VATICAN CITY (RNS) — The seven women stood outside the Vatican gates dressed in cardinal red, each carrying a scarlet parasol emblazoned with a phrase of female empowerment. “Ordering women”. “Reform means women.” “These are the reigning men.” They were there to greet the 197 cardinals who arrived on Monday morning (August 29) for a much-anticipated talk with the pope – and to protest the absence of women from the meeting.
As the men in red marched, the women in red handed them pamphlets and urged them “to remember your sisters who stay out.”
About 15 minutes later, the delegation of seven women from Women’s Ordination Worldwide was approached by police and later taken to a nearby police station where they were held for three hours.
“It shows how dangerous women can be seen outside the Vatican,” Kate McElwee, one of the women arrested and director of the Women’s Ordination Conference, said by phone on Tuesday.
The cardinals were gathering to take part in a consistory, a closed-door meeting convened by Pope Francis to discuss changes he made in March to his apostolic constitution “Preadicate Evangelium” (Preaching the Gospel), which among other things allows laity, including women, to fill leadership roles in the Vatican traditionally reserved for the clergy.
Pope Francis has said the ordination of women is ‘not on the cards’, but he has set up two commissions to study the possibility of opening the diaconate to women, which would allow them to preside over certain services but not administer mass or performing the sacraments. The reports of the commissions have not been published.
Francis has pushed for greater participation of women in the Church by appointing women to a number of influential leadership positions in the Vatican, including the first female undersecretary of the Vatican department overseeing the summit of bishops.
When reporters began interviewing the group and taking photos of the cardinals with the open umbrellas visible behind them, a police car flashed its headlights at the women, said Miriam Duignan, spokeswoman for the Wijngaards Institute. for Catholic research and the ordination of women worldwide.
Duignan, who carried an umbrella that read “Sexism is a cardinal sin,” said she was asked to leave while being interviewed. The police began to move the seven women towards the colonnade of Saint-Pierre and placed a barricade around them using wooden panels.
Italian police did not respond to request for comment in time for publication.
The women were held there for an hour, Duignan said, where they were clearly visible to cardinals entering the Vatican. “You can’t ignore seven women dressed in red, herded in and surrounded by 20 police officers,” she told RNS on Tuesday by phone. A cardinal approached and recognized what was happening but said nothing to the police, she said, adding that the others simply walked by.
McElwee said she knew arrest was a possibility – the women have had dealings with Italian police before – and while she felt “shaken by the experience”, she hopes “it will rally more people to our cause because it shows that even just seven women can have a huge impact on the conversation.
According to Duignan, police said the women should get permits next time. But she said they had tried this before, and the times they weren’t denied permits were forced to protest away from the Vatican where they remained inaudible and invisible.
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The women were released pending charge just as the cardinals, having finished their morning discussions, headed for lunch.
“It’s 197 men talking about the future of the church, never mentioning the women, and then seven women – completely harmless, carrying delicate little paper umbrellas – are so threatening to them that they had to imprison us in wrong, humiliating us and trying to bully us into never doing it again,” Duignan said.
“The reality is that we are a threat to the status quo,” McElwee said.
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