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Women working in Vatican see change coming

VATICAN CITY—In a world dominated by men, some smart, powerful Catholic women are making inroads.

"If you knock the issue of ordination off the table, women have advanced significantly," even at the Vatican, Sister Mary Ann Walsh, the spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in Rome last week.

The Vatican employee who established the Web site where Pope John Paul II's teachings are posted in six languages is an American Franciscan nun, Sister Judith Loebelein, nicknamed Sister Web.

An Italian Salesian nun, Sister Enrica Rossana, was named last year as the third-ranking official in the Vatican office overseeing religious men and women—the first time a woman was promoted to a position held by priests since the Roman Curia was established in the 16th century.

"The manpower shortage in the church_ there just aren't enough priests_ will lead to major employment of women," predicted Paul Hofmann, author of "The Vatican's Women."

Women still make up only 10 percent of the 400 staffers in the Vatican's most important divisions, the Catholic News Service reported last year. Under church law, those offices are led by cardinals or bishops. In the United States, women account for more than 25 percent of the top positions in U.S. Catholic dioceses.

But women working at the Vatican say they see change coming.

"Things are a lot slower than they are in the States, but there is a direction" of giving women more visibility in Vatican posts, said Joan Collemacine-Parenti, a Philadelphia native who earned a doctorate and taught romance languages at Temple University and now has worked at the Vatican for more than 30 years. As a language specialist, she supervises translations for publications of the Pontifical Council for the Family.

She said Pope John Paul II supported women in ways beyond job advancement, noting that the Vatican beefed up maternity-leave compensation and flexibility for female employees.

Women's advancement at the Vatican is due in part to their pursuit of degrees at pontifical universities. Sister Mary Pierre Jean Wilson, 48, a member of the Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma, Mich., has worked at the Vatican for seven years, after earning a canon law degree in Rome.

She's the first and only female lawyer to work in the office dealing with Catholic universities for the Congregation for Catholic Education and most recently helped create a computerized list of more than 1,300 Catholic universities and institutes of higher learning across the world. (India, the United States and the Philippines top the list.) "In the past, women didn't have the qualifications," Wilson said. "I'm sure it was in the pope's mind that women could fill many jobs. ... The Holy Father wanted us to live our vocations to the fullest."

Collemacine-Parenti said women are gaining influence in Vatican advisory commissions and departments, some of which originated since the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s or under John Paul II. Women's influence is greater among papal councils that deal with issues such as health care and ecumenical dialogue, with women comprising 35 percent of the staff of 11 papal councils, the Catholic News Service reported a year ago.

In 1994, the pope created the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, a collection of scientists, economists and professors. Ten years later, he named Harvard University law professor Mary Ann Glendon to lead the panel, which advises the Vatican on social policy. Hers is the highest advisory position held by a woman at the Vatican.

Last year, John Paul II also named two women—an American nun and a German laywoman—for the first time to the Vatican's top theology group, the International Theological Commission. The nun, Sister Sara Butler, 65, a Toledo native who taught at Chicago's Mundelein Seminary and is now at St. Joseph Seminary in Yonkers, N.Y., attended her first commission meeting last October at the Vatican.

"I think the pope was eager to make sure women are involved," Butler said last week from New York.

Her commission falls under the stewardship of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Vatican's top official on matters of Catholic doctrine and a man now considered a possible successor to John Paul II. Butler's homework for the next meeting later this year is to consider the theological fate of unbaptized infants and how Catholic teaching requiring baptism for heavenly salvation reconciles their fate.

At John Paul II's funeral, women appeared at the lectern to lead some of the prayers. Their appearance was jarring, if only because the stage was so dominated by the men who run the church. In the United States, it's typical to see altar girls and boys assist the priest at Mass, but Vatican officials still prefer male servers.

And there's little expectation that women will be ordained anytime soon. In the final decade of his pontificate, John Paul II urged Catholics around the world to stop discussing the issue. Many American bishops took that as a sign that they should clamp down on clergy and scholars who raised the issue of female priests.

"What neither the bishops nor the feminists realize is that women are running the church," the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest and editor of America magazine, said last week in Rome. "Women are running parishes and women pass on the faith, as mothers and teachers."


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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