Several prominent Vatican personalities marked International Women’s Day by celebrating the contribution a feminine touch can bring to their work and calling for more space to be created for lay people in general within the ranks of the Roman Curia.

Speaking during a March 8 panel organized by the Australian Embassy to the Holy See, Sister Nathalie Becquart, Undersecretary to the General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops, said Pope Francis is calling the Church “to recognize the legitimate place of women” at all levels of the Church in order to achieve “greater justice and equality, and he calls the Church to respect women’s rights.”

However, she said the push to include more women in positions of leadership and authority must be done with an emphasis on “greater reciprocity between males and females.”

“Synodality is also about bringing all the voices of the people of God,” she said, voicing hope that this will form part of the discussion during the 2022 Synod of Bishops on Synodality.

Becquart, who is the first woman ever to be appointed to her position, and who consequentially will become the first woman to vote in a synod of bishops during the 2022 gathering, stressed the need for a greater sense of co-responsibility between men and women in the Church.

“Co-responsibility is truly the key to this time of crisis in society and in the Church, not only the crisis of sex abuse and abuses of power, but also the crisis with COVID and difficulties in different countries with political crisis, the economic crisis,” she said, noting that men and women offer different, but equally valuable perspectives to problem solving.

When it comes to the concept of synodality, meaning collaboration at all levels of the Church, she said the key to living this effectively is mutual respect and an “interdependence” between men and women for the good of the Church and society as a whole.

“It’s about teamwork,” she said, but acknowledged that “it’s not easy to build a true, equal and good relationship between men and women. It’s a path of healing and reconciliation as a personal path but also a familiar path for the Church and for society.”

Recalling Pope Francis’s many appeals for more women to be included in prominent leadership roles in the Church, including the Roman Curia, Vatican’s own governing body, Becquart said the pope challenging the Church “in acts and in words.”

Becquart spoke during a panel titled, “An equal future in a COVID-19 world: Champions of Change Choosing to Challenge,” organized by the Australian Embassy to the Holy See.

Other panelists included Cardinal Mario Grech, secretary general of the Synod of Bishops; Bishop Paul Tighe, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Culture; Sister Alessandra Smerilli, coordinator of the Economy Task-Force of the Vatican COVID-19 Commission; and Dr. Francesca Di Giovanni, undersecretary for the multilateral desk of the Vatican Secretariat of State’s section for Relations with States.

Both Smerilli and Di Giovanni offered reflections on the contribution women can bring to promoting peace and development in a post-COVID world, stressing the importance developing a collaborative approach, rather that a top-to-bottom model that is more characteristic of clerical culture.

In his remarks, Grech drew attention to the figure of Rosemary Goldie, an Australian laywoman and theologian who became the first woman to ever serve in an executive role in the Roman Curia when she was appointed Pontifical Council for the Laity in 1967, a position she held until 1976.

An auditor during the Second Vatican Council, Goldie also served as a consultant for the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and was invited to attend the extraordinary synod of bishops commemorating Vatican II as a guest in 1985.

Goldie’s rise to prominence in Vatican ranks was largely thanks to an intervention during the Second Vatican Council made by Cardinal Leo Joseph Suenens, who during the second session in 1963 said that “systematically excluding women from active church participation made no sense” in the modern age.

“Women too should be invited as auditors,” Suenens had said, adding, “Unless I am mistaken, they make up half of the human race.”

Goldie’s subsequent appointments and the doors that these opened up for other women are “an invitation to us too to choose the challenge, as in her own way she participated in and brought about changes within an ecumenical council and in the operations of the Holy See,” Grech said.

Yet despite the progress that has already been made, he noted that perseverance is still needed in order “to embrace challenges that can bring about a lasting change.”

“The appointment of women, be they religious or lay, in leadership positions in the Roman Curia, as well as the participation in a synod of bishops, still seems to be extraordinary,” he said, pointing to Becquart’s recent appointment to his department.

Calling Becquart’s appointment “a major milestone,” Grech cautioned that moves such as this “should not be reduced to this one institution or to voting rights alone,” but should focus “on how the Church can envision the permanent interaction of the different members in her midst in discernment processes.”

“Such a reflection cannot be reduced to a mere intellectual exercise in which some talk about the possibility of involvement of other baptized, but it is in fact an experience of mutual listening and common discernment, all included,” he said.

In his remarks, Tighe highlighted steps his own department has taken to include women, noting that there is no shortage of competent women in the cultural sphere, and highlighted the Council for Culture’s consulta femminile, a consultative body of women inside the department who both assist with departmental projects, and pursue their own initiatives.

However, according to Tighe, a greater effort must be made to make all Vatican departments more inclusive.

He highlighted several aspects of the curial structure and Vatican culture that can make it difficult for laypeople who are brought in to thrive, saying the system itself has to change in order for any meaningful progress can be made in terms of adding more women, and laypeople generally, to the mix.

“When you come to recruit new people, the most difficult categories to integrate are laypeople and in particular women, but particularly laypeople who are coming from outside of Italy and people who are not associated with a religious movement,” Tighe said, speaking as a longtime member of the curia.

The reason for this is “not so much for ideological reasons, but practical, logistical reasons,” given that oftentimes, appointments are not permanent, but competent people are still needed.

This can be tricky to arrange for people who don’t have a religious community to fall back on, but are dependent on salaries to survive, and who oftentimes families.

“There’s a lot of work going on as we know on the reform of the curia,” but much of that is focused on “structural arrangements,” Tighe said, adding, “It might be worthwhile if we could take time to review our human resources policies, make them more inclusive.”

“I think a very important thing would be reviewing our policies on the pragmatic level to make it easier to include more laypeople, international people, and women so that the curia begins to look a little bit more like the rest of the Church, the global Church,” he said, saying foreign ministries can be an example to follow, “because so many countries have now much more inclusive representations, and that can’t have just happened by accident.”

Tighe also suggested that a more frequent change of personnel could go a long way in transforming the Vatican’s curial culture into one that’s more inclusive.

“A number of people are here for life, and I don’t think it’s good for them and I don’t think it’s good for the Curia,” he said. “I think we need more mobility that would offer more possibilities of people moving. I think we need to have clearer possibilities of performance evaluating, more emphasis on meritocracy, because I think that would be most effective.”

Cautioning against the tendency to develop an overcentralized concept of the curia, Tighe stressed the need to engage laypeople in general in the curia in an effective way, but “without making it so that the curia the only place that engagement can happen.”

“If we are going to, and I really hope we can see more women working in the curia, I hope that will work to change the culture…not clericalizing laypeople and women who come to the curia, but that they are able to change our culture, particularly people who have lives outside.”