“Just approaching the room where you meet the Pope is a terrifying experience!” So writes Irish Gerry Whelan SJ who recently had a 35-minute meeting with Pope Francis in his office at the Vatican.
As well as lecturing theology in the Gregorian University in Rome, Gerry Whelan is Ecclesiastical Assistant for the World Union of Catholic Women’s Organizations. On January 10th he was present when the newly elected President of the organization, Maria Lia Zervino, met with the Pope. Read below his account of what transpired at that meeting where Christian feminism, synodality and International Women’s Day were all on the agenda.
Meeting with the Pope
Just approaching the room where you meet the Pope is a terrifying experience! After crossing courtyards and climbing stairs, we passed through a suite of six interlinked rooms with high frescoed ceilings and paintings on the walls.
I noticed a Caravaggio, a Duccio, and an El Greco. There was a tall footman in bow-tie and tails in each room to greet us and pass us on to the next footman. I wondered if I might faint with nervousness before actually arriving at our meeting!
When the final door opened, there before us was a smiling Pope Francis. Amid the clicking of official photographers, he greeted us warmly and sat us down at a table.
Maria Lia Zervino, the President of WUCWO, is Argentinian and already knew the Pope. She introduced first the Secretary-General and then me. She explained that I had worked in the Jesuit parish in Nairobi, that the Pope had visited during his visit to Kenya in 2015. She then said—in Spanish—that there are two “faces” to Fr. Gerry, pastoral and academic, and that I had recently published a book about Pope Francis himself (A Discerning Church: Pope Francis, Lonergan, and a theological Method for the Future).
I handed him a copy of the book, in Italian translation. He received it kindly and quipped, “Two faces to Fr. Whelan? Ah yes, many people call us Jesuits two-faced!” We laughed, relaxed, and got on with our meeting.
Three main themes arose in the course of our 35-minutes together. First, Maria Lia thanked the Pope for what he has been saying about women in general and about ‘synodality’ in particular.
She noted that in Evangelii Gaudium and elsewhere he expresses hopes for an expanded process in the church for consulting of laity, and not least women, at all levels of the Church. She politely pressed the Pope to move forward with these promises. She stressed how WUCWO has a status in Canon Law of being the official voice of Catholic women within the Church and includes nine million members in 60 different countries. She expressed the hope that the Pope would look to WUCWO for collaboration when he was ready to realise his promises about expanded synodality.
Secondly, the Pope was eager to speak about the difference between an authentically Catholic feminism and a more ideological kind that has a prominence in cultural and political circles.
We spoke of the complimentary gifts of men and women and the importance of motherhood and family life. At the same time, the Pope repeated something he has stated in a homily on the Mother of God on January 1 2020, that the way a society treats women’s bodies is a measure of how civilized it is.
Maria Lia, who is a Sociologist, asked for the support of the Pope in a WUCWO-led initiative to launch a network of research institutes in world universities to study of the condition of women in the Global South. She spoke of how a predominant ideological perspective tends to direct research on women’s questions and to exclude from consideration certain issues that are key to women’s flourishing e.g. the state of family life.
Thirdly, Maria Lia described how WUCWO will lead a series of events on International Women’s Day in March were laywomen of different religions affirm a statement on interreligious cooperation framed in a document signed by the Pope and other religious leaders on “Peace, Freedom, and Women’s Rights.”
After the meeting, a joyful thirty-five minutes, we returned through the six anti-rooms, walking on air and greeting the footmen with condescending generosity—to the manor born!
Gerard Whelan SJ.