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Otherwise she would not be Church

· Interview with Sr Mary Melone, the first women to head a pontifical university ·

“I particularly appreciate this question”, exclaimed Sr Mary Melone, a 50-year-old theologian, rector of the Antonianum since June – because so far the questions I have been asked have all focused on the fact that I am the only woman in Italy who has ever been appointed to head a pontifical university. In fact an important explanation must be made: the criteria on the basis of which my colleagues voted have nothing to do with gender but rather are academic and scientific criteria which assess competence in terms of teaching and research. Two ballots are held. The first is open and the second is limited to the ten names that received the most votes in the first ballot”.

The good news will be that we no longer come to interview you because you are the only woman to head a pontifical university.

(She laughed). I am aware of what my name represents: although the number of women, both religious and lay women, who work at this level in the universities, has significantly increased in recent times, it is not yet equal or minimally comparable to that of men. In the context of theology too, there is still a long way to go. From the viewpoint of theological thought, in past centuries we also had rare but important female figures to whom we are indebted for precious reflections on the Holy Spirit and the Trinity. Teaching and access to study curricula date back to the post-conciliar period, but much has been done since then. The developments, however, and let us not forget it, have also affected the attitude of women. Phases in which the claims they were making were more obvious gave way to phases in which they acquired a greater awareness of their own importance and of the possibility of making a substantial contribution to the world of theology. Today, for many reasons, it is undeniable that the theological thought of women is more mature and more serene. This is not only because it is accepted differently in the Church, but also because women are aware in a different way of their own possibilities..

The Pope has called for a profound theology of women.

I certainly don’t want to interpret his words, but I think what is needed is to recognize the significant contribution that women make to the world of faith and to the ecclesial world by drawing close to God’s mystery in their most important way. Going beyond theology done by women, in my opinion it is necessary to recognize – other than institutional positions – that the female contribution is not only necessary but also complementary to the male one.

These are all reflections that may be more generally applied to the life of the Church.

It is certain that since the Council we have also taken noteworthy steps in terms of the insertion of women in important ecclesial roles, but what is lacking – and in Evangelii gaudium it is clearly written – is the presence of women in decision-making positions. The issue is very complex because the Church is a complex reality, and in this perspective two words, charism/ministries, also refer to the ordained ministries which, obviously, can’t be ignored. The access of women to decision-making roles must therefore be contextualized in the Church’s reality itself.

The Church doesn’t understand that otherwise she would be impoverished.

When one reflects on these topics one turns to simple and essential truths: there are so many reasons why the Church cannot leave women out of consideration. She cannot do so because otherwise she would not be Church in her totality. She cannot do so because the female contribution, however silent and perhaps less visible it may be, is absolutely indispensable: I am a woman religious and I’m thinking of the number of women religious who have so many works behind them. I am not referring solely to the material quantity of schools, hospitals and missions managed by women religious and, more generally, by women, but also – and above all – to their abilities and skills. To describe one dimension of the Church, it is necessary to remember that there are institutions on which women’s religious institutes focused sooner than civil society. Let us think, for example of schools; with competence and foresight we established educational structures when none existed. In the Franciscan world this is particularly obvious: Franciscan institutes for women entered into dialogue with the modern epoch far sooner than the institutes of friars, linked to a different structure. Almost all born between the middle and the end of the 19th century, Franciscan female institutes flourished in dialogue with society, thanks to their ability to interpret the expectations of the modern epoch. Only the Franciscan female institutes succeeded in doing so, whereas the Order was passing through a moment of internal rethinking. In this sense I say that the Church cannot do without women! I believe it would be an impoverishment to fail to appreciate that women have a wealth of their own to put at the service of the Church.

When Bergoglio came out on to the Loggia of Blessings hearing his name chosen, we also thought about the relationship between Francis and Clare, a splendid event of an equal friendship between a woman and a man.

I too was in St Peter’s Square that evening. I remember the emotion I felt at hearing a name that for us Franciscans is our all; a name that was already a very clear message. St Francis speaks all languages, I do not believe that there is any reality, especially any ecclesial reality, that does not immediately feel in tune with him. And it is very true that those who look at Francis cannot but see Clare. Francis himself did not think without Clare, in the sense that he recognized this woman’s substantial contribution. The study of the relationship between the two is very complex, in the context of the Franciscan world it absorbs great attention, precisely because it is necessary to free oneself from certain stereotypes that see the bond between them in a one-way direction. Instead Clare contributed to the configuration of the Franciscan charism. Few people, for example, know her letters and yet they are extremely significant texts in which a spiritual maturity stands out; Francis was certainly aware of this and shared it. Theirs was a relationship of complementarity in which the one, in a certain way, needed the other. Many anecdotes have been passed down which, although episodically, convey this reality of which we in the Franciscan world are aware. I am thinking of the famous episode in which people in Assisi saw flames near Santa Maria degli Angeli. They thought there was a fire; instead it was the spiritual dialogue between Clare and Francis, with the flames symbolizing the intensity of a shared spiritual life. Or let us think of the famous episode of Francis who went to Clare because she was in need of him and he felt Clare’s need. He went to her at San Damiano, he officiated at an extremely simple liturgy, he covered his head with ashes and left – an episode that incarnates to perfection the complementarity within a vocation of total dedication to the Lord in which the two walked together. Moreover numerous couples of saints bear witness to this complementarity: here, perhaps the language of holiness – very different from the language of theology – can live in practice this aspect on which theology subsequently dwells. The need for a complementarity of approaches: the evangelical logic of Francis, his style and the manner in which he followed the Lord are all aspects which are enriched by Clare’s feminine way of feeling, even though the charism was the same. Here at the Antonianum we have dedicated a year of study to male and female in the Franciscan vocation precisely in order to recover this complementarity.

Your words are optimistic. We know that the problem between women and the Church exists but we have the means to face it!

I know that I’ve had a fortunate personal experience. I’ve always encountered a very open environment and this certainly brings me to be very serene. However it’s also true that to bear in the ecclesial world the criteria of quotas which instead secular society must rightly adopt is not correct: our ecclesial community is not just any society. The charismatic depth of the Church prevents a parallel from being made with civil society in which it is right that a certain number of female presences should be guaranteed. We must think of a Church made up of charisms and ministries. Yet this does not eliminate the fact that I am well aware of the forms of resistance that exist in the ecclesial world. After my nomination, I received a great many attestations expressing joy in this umpteenth demonstration of the new spring, linked in a certain manner to the Pope. However I also received a few messages in which, in the name of St Thomas and St Paul, I was begged to step down because I had been elected to a role that was not consonant with a woman. This proves how far we still are from a free vision of a Church which is communion. In Lumen gentium, the Second Vatican Council stated clearly that the Church has her origins, model and end in the Trinity. The communion aspect, therefore, is not merely a choice of balance and functionality but is the intimate reality of the Church. The Trinity is the maximum unity in the maximum distinction. Remaining in diversity and in the distinction between men and women, between different services and ministries, is the guarantee of true ecclesial communion. There have been times when not even we women have understood this, for example, when we sought at all costs to bring ourselves into conformity with men. I’m not feminist by nature, but I’m proud of this diversity. I believe that the greatest form of feminism is not to foster the idea in men that we only feel fulfilled when we become equal to them! The reality of women is so complete and beautiful in itself that it has no need to model itself on the male reality.

Born in La Spezia in 1964, after graduating in humanities Mary Melone entered the Institute of the Angeline Franciscan Sisters, where she made her perpetual profession in 1991. The following year she earned a degree in pedagogy at LUMSA and went on to study theology at the Antonianum. She was President of the Istituto superiore di scienze religiose Redemptor Hominis (2001-2008), and in 2011 was elected Dean of Theology at a male college. She is President of the Società italiana per la ricerca teologica.

Giulia Galeotti




St. Peter’s Square

Nov. 23, 2019