is taking place inside the Vatican in the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. It's the brainchild of a Liechtenstein philanthropist. Chantal Goetz says thanks to Pope Francis, there's a new attention toward women in the church.

CHANTAL GOETZ: The tone has changed. If we listen to him a little bit more carefully, I think he says men listen to women, or women make sure you get your space, be more in decision-making positions.

POGGIOLI: Event organizers want to raise issues of inequality in the church and what's been dubbed the stained glass ceiling. While the pope has praised the feminine genius, Francis has also faced criticism for being a bit tone-deaf and sometimes condescending toward women. He once welcomed women members of a prestigious theological commission as strawberries on the cake. And while Francis has raised expectations for sweeping administrative reforms, he has rejected outright the idea of women priests. Goetz has no illusions that the centuries-old doctrine in the male-dominated institution will soon be reversed.

GOETZ: There's certain things that we are not going to change, not within the next years, we just have to accept. But I think in raising your voice in a good way, in a positive way, the change will come.

POGGIOLI: Debra Rose-Milavec, executive director of the American Catholic Organization FutureChurch, heads a panel today called I Have A Dream. She points out that women are active in every sector of the Catholic Church.

DEBRA ROSE-MILAVEC: They're leading in health care; they're leading education; they're building the whole Catholic social justice enterprise, which is, you know, multifaceted. But if you look at where policies are made, where decision-making happens in the church, we have a great lack of women's leadership there.

POGGIOLI: On Friday, the Vatican revealed that as of last year, only 18 percent of Holy See employees were women, a 1 percent increase from four years earlier. And currently, only two women hold the rank of undersecretary. Meanwhile, among those who have chosen the consecrated life, nuns far outnumber priests and religious brothers. Today's event includes storytelling presentations from 10 women from across the world. There's a Turkish nun who risks her life to save Christians persecuted in Iraq. There's a woman from Argentina who is fighting human trafficking. And there's an Indian doctor who has worked with the Indian Bishops Conference to draw up an official gender policy.

ASTRID LOBO GHAJIWELA: What I liked was that the bishops trusted us. They gave women the power to articulate their own vision. It's an excellent collaboration between women and the church.

POGGIOLI: Astrid Lobo Ghajiwela is a Catholic married to a Hindu, mother of three, and a scientist by profession. She's proud of the document. Rooted in scripture and Catholic social teaching, she says it treats women as subjects not objects. Lobo is talking today about how the gender policy document approved by the Indian bishops can serve as a roadmap for the rest of the church and open doors to women's leadership. Lobo Ghajiwela acknowledges, however, the major stumbling block.

GHAJIWELA: Unfortunately in the church, governance is linked with ordination. If the structure is going to remain the way it is, that is, you know, no ordination for women, then I hope at least that they will delink governance and ordination so that women can be part of decision making.

POGGIOLI: Organizer Chantal Goetz is convinced female professionals, like those present today, have the potential to fill top positions in the church.

GOETZ: It's going to be a nice day for celebrating women in our Catholic Church, and I think this is very special because so far it did not happen.

POGGIOLI: That the event is taking place inside the Vatican, says Goetz, is a symbol that some doors are now being opened for women. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sylvia Poggioli is senior European correspondent for NPR's International Desk covering political, economic, and cultural news in Italy, the Vatican, Western Europe, and the Balkans. Poggioli's on-air reporting and analysis have encompassed the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the turbulent civil war in the former Yugoslavia, and how immigration has transformed European societies.