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A diocese project to strengthen the presence of women

Women Church Naples

 Donne Chiesa Napoli  DCM-002
04 February 2023

“If we want to speak of a synodal conversion of participatory bodies, we cannot limit ourselves to a few minor adjustments or generic moralistic exhortations [...] It is first and foremost a matter of restoring centrality to the theme of equality in baptismal dignity. [...] The laity represent the constitutive dimension of the Church with an enormous responsibility in evangelization, which at times, however, is limited, says the Pope, ‘due to an excessive clericalism which keeps them away from decision-making’ (Evangelii Gaudium 102). This applies even more to the role of women whose presence in the Church must be ‘more incisive’ especially ‘in the various places where important decisions are made’ (EG 103)”.

These are Don Mimmo Battaglia, the Archbishop of Naples’ words, which he expressed in his Pastoral Letter October 1, 2022. These thoughts are part of the synodal path sort by Pope Francis and highlight the desire to enhance the laity and, in so doing, women in the Church, therefore represent an opening up to change and new perspectives.

What’s boiling in the pot, then, in the Church of Naples? The archbishop, who took office in the diocese December 12, 2020, wished to give certain clear signals to the city, on the occasion of the work of the XXXI Synod. The city of Naples has a strong female presence historically, both because of its mythical origins (the siren Partenope) and the atavistic matriarchal culture that runs deep throughout the city. In June 2022, the archbishop appointed Sister Marisa Pitrella, a Daughter of Charity and professional nurse –who had been committed to serving those who suffer and the poor for years- as head of Caritas. This is the first time a woman has held the office. In addition, and this is another first, he wanted as his delegates to be not exclusively members of the clergy, but called upon three lay people for the culture and justice and charity sectors, two laywomen in the lay sector (Maria Pia Mauro and the undersigned) and a religious in the consecrated life sector (Sister Anna Avenia, of the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians) as collaborators.

In a special way, to strengthen the presence of women in the diocese, a small working group of four women and three men and I were asked to think up a series of operational proposals to initiate the necessary changes. Some of these initiatives are underway. The first, called The Word to Women, concerns the approach to Sacred Scripture. Following the rise of biblical studies in the last century, it has become clear that the Bible needs to be better understood so as to overcome ignorance and prejudices, which in some cases have been at the root of exclusion and marginalisation. 

Therefore, the interpretation of the sacred text by women and the reading of biblical texts by women appear to be a fundamental requirement for a reinterpretation. Combined, this can be included in the current evolution of historical research that is sensitive to the demands of a new anthropology founded on the equal dignity of women and men, created in the image of God.

For this reason, the diocese of Naples is offering a series of lectures on the Bible and women, which is to be held by biblical scholars in an open and ecumenical debate. The first cycle, The Women of the Gospels, will include lectures by Marinella Perroni (Martha and Mary of Bethany, 3 March), Dario Garriba (The Samaritan Woman, 17 March), Letizia Tomassone (Mary Magdalene, 14 April), Annalisa Guida (The Syrophoenician, 28 April), Rosanna Virgili (Jesus And The Faces Of A God, Father-Mother, 12 May). The courses will be conducted in presence and web-linked too.

These lectures are preceded by a meeting scheduled for  February 17 with Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, an internationally renowned biblical scholar as well as an attentive reader of the demands of feminist exegesis.

The second initiative concerns the creation of a website, titled: Women in Dialogue in the Church of Naples, which will be presented in the spring and is intended to be a prototype for all other Italian dioceses. The site intends to give visibility not only to the women (saints, founders, benefactors, artists, etc.) who have brought prestige to the Neapolitan Church, but also to the places they have brought to life, enlivening them with colourful human and religious experiences, be they places of faith (monasteries, convents), of charity (hospitals, retreats, conservatories) and of culture (cenacles, cultural salons, art workshops), to be visited by walking along the streets of Naples through religious-tourist itineraries that redefine the understanding of the city’s sacred space. In addition, the site opens a book presentation page (Dracme) and a news page (News) to make known the initiatives involving the many associations engaged in the area. The site aims to highlight the valuable participation of women who, together with men, have made (and make) a significant contribution to the cultural and religious fabric of the city.

Work is also being done for a more significant presence of women in parishes and throughout the territory, while focusing on certain pilot experiences that can strengthen the presence of women both in the para-liturgy and in evangelization, and in parish management. The intention is to recognise a stable, established, authoritative and widespread female ministry according to the criterion that responds to the needs of the diocese.

Among these initiatives are plans to open leadership training courses (for example, spiritual mothers, community leaders, group leaders) and advanced theological training in gender studies, so as to train specialised personnel and create a permanent observatory to overcome discrimination and prejudice. Lastly, the Church of Naples wants to be a travelling companion for the many women -both believers and non-believers-, belonging to other churches or other religions, who live in the city. The factor that unifies these women are both the dramatic issues concerning the defence of rights (in the family and at work), sexual violence and all forms of abuse and discrimination, and by the aspiration to build a more humane society that respects the dignity of persons.  For this reason, it plans to offer a permanent meeting place for Mediterranean women in the city of Naples.

Therefore, the diocese is presenting itself as a forerunner in Italy for projects and experiments with the intention of looking at women as a resource and an asset. In March, the document on Women at the Service of the Gospel for the Promotion in Naples of an Inclusive Church will be submitted to the Synod for approval. It is the hope that it will represent not only for Naples, but also for other dioceses, a real opportunity for openness and renewal. In addition, that it may create new spaces for women to have a significant presence in the framework of a transformed pastoral community, not as a substitute for a possible shortage of male personnel, but as a necessary service to the growth of ecclesial life.

by Adriana Valerio
Theologian and historian

Registration for the cycle on the Bible:
form in https://forms.gle/LVGNMmiLKV21bd479 to be sent to avaleio.studies@gmail.com

Lectures will be held in the Synod Hall of the Curia of Naples, from 17.30 to 19.00, and can be attended in person or via the Web.