There Are Also Women There

Stained glass window at Saint Luke Catholic Church (Photo: Nheyob)

The first thing that jumped out at me in Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation on holiness, Gaudete et exsultate, is how much he has put women in the foreground. Women are usually in the background of papal statements, if they appear at all. Not here. They are upfront and visible.

Right at the outset (§ 3), Francis brings up the witness of Sarah (along with Abraham), and calls attention to the role of our own mothers and grandmothers as holy witnesses who have shaped our faith. He continues to name outstanding women believers within the exhortation. These include Maria Gabriella Sagheddu (§ 5), Josephine Bakhita (§ 32), Theresa of Calcutta (§ 100), the martyred seven sisters of the monastery of the Visitation in Madrid (§ 141), Scholastica (§ 142), Monica (§ 142), and, of course, Mary, the mother of Jesus (§ 124 and § 176). It’s traditional that papal statements end with an appeal to Mary, but here she also appears within the document, as an exemplar of joy (§ 124).

Francis makes particular mention of the “genius of woman” in § 12, drawing attention to how the Holy Spirit has worked through women saints like Hildegard of Bingen, Bridget of Sweden, Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila, and Thérèse of Lisieux, whose witness emerged at crucial times in history. These saints “produced new spiritual vigor and important reforms in the Church,” Francis says. Yet he also credits “unknown or forgotten women who, each in her own way, sustained and transformed families and communities by the power of their witness” (§ 12).

Francis cites women writers frequently and at length.

Indeed, the one paradigmatic example Francis gives of holiness in everyday life is a woman (§ 16). He describes how she faces four different moments of decision in her day, and every time opts for charity, justice, compassion, and faithfulness—each of these moments, as he describes it, is a “step” toward holiness. He also speaks affirmatively of the holiness of men and women who work hard to support their families: literally to “bring home the bread” (§ 7). This papal acknowledgment of women as economic actors is striking.

There’s more. Francis cites women writers frequently and at length. Early in the exhortation he uses a long quote from the philosopher-saint Theresa Benedicta of the Cross (§ 8). He also includes quotes from Teresa of Calcutta (§ 107), Teresa of Avila (§ 149), and Thérèse of Lisieux (§ 54 and § 105).

Of course, he quotes men too, and male saints are well represented. But Francis’s inclusion of so many references to women is noteworthy. It seems to me that by doing so, he is making a statement: women are important to how the church experiences and understands what it means to be holy.

Initial readings of the document have picked up on his references to the “middle class” of holiness, his pushback against his critics among church conservatives, his commitment to migrants and refugees, his pastoral reflections on the Beatitudes, his warnings on the reality of struggle against Satan and evil, and his now-familiar criticisms of Pelagianism and Gnosticism in the church today.

All these things are true. Yet it would be a shame if we missed another true thing about this exhortation: there are also women there.

Rita Ferrone is the author of several books about liturgy, including Liturgy: Sacrosanctum Concilium (Paulist Press). She is a contributing writer to Commonweal.

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