Sunday, April 14, 2024

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and His Affirmation of the Role of Women in the Church and Society

I’ve been involved in service to the Church for decades through the Council of Catholic Women on the parish, deanery, Diocesan, national and international levels. Church documents related to women are of great interest to me. Over the years, I have frequently quoted an excerpt from the 2004 Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in the World. Then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger reflected on the importance of feminine values in the life of society by stating:

13. Among the fundamental values linked to women’s actual lives is what has been called a “capacity for the other.” Although a certain type of feminist rhetoric makes demands “for ourselves,” women preserve the deep intuition of the goodness in their lives of those actions which elicit life and contribute to the growth and protection of the other…. It is women, in the end, who even in very desperate situations, as attested by history past and present, possess a singular capacity to persevere in adversity, to keep life going even in extreme situations, to hold tenaciously to the future, and finally to remember with tears the value of every human life.”

To me, these words of a caring pastor affirm the special call of women serving the Church and society: women who demonstrate an amazing “capacity for the other,” through actions motivated by faith, which reflect Christian love and offer hope for those whose lives we touch. While these attributes run counter to today’s individualistic society, they are the attitudes and actions which God wills for each of our lives.

My first in-person encounter with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was when he was Dean of the College of Cardinals, and was the celebrant of the April 18, 2005 Mass Pro Eligendo Romano Pontifice (For the Election of the Roman Pontiff). I had arrived in Rome on April 8, the day of Pope John Paul II’s funeral, for long-scheduled meetings of the Board of the World Union of Catholic Women’s Organizations (WUCWO), during which I was nominated as a candidate for election as the next President General.

Cardinal Ratzinger’s homily that day referred to Jesus’ teaching on bearing fruit: “It was I who chose you to go forth and bear fruit. Your fruit must endure.” (Jn 15:16). He said, “It is here that appears the dynamism of the life of a Christian, an apostle: I chose you to go forth. We must be enlivened by a holy restlessness: a restlessness to bring to everyone the gift of faith, of friendship with Christ. Truly, the love and friendship of God was given to us so that it might also be shared with others. We have received the faith to give it to others…. The fruit that endures is therefore all that we have sown in human souls: love, knowledge, a gesture capable of touching hearts, words that open the soul to joy in the Lord. So let us go and pray to the Lord to help us bear fruit that endures.”

His Eminence reminded us that we are chosen by Christ, given the love of God and faith so that we might share it with others. Those of us who attended the Mass felt certain that we had seen the next pope. Indeed, we had that privilege! And, by the grace of God, my candidacy was approved by the Vatican in due time, I was elected President General of WUCWO a year later and called to share my faith and love in a unique way.

During my first WUCWO Board Meeting as President, I led our 27 Board Members to a General Audience held in St. Peter’s Square. We were seated in the first rows beside His Holiness and, as he mentioned our association twice during his remarks, the members were quite noticeable, some in colorful native costumes, waving to him and cheering. Both times, he graciously smiled and waved back. At the end of the Audience, our Holy Father walked out and greeted me with his eyes twinkling, his smile reaching from ear to ear, as if I were a very dear friend. He looked at me and was present to me as if I were the only person in the square. What a gift!

In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI named me a Dame of the Equestrian Order of Pope Saint Sylvester. Ironically His Holiness passed to eternal life on December 31, the feast of Pope Saint Sylvester, so this Dame will never forget the date of his death.

I had the privilege to see and/or greet His Holiness on several occasions during the years, typically at the Vatican. However, it was a special joy to see him during the 2008 Apostolic Visit to the USA, particularly in Washington, D.C., at the Welcome Ceremony at The White House South Lawn, Mass at Nationals Park, and at the United Nations in New York.

In 2009, an International Conference was held at the Vatican on the theme, “Life, Family and Development: The Role of Women in the Promotion of Human Rights,” which WUCWO co-sponsored with the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, and for which I was an organizer as well as a presenter. His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI’s message to the conference participants included this affirmation: “…The genius of women to mobilize and organize endows them with the skills and motivation to develop ever-expanding networks for sharing experiences and generating new ideas. The accomplishments of WUCWO are an outstanding example of this, and I encourage their members to persevere in their generous service to society. May the sphere of your influence continue to grow at the regional, national and international levels for the advancement of human rights based on the strong foundation of marriage and family….”

In 2010, Pope Benedict named my friend, Flaminia Giovanelli, Under-Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace – the third-highest executive post after the President (then Cardinal Renato Martino) and Secretary (then Bishop Giampalo Crepaldi). This made her one of the two most senior laywomen in the Roman Curia. As did Pope John Paul II before him, Pope Benedict XVI appointed women to positions of ever greater responsibility at the Vatican. Each time I spoke with both popes, they would say, “Please thank the women!” Words about the “genius of women” and “enriching the Church with the fruits of feminine holiness” translated into concrete actions by the pontiffs.

Pope Benedict XVI sent a message to the WUCWO 2010 Assembly held in Jerusalem in which he gave “thanks for the many blessings that have been bestowed on the Church through the witness of faithful Catholic women living and working in the world, transforming it from within, and proclaiming the Gospel in word and deed.” His support and affirmation were a great source of strength and encouragement to me as well as countless others.

The opening lines of Pope Benedict XVI’s first Encyclical Letter, Deus Caritas Est (God is Love), capture for me the essence of a humble, holy man of great faith, hope and love: “We have come to believe in God’s love: in these words the Christian can express the fundamental decision of his life. Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”

Pope Benedict XVI wrote during the 2012-2013 Year of Faith: “Faith grows when it is lived as an experience of love received and when it is communicated as an experience of grace and joy.” To me, he beautifully and joyfully communicated the faith he received. I will always be grateful to Pope Benedict XVI for being a sign of God’s love to me.

(Karen M. Hurley, DSS, is a member of the Cathedral Parish of St. Patrick in Harrisburg.)

By Karen M. Hurley, DSS, Special to The Witness

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