VATICAN CITY -- Pope Francis on Saturday lauded women for their sensitivity toward the society's weak and "gifts" like intuition, insisting they take on greater responsibilities in the Catholic church, as well as in professional and public spheres.
Francis was full of praise about female talent and untapped potential in a speech at the Vatican to an Italian women's group. But the pope gave no sign that the Vatican glass ceiling against ordaining women for the priesthood might see some cracks during his papacy.
From day one of his papacy in March, Francis has been trying to make the Catholic church more welcoming, but it forbids women from becoming priests, arguing among other things, that Jesus and his apostles were men.
Francis made clear back in November, in an extensive document laying out his priorities as head of the 1.2-billion-member Catholic church, that the ban against women's ordination would stand. Then, and in his speech on Saturday, he did go out of his way to urge a greater role for women in making decisions and holding responsibilities in the church.
Referring to that document, Francis told his audience that he had stressed "the indispensable contribution of women in society, in particular with their sensitivity and intuition toward the other, the weak and the unprotected." He said he has been heartened that "many women share some pastoral responsibilities with priests in looking after persons, families and groups" and he said he had hoped that "the spaces for a more diffuse and incisive presence in the church be expanded."
In some parishes, women visit parishioners too frail to come to church, run prayer groups and outreach programs to the poor, as well as help distribute communion to the faithful at Masses, especially in churches with large congregations.
"These new spaces and responsibilities that have been opened, and I strongly hope that they can further be opened up to the presence and activity of women, both in the church environment as well that of the public and professional" spheres, Francis said, "cannot make us forget the irreplaceable role of the woman in a family."
His audience was made up of Italian women, who live in a country with one of the lowest rates of women in the workplace in the European Union, as many in Italy leave jobs to raise children and never return or never enter the workplace at all.
Keeping with the Vatican's stress on so-called traditional families, Francis said families benefit from women's "gifts of delicateness, special sensitivity and tenderness."
As the Vatican toils to shore up sometimes flagging faith among Catholics, Francis laid out how the church sees women as crucial for that.
"The presence of women in a domestic setting turns out to be so necessary" for the "transmission to future generations of solid moral principles and the very transmission of the faith," Francis said.
Shutting women out of the priesthood has also meant they have never climbed to the top ranks of the most crucial offices at the Vatican, since those jobs go to prelates. The pope's top advisers are drawn from cardinals, the elite group of men whose responsibilities include electing popes.
The Vatican has cracked down swiftly and severely on any women who defy the ban by being ordained priests, trying to discourage female ordination movements that have some support in the U.S. and western Europe.
Seven women who said they were ordained as priests in a ceremony on the Danube River were excommunicated by the Vatican a few weeks later during the papacy of John Paul II, who, like Francis, often praised women for their talents and what he called special "charisma." And during the papacy of Benedict XVI, the predecessor of Francis, the Vatican defrocked a priest who had supported women's ordination and had participated in a 2008 ceremony of female ordination.
Since Francis has stressed mercy as a dominant characteristic of his pontificate, any more female ordinations would present a highly-watched occasion to see how he would handle such a grave violation of church teaching.