Pope Francis told 800 superiors of women’s orders from around the world that the Catholic Church needs religious women and that religious women need to be in harmony with the faith and teachings of the church.
“What would the church be without you?” the pope told the women May 8. “It would be missing maternity, affection, tenderness and a mother’s intuition.”
Religious superiors, Pope Francis said, need to ensure their members are educated in the doctrine of the church, “in love for the church and in an ecclesial spirit.”
Quoting Pope Paul VI, he said: “It’s an absurd dichotomy to think one can live with Jesus, but without the church, to follow Jesus outside the church, to love Jesus and not the church.”
The sisters, who came from 76 countries, were in Rome for the plenary assembly of the International Union of Superiors General. The group welcomed the pope with loud applause and with the ululations of the African sisters among them.
U.S. Sister Mary Lou Wirtz, superior of the Daughters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary and president of the International Union of Superiors General, said the sisters “are very pleased with the pope, and it gives them hope of maybe some change happening in the church.”
They appreciate the pope’s emphasis on serving the poor and going out to the margins of society, “because that’s what our service as religious women is about.”
In his talk to the women, Pope Francis said their vow of chastity expands their ability to give themselves to God and to others “with the tenderness, mercy and closeness of Christ.”
However, “please, let it be a fruitful chastity, a chastity that generates sons and daughters in the church. The consecrated woman is a mother, must be a mother and not a spinster,” he said. While the sisters were laughing at his use of a very colloquial Italian word for “spinster” or “old maid,” he added: “Forgive me for speaking this way, but the motherhood of consecrated life, its fertility, is important.”
Pope Francis said that just as Mary could not be understood without recognizing her role as being Jesus’ mother, the church cannot be understood without recognizing its role as being the mother of all believers. “And you are an icon of Mary and the church,” he said.