How Women Continue to Contribute to the Church

According to Terry Polakovic of ENDOW

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DENVER, Colorado, JULY 13, 2004 ( A greater percentage of women are holding administrative positions in U.S. dioceses every year, according to a recent U.S. bishops study.

But Terry Polakovic, executive director of ENDOW (Educating on the Nature and Dignity of Women) for the Archdiocese of Denver, stresses that women have always played an important role as leaders in the Church — at home, in parishes and in communities.

Polakovic outlined for ZENIT how John Paul II has called women to serve the Church in their own capacity, according to their vocation, gifts and «feminine genius.»

Q: A recent study called for by the U.S. bishops’ conference on Women in Society and in the Church found that, in 2002, women held 48.9% of diocesan administrative positions, compared with 51% of the executive, administrative, managerial and professional positions in the secular work force. What do you think accounts for this trend?

Polakovic: While I think the trend is positive, I don’t think we should lose sight of the fact that women have always had leadership roles within the Church.

In many ways, we owe a great debt to the religious sisters who were pioneers in the fields of education, hospital administration, mission work, orphanages and other crucial social services. It is a widespread misconception that women have not played an integral part in the Church throughout its history.

Still, this movement is inspiring. In his writings and reflections, John Paul II has called women to a greater involvement in the work force. In the Angelus reflections of 1995, he repeatedly reminds us that «without the contribution of women, society is less alive, culture impoverished and peace less stable.»

He calls the Church to «ensure that the widest possible space is open to women in all areas of culture, economics, politics and ecclesial life itself.» Similarly, he calls «the whole Church community to be willing to foster feminine participation in every way in its internal life.»

The Holy Father’s wisdom about the need for women’s involvement in all realms of society has clearly been answered. In both the Church and in the secular work force, women have been given more opportunity to assume leadership positions. They have achieved advancement and greater presence in the fields of law, medicine, media, politics, business and science as never before in history.

The last 30 years have pushed women to be more career-minded and to search for a place of influence outside the home. This trend is obviously mirrored in the Church, as women have gotten more involved in administration, leadership and pastoral ministry around the world.

Q: What is the significance of having women in diocesan positions?

Polakovic: In his apostolic letter «Mulieris Dignitatem,» Pope John Paul II highlights the «feminine genius,» the unique gifts and contributions that women bring to their work.

A woman’s unique capacity for physical and spiritual motherhood allows her to serve in a way unique and separate from a man’s service.

For this reason, Pope John Paul II calls women to positions in «theological teaching, forms of liturgical ministry permitted, pastoral and administrative councils, diocesan synods and particular councils, various ecclesial institutions, curias and ecclesiastical tribunals, and many pastoral activities.» Clearly, women’s contribution in diocesan positions is a central part of their ministry in the Church.

Q: What gifts can women bring to the Church’s administrative positions?

Polakovic: In Pope John Paul II’s «Letter to Women,» he writes that women have the ability to unite reason and feeling, and that their sensitivity, intuition, generosity and fidelity help make human relations more honest and authentic.

He writes that women can «acknowledge the person, because they see persons with their hearts. They see them independently of various ideological or political systems» and «see others in their greatness and limitations; they try to go out to them and help them.»

A strong administrator can motivate others and create an environment that is efficient and supportive. Pope John Paul II suggests that a woman’s unique capacity of compassion for others makes administration a service and a ministry.

Q: How can women outside of diocesan posts still contribute to the Church?

Polakovic: The Holy Father in his 1995 Angelus reflections affirms «the growing presence of women in social, economic and political life» and calls women to be «actively involved in all areas of public life.»

As «teachers of peace,» women are called to bring the gifts of their unique femininity to every job. He reminds women that «in order to be a teacher of peace, a woman must first of all nurture peace within herself.»

We nurture peace by knowing God’s love and knowing who we are in his sight. By living out a life of service, love, sincerity, compassion, patience and sensitivity, women contribute to the Church’s mission.

These virtues are needed in all careers, within or outside of the Church. By being true to herself and to her gifts, a woman in any field lives the mission of the Church when she acts in service.

In particular, the Holy Father goes on to affirm the role of women in political life in the Angelus reflections, and asks that women continue to assert themselves in politics.

He asks women and men both to measure the success of politics by «the authenticity of the values which inspire them, as well as by the competence, commitment and moral consistency» they display.

Certainly, women make a skilled contribution to politics in the areas of life and peace. By promoting an atmosphere that respects life, creates peace and centers on the truth, a woman’s work is critical to any field.

Certainly, as mothers, women have been entrusted with the greatest contribution to the Church. The Holy Father spoke of this in the Angelus reflections: «Through the special relationship uniting a mother and her child … a mother gives the child a sense of security and trust» that equips her child to continue to trust and serve.

Through both spiritual and physical motherhood, a woman is blessed with the opportunity of mirroring Christ’s love to her children. Motherhood is a «foundational role with regard to society» as a «guardian of life.»

A mother’s vocation calls her to generous service, making herself a gift to her child. In doing so, a mother makes herself a gift to the Lord and to his Church.

Q: What can be done to foster women’s active role in the Church?

Polakovic: Pope John Paul II calls women to promote a «new feminism» that respects the dignity of womanhood. In order to urge women to engage in an active role, he calls the Church to a greater respect for femininity and for a culture of equality.

The modern culture opposes true femininity and cheapens a woman’s dignity. Rather than affirming a woman’s perfection in the image of God, modern society pressures women to believe a false understanding of perfection.

The modern culture opposes true femininity and cheapens women’s dignity. Rather than affirming women’s perfection in the image of God, modern society pressures women to believe a false understanding of perfection.

The media teaches women that femininity is physical beauty and sensuality rather than service, compassion and love. In order for women to take on an active role in the Church, they need to understand and accept that they have a valuable gift to offer by virtue of being a woman.

Similarly, the modern culture rejects equality of man and woman. Throug
hout history, women have been in a position of inferiority and inequality to men. Supporting women means promoting a «consistent protest against whatever offends the dignity of women,» as the Holy Father mentions in Section 15 of «Mulieris Dignitatem.»

By recognizing the complementarity, rather than inequality, that exists between the sexes, a woman can come to better use her gifts for service in the world.

The challenge is to educate women about the beauty of the Church so that they fall in love with her and with Christ’s teachings. The Church is a champion for women, although many women don’t really understand that.

Today, more than ever, women need to understand what the Church has to offer them. With that knowledge and hope, a woman can go on to develop her gifts and offer them in service to the Church and to the world.

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