VATICAN CITY -- The Vatican's spokesman went to his news briefing Friday bearing flowers for female journalists to mark International Women's Day. "On behalf of all of us men, congratulations and happy Women's Day!" said a beaming Rev. Federico Lombardi.
The heartfelt gesture came a day after an awkward acknowledgement: The upcoming election of the pope will be an all-male affair -- except for the women who cook for, clean up after and serve the 115 cardinals who will pick the leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics, half of them women.
Lombardi's admission came when a reporter noted one of the video clips the Vatican had provided of preparations in the Sistine Chapel featured a woman at a sewing machine, making the skirting for the tables at which cardinals will sit. Aside from the seamstress, the reporter inquired, how many women are involved in the conclave process?
Lombardi said the total number wouldn't be known until all Vatican personnel involved in the conclave take their oath of secrecy. But he noted several women work at the Vatican's Santa Marta hotel, where the cardinals will eat and sleep during the conclave.
For many observers, Lombardi's comment was a tacit acknowledgment of what many consider women's second-class status in the church, despite the fact they take a leading role in staffing Catholic schools and hospitals.
"It is fine to sew and be a seamstress, but women have much to contribute to the political... health and well-being of the people on the planet," said Janice Sevre-Duszynska, a member of the Roman Catholic Women Priests movement.
Members of the movement, as well as other dissident groups calling for greater participation of women in leadership positions in the church, have descended on Rome during the papal election.
-- The Associated Press