(Photo: Reuters/Max Rossi)
Pope Francis has already established himself as a pontiff not afraid to break from tradition, and many are saying he is giving women unprecedented recognition within the church.
"Women play a primary, fundamental role in the Bible," the pope told thousands of pilgrims at an audience in St. Peter's Square on Wednesday, Reuters reported. "The evangelists simply narrate what happened: the women were the first witnesses. This tells us that God does not choose according to human criteria."
"The disciples had a harder time believing but not the women," the Roman Catholic Church leader reminded the people, referring to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. "Women in the Church have had and have a special role in opening the doors to the Lord, in following him, in communicating his message."
Pope Francis, who succeeded Pope Benedict XVI in March, broke important traditions last week on Holy Thursday when he decided to wash the feet of 12 prisoners, including two women, one of whom was a Muslim, instead of 12 male priests. The act was symbolic of Christ washing the feet of his 12 disciples before the Last Super, and many within the church insist that it should be reserved for men alone.
The Vatican has had a troublesome relationship with some women's groups, branding the main group of nuns in the U.S. last year as "radical feminist." The group was criticized for stirring "corporate dissent" in going against official teachings on abortion and for calling on women to have a more prominent role within the church.
"I'm full of joy, full of hope," Sister Anne Dougherty told the Tampa Bay Times when news of the pope's appointment last month was revealed. "And I think Pope Francis is going to help repair the church."
Much of the excitement stemmed from Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio's decision to adopt the name of St. Francis of Assisi, who was known as an early church reformer and who dedicated his life to serving the poor.
"He's not going to revolutionize the church completely, but he does seem to be a person who can open up possibilities that may not have been acceptable in the past," added Sister Mary Aghittu, 71.
"A lot of his lifestyle ahead of time has probably given him not just strength, but insight into how to deal with people. He took the bus. He was around the people. He wasn't way up in the sky where no one had access to him. To me, that's a wonderful sign."
Unlike some Protestant denominations, the Catholic Church still does not ordain women as priests. While there has not been any significant talk on when, or if, that will change, Marinella Perroni, a theologian and leading member of the Association of Italian Women Theologians, said that the new pope's actions are "very encouraging."
"Pope Francis is taking up, with a stronger emphasis, the teaching of previous popes about the role of women in the foundation of faith and the resurrection of Jesus," Perroni told Reuters.
"The fact that the Pope acknowledges that the progressive removal of female figures from the tradition of the resurrection ... is due to human judgments, distant from those of God ... introduces a decidedly new element compared to the previous papacy."
Fr. Peter Daly, a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., also praised Pope Francis in a column earlier this week for The National Catholic Reporter, noting that by dressing simpler, living in a smaller residence and not taking up a number of privileges previous popes had enjoyed, he has already created a more humble image for the church.
"I hope Pope Francis will reorient the church to the real problems of poverty, peace and care for God's creation. He has already said as much in his installation. He wants to be the pope of peace, the poor and of respect for creation," Daly said.