Sister Raffaella Petrini, the Face of Women’s Empowerment in the Catholic Church 

As the first woman to hold a top position in the governorship of Vatican City, Sister Raffaella Petrini brings a wealth of experience to the job of running the world’s smallest nation-state.

Sister Raffaella Petrini (YouTube)
Sister Raffaella Petrini (YouTube)

Appointed by Pope Francis in November 2021 as the secretary general of the Vatican Governorate, Petrini has a degree in political science, specializing in industrial relations, from Libera Università Internazionale degli Studi Sociali (LUISS), a prestigious business university based in Rome, and a masters degree in organization behavior from the Barney School of Business at the University of Hartford, Connecticut.

Petrini’s role as the second-highest official in the Vatican Governorate—a position equivalent to being a state’s deputy governor or the mayor of a city—is noteworthy for another reason: This is the first time that the secretary general of the respected body is not a member of the clergy.

The change comes at a time when Catholic sisters are gradually occupying ever more positions of authority in Vatican departments that have traditionally been run by men.

Born in Rome on January 15, 1969, the 53-year-old Petrini is a member of the Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist, a community of religious women headquartered in Meriden, Connecticut. The community was founded in 1973 and is approved as a pontifical order by the Roman Catholic Church.

Petrini has been an official since 2005 in the Vatican’s Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples. In addition to her political science and business qualifications, she earned a Ph.D. in social sciences in 2015 from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome, where she teaches welfare economics and sociology of economic processes at the Faculty of Social Sciences. Petrini is also the author of a 2015 book on palliative care, titled Health, Equity and Care Through the End of Life.

“Her appointment is a source of joy for our university,” reads a statement from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, also known as the Angelicum, in an article in November 2021. “On behalf of the whole Angelicum community, we would like to congratulate Sr. Raffaella, and assure her of our support and prayers.”

Located in an expansive palace in the middle of Vatican City, the Governorate oversees more than 2,000 employees who run the Vatican’s administrative machinery on a daily basis, including museum personnel, police officers, firefighters, health service personnel, and post office, maintenance and office staff.

Petrini’s predecessor was a bishop, Fernando Vérgez Alzaga, who now occupies the presidency of the Governorate, the top post. A number of women already hold second-in-command posts in Vatican departments, although those positions are related to religious and social issues with smaller numbers of staff.

In addition to his appointment of Sr. Petrini, other women Pope Francis has recently elevated to senior positions include Sister Alessandra Smerilli, an Italian nun he appointed in August to the interim position of secretary of the Vatican’s development office, which deals with issues related to justice and peace.

And in February 2021, the pontiff named Nathalie Becquart, a French member of the Xaviere Missionary Sisters, as co-undersecretary of the Synod of Bishops, which prepares for key meetings held periodically of bishops around the world.

That same month, the pontiff named Catia Summaria, an Italian magistrate, as the first woman Promoter of Justice in the Vatican’s Court of Appeals.

Pope Francis has so far also placed six women in positions of seniority in the Council for the Economy, which the pontiff created in 2014 to oversee the Vatican’s finances. “It is essentially the board of surveillance for everything financial within the Vatican, with the only person above it being Pope Francis,” Joshua McElwee, the Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter said in an August 2020 article in The Guardian newspaper.

In January 2021, Pope Francis changed the laws of the Catholic Church to expand the liturgical role of women during mass, effectively permitting them to be altar servers, readers at liturgies and to distribute communion.

The pope has maintained that apart from posts that are only open to ordained priests for doctrinal reasons, there is no reason why women should not be in the top positions of the Vatican hierarchy.


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