Olivia O'Leary on Pope Francis‘You can’t say that you love women if you exclude them.’

As heard on Drivetime

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Dear Francis,

Before your very welcome visit here in August, I thought you might like to know what it was like in 1979. Just before Pope John Paul II came, Irish Times editor Douglas Gageby called us all into his office.

“Now listen up, ye gang of lefties, women’s libbers and cynics”, he said. “This visit is historic. And this newspaper will cover it as the massively important event it is for the people of this country. He wasn’t just trying to shake off The Irish Times’ Protestant past. He was right. It was an historic event.

And when the Pope stepped off the plane and kissed the ground of Ireland, the first papal visit ever in 1500 years of Irish Roman Catholicism, I felt that sense of history. Why wouldn’t I? Called as I am after Oliver Plunkett, the last Catholic martyr to be hung, drawn and quartered at Tyburn.

Then, on we went to the mass on the vast altar in the Phoenix Park. It was beautiful, all those flapping robes against a blue sky, like an ancient Greek ritual. Except for the fact that in ancient Greece, they had High Priestesses.

There was no woman on this great stage at all, except when Bernadette Greevy, veiled in black, was led on by a male acolyte to sing, as she did memorably, before being immediately led off again. It was lonely, looking up to where the church’s most powerful liturgy, the mass, was being celebrated, to see nobody there that looked like me.

However, I stuck with my editor’s instructions and followed the Pope dutifully. But even when we got to Limerick, where the Pope was warning against contraception and abortion and talking about how women should choose the rearing of children over working outside the home, I could see no women on the stage. Not even readers. Not even altar girls.

And Francis, at that point, I decided I had little time for a Pope who told women what to do without allowing them beyond the altar rails.

And I was thinking about Rome and women last week when I was talking to an Italian. He said there was evidence that having more women in senior management in a company made for greater profitability, more openness to change. But equal representation of women went way beyond such utilitarian arguments, he said. For him, it was a matter of basic human rights.

I wish I could say that he was a Cardinal or a member of the Curia but he wasn’t. He was Vittorio Colao, European CEO of Vodafone, talking at Vodafone Ireland’s International Women’s Day celebration. Interesting that the insistence on gender balance as a matter of human rights came from a businessman, not from a Bishop.

Vodafone Ireland has 63% women in its senior leadership team, 50% women at management level and their Irish CEO is Anne O’Leary. So, as Dearbhail McDonald, Group Business Editor of Independent Newspapers said on Claire Byrne last night, “much of the corporate world is now insisting on a high level of diversity and of a balance of men and women”.

That same corporate world which is being asked to contribute money to finance your visit, even though your organisation, Francis, has no women at all in its management or in its priestly orders and hierarchy.

Surely something is wrong when the world of Mammon outdoes the church on human rights for women. It’s a right mess, Francis. But you have a letter on your desk which could help. It comes from our former President, a canon lawyer and somebody who stayed on to fight for change in the Roman Catholic Church when so many of us gave up.

She’s a committed Catholic. And you’re so lucky to have her. And what tumbled out in her interview on Sean O’Rourke’s programme yesterday was her anger and hurt at the church’s attitude to women. Its cover-up of clerical, sexual and physical abuse of children. It’s attitude to gay people. But the phrase that stuck in my mind was the one she kept coming back to passionately: Christ’s message to love one another.

And you can’t say that you love women if you exclude them. You can’t say you love LGBT people if you won’t accept their gender. Love one another, Francis. It could be as tough and yet as simple as that.

Best wishes from the outside,


As originally broadcast on Drivetime with Mary Wilson, Tuesday, March 13th.

For more from Drivetime, click here.

© The Listener 2018

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