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).