In his 1988 apostolic letter “On the Dignity and Vocation of Women,” Pope St. John Paul II spoke about the “feminine genius” and the gratitude that the Church expresses for the faith, hope and charity of women throughout history. In giving themselves to others every day, women fulfill their vocation, St. John Paul II wrote.
For Women’s History Month, the Catholic Standard spoke with several women in leadership roles at the Archdiocese of Washington’s Pastoral Center about how they embrace their “feminine genius” and fulfill their vocation as women while serving the Church.
Same gifts, different packages
Susan Timoney, the Secretary of Pastoral Ministry and Social Concerns for the archdiocese, was one of two women in her doctoral program while she was studying at St. Thomas Aquinas Pontifical College in Rome. She was studying alongside students from all over the world, and for some of her classmates from developing countries, it was the first time they had ever studied alongside a woman. Many of them were surprised that she was not a religious sister.
While the faculty at St. Thomas Aquinas was welcoming and happy to see women studying there, Timoney said a lot of them feared that women harbored anger for the Church. Because of this, she enjoyed having the opportunity in the classroom to “pave the way” and to say “lots of women want to work with you, not against you.”
“What we brought was as new perspective on wanting to see women being able to use their gifts to the fullest and have more opportunity to serve the Church,” she added.
Now, in her role at the archdiocese, Timoney forms parish leaders to help them come alive in their spiritual life and carry out the New Evangelization in their parishes. She has also been teaching in the Doctor of Ministry program at The Catholic University of America for 10 years.
Timoney believes it is very important to have women in leadership roles at both the parish and archdiocesan level, so women’s perspectives are represented “at the table where decisions are made.” She thinks men and women working together is usually preferable to just one or the other, because the two genders have “the same gifts wrapped in different packages.” While both men and women are compassionate, she said, they display that compassion in different ways.
Mary Forr, the director of the Department of Life Issues for the archdiocese, expressed a similar sentiment, saying, “Anything that a man can do a woman can do just as well—differently.”
This difference, she added, makes women “capable of giving a unique gift to this world where we can share love that men can’t and in a way the world needs.”
As the director of the Department of Life Issues, Forr works with local government to fight against legislation that endangers life at any stage, and speaks at parishes and schools to promote the sanctity of life. Before being in this role, Forr taught at Catholic schools, including St. Peter’s in Washington, and during her time as a student at the University of Notre Dame, she was the vice president of the pro-life club at the school.
Especially in situations where she needs to speak with people advocating on the opposite side of a life issue, such as Compassionate Choices, an organization that advocates for physician assisted suicide, Forr said being a woman helps her to empathize and be able to say, “‘I understand how it feels to watch someone suffer, and I understand how terrible that is,’ and to really to feel their pain and to recognize it is not an insignificant thing.”
Before working for the archdiocese, Kim Viti Fiorentino, who currently works as the archdiocese’s Chancellor and General Counsel, was a senior partner in the law firm of Shulman, Rogers, Gandal, Pordy & Ecker, specializing in litigation related to guardianship, trusts and estates, property disputes and family matters. In the midst of a male-dominated field, Fiorentino said, “Embracing my feminine genius instead of trying to be someone I’m not has helped me in my career.”
Being underestimated by her male colleagues gave her “a strategic advantage,” Fiorentino said, because she was able to surprise them when “a woman warrior” came out of the box that they tried to put her in.
In her roles as Chancellor and General Counsel, Fiorentino is the archdiocese’s principal legal advisor, providing counsel to Cardinal Wuerl on public policy matters, overseeing legal affairs, and advising on matters with legal implications for the archdiocese, its parishes, schools, administrative departments, and affiliated ministries. When she began working at the archdiocese, Fiorentino said she was pleasantly surprised “to see how many incredibly smart, gifted, hardworking, empowered, gentle, loving women are serving the Church.”
Fiorentino has never been a fan of wearing all grey and trying to conform to men’s legal attire, and prefers to wear outfits that “bring a pop of color into the situation,” she said, which she believes is also representative of what a woman’s presence contributes to a workplace.
“We are here to serve and our special gifts as women make us exceptionally and uniquely placed to serve the needs of our family, culture, government and workplace,” she said.
A mother’s perspective
When thinking of examples of strong women, Forr noted her mother, whom she described as a “brilliant woman,” who stayed at home to raise her and her siblings.
“I know what a sacrifice that must have been for her to stay home and make lunches and come to school when we were sick and pick us up from practice, and I know that that must have been hard, but I don’t think that it in anyway contradicts wanting to be a successful woman,” she said. “I think that it’s a version of success that maybe this world doesn’t accept or maybe this world doesn’t understand, where we view somehow wanting a family as opposed to moving on with a career as unsuccessful.”
Sarah Yaklic, the director of Digital Media for the archdiocese, said at the heart of a woman, there is a natural desire to care and nurture, because “God created us in a desire to bring life and be nurturing.” But these gifts extend beyond actual motherhood, she said, and, “We can bring the same gifts to our work.”
Yaklic began working at the archdiocese in 2010, after volunteering to start young adult initiatives such as the Seven Church Walk and Christ in the City. Before then, she worked at the National Council for Adoption and at Williams and Connolly law firm, but always desired to be of service to the Church. So when she had the opportunity to start working for the archdiocese full time, she took it.
In 2012, when the archdiocese decided to open their first digital media office with the goal of expanding their evangelization efforts, Yaklic was chosen to lead it. Now, the Archdiocese of Washington is the leading diocesan social media presence in North America, and has more than 20 websites and a smartphone app.
Her womanhood, Yaklic said, helps her to tell stories of faith in a way that responds to Pope Francis’s call to accompany people.
“Women know how to accompany people in joy and in struggle,” she said. “In all of our outreach…words, stories, photos…we more easily make that compassion come alive on a digital platform.”
Yaklic said the goal of her office is “to bring the Gospel to life and empower other people to help share the story.” She is using social media as an evangelization tool, but the goal is not for the users of social media to stop at reading one of their posts.
“We’ve succeeded along the digital highways if one of our followers has put their phone down and entered into prayer, a service opportunity, stepped into church after being away, or received the grace of the Sacrament of Confession,” she said.
Chieko Noguchi lives out her gift of motherhood both at home and at work. Every morning, she drops her two sons off at school, and then drives to the Pastoral Center, where she starts her day as the archdiocese’s director of Media and Public Relations. In her role, she serves as spokesperson for the archdiocese and for Cardinal Donald Wuerl, and directs all media relations not only for the cardinal, but also for 139 parishes, 95 schools, and all archdiocesan ministries.
Every evening, Noguchi leaves her office, picks her sons up from school, and returns home, where her own mother usually has dinner prepared. The family then sits down and eats together, which Noguchi said is crucial quality time as she balances working full-time and being a mother.
“To have that balance, the professional balance and a mother’s perspective, is not always respected in the secular world,” she said, where there is a push for career building and long hours, with the idea that “the longer hours you work the more important you must be.”
Before working in the archdiocese, Noguchi worked on Capitol Hill, coordinating the logistics of travel for Newt Gingrich while he was Speaker of the House. After he retired from Congress, Noguchi went to work for Ketchum PR and then the White House Writers Group. While she enjoyed the work she was doing, she felt something was missing, and jumped at the opportunity to become the assistant director of communications for the archdiocese in 2009 and director of media and public relations in 2011.
“I haven’t looked back since then,” she said. “I love what I do.”
Noguchi appreciates how the Church values her perspective as a mother in her work. When she helps handle a crisis at a school, she looks at it from a public relations perspective, but also makes a point to look at it from a mother’s perspective.
“It is important that I reflect that I am not just the PR person to give statements and answers,” she said. “I have to have consideration for how parents would hear that on the radio.”
‘The people who stayed’
Noguchi has found that prayer, especially to the Blessed Mother, is key in maintaining the balance between work and motherhood, and each of these women said they look to Mary as an example of strong womanhood.
“[Mary] understood heartbreak. She understood loneliness. She understood the desire to be needed and the desire to help others in the same way we have those desires.” Forr said.
It is beautiful to have the example of Mary as the vehicle through which Christ came into the world, Forr said, and looking to her as an example has shaped her idea of what it means to be a woman.
“She is this quiet woman who wouldn’t be looked on today as what we would typically think of as courageous, but it is because of her that the history of mankind was changed forever,” she said.
While she was discerning whether or not to leave her job as a partner at a law firm to work as the chancellor for the archdiocese, Fiorentino said she looked to the Blessed Mother as an example.
“I can’t compare the ‘yes’ I said to the ‘yes’ she said, but to know a powerful woman looked to what her Father wanted her to do and had the courage to say ‘yes’,” helped her in her decision, she said.
Yaklic expressed a similar admiration for the quiet strength found in the Blessed Mother.
“When you think about the crucifixion and resurrection, the women were the people who stayed,” Yaklic said. “Under the weight of the cross, Mary and Mary Magdalene never left [Jesus’s] side. What a beautiful thing that now, more than 2,000 years later, the Church is employing women to continue His mission.”
St. John Paul II said women should be involved in every aspect of the Church, to teach, to heal, and to reconcile, Timoney noted.
“We do that in a way that is different than priests do, but in a way that very much serves the community well,” she said.
An example of “the work of reconciliation done with women at the helm” that Timoney pointed out is the archdiocese’s Project Rachel ministry, which is led entirely by women. The ministry works to provide hope and healing to women who have had abortions.
Timoney said she has been frustrated by the fact that much of the dialogue surrounding women in the Church in recent years has centered around the issue of ordination, because it distracts from the need to figure out how to make room for lay women leaders in the Church.
Through her experience studying in Rome with Catholics from around the world, Timoney said she “got such a deep understanding of the universality of the Church,” and began to see how women’s issues were not the same in the American Church as they are elsewhere.
She has been excited by the positions that she has seen open up to women within the past 30 years.
While some positions in the Church need to be held by priests according to Canon Law, Timoney said, “The Church should look at which ones don’t and see if there are women whose gifts and expertise match.” In particular, she said there should be equal voices from lay men and women when studying synods.
The Church should also do what it can to help women balance work and motherhood, Timoney said, by having better child care, workplaces that allow women to have time off to care for their children, and provide opportunities for job sharing and telecommuting.
In a culture beginning to say there is no uniqueness in male or female, Timoney thinks the Church has the opportunity to say to the world, “We ought to value the differences and celebrate them. They add completeness and fullness that won’t be with men alone or women alone.”
Forr thinks individual women can be voices of the unique feminine beauty in today’s society by being joyful.
“I think that living out your Catholic faith and really just living out being a woman within the Catholic Church, we have an opportunity to share how joyful that is and how there is a deep peace that comes from doing that,” she said.
These five women are just a sampling of the many women who serve in the Archdiocese of Washington, as well as in parishes and archdioceses around the world, who Forr said are encouraged to be at the forefront of the Church.
“I don’t think the Catholic Church wants women to just be in the background,” Forr said. “We are encouraged, and the example has been set for women to be leaders and to be successful in the eyes of God, and a lot of times in the eyes of the world.”