At a Vatican conference on the topic "God entrusts the human being to the woman," global female experts discussed the role of women in working towards restoring the dignity of the human person.

"Women are pragmatic responders," said Vicki Thorn, founder of the U.S.-based Project Rachel post-abortion healing outreach, who likened her work with victims of abortion to that of a "field hospital."

Women "respond to the moment: we may see someone hungry, we may see someone hurting: that's our call, to be those people who are right there, willing to take the risk," she told CNA on Oct. 11.

The three-day event held by the Vatican's Pontifical Council for the Laity drew approximately 100 women from across the globe. They arrived in Rome to discuss Blessed John Paul II's Apostolic Letter "On the Dignity and Vocation of Women" on the document's 25th anniversary.

Despite many people's negative view of the Catholic Church and women, Thorn said that history reveals a more positive story.

"The openness of the Church to women is there… and its important that we as women understand our role, looking back, historically, to the saints: the women saints did incredible things in the Church," she said.

"Women ran educational institutions, long ago," Thorn explained. "They were educating: they saw a need. They were nursing the sick, they were feeding the poor. Now we're involved in issues of trafficking, we're involved in issues of other injustices, but it's a pragmatic response."

"We see it, we deal with it. That's the unique gift of women, I would say."    

Thorn's ideas were exemplified by many conference participants, who listened attentively to panel sessions on theoretical issues such as "Sexual differences and the concept of the person," – but followed up with practical questions such as "how do we implement these ideas in our own work?"

Oana Gotia, professor of moral theology at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family in Rome, was asked, "practically speaking, how do we help our young people?"

Gotia replied that youth are living in very "confused environments" and even in family life, "it's a very fragile context" because there are so many broken homes.

If we believe, theoretically, that God created the human being "good," we must begin from there on a concrete level, affirming the person, she said. "Every educational endeavor should proceed from the goodness of being: 'you are good,' because you exist…'you are unique.'"

Catherine Soublin, of international charitable organization Caritas' France section, spoke of her experience working with the poor.  She described her work as a "ministry of friendship" rather than humanitarian aid.

"I saw a homeless woman sitting on the street, so I went over to talk to her," recounted Soublin. "I asked, would you like me to use the familiar version of 'you' or the formal version of 'you' when I speak to you?"

"She responded, 'what's the difference?'"

"I explained to her that the familiar version is used with people one is very close to, like family members, but the formal version is used as a sign of respect for those one does not know well."

"'I would like the formal version,' she said."

"So I said, 'ok! I will use it,'" concluded a smiling Soublin. "She brightened right up!"

Christiana Von Habsburg-Lothringen, member of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, listened to Soublin's story and exclaimed, "you restored her dignity!"

"I once had a similar experience," Von Habsburg-Lothringen explained. "I went to speak to a group of women – they were wealthy and very well put together. One woman sitting in the front seemed very closed off and unhappy. She came up to me afterwards and was very despondent."

"She told me that she had been married to a very wealthy man who had abandoned her and their children in favor of a younger woman. But this woman had raised her children all on her own – they were now in university, but it had been a very difficult life."  

"And I said to her, 'but look at what you've done! You've raised your children all by yourself and now they are doing quite well! It's really amazing!' You should have seen the look on this woman's face – she looked so young and happy. It was as if she had suddenly become ten years younger."

"I didn't really reflect on what had happened, but later on I shared this story with a bishop and he said to me, 'do you know what you did? You restored her dignity!'"

The experience of these participants served as paradigmatic examples of what Blessed John Paul II described as the "feminine genius" in which "God entrusts the human being to the woman in a special way."

Monsignor Livio Melina, President of the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family in Rome, gave the seminar's opening speech on this theme.

He noted how so many people today have a completely misguided concept of sexuality that stems from an "affective illiteracy."  

"They don't know the name of how they feel," he explained. Often, they engage in activities which are not loving but rather just "an immediate expression of the sexual urge."

"How can we reclaim the grammar of love?" Melina asked. "We need…credible witnesses."

Several participants noted the possibility for the Church to do more in supporting those who are trying to offer this credible witness to the world.

Professor Lucetta Scaraffia, who teaches contemporary history at Rome's Sapienza University, said "we need a less self-referential Church."

"We need to be a bit more self-critical, and listen to the truth of what our critics have to say," she continued.

Scaraffia then pointed out the after the sexual revolution, we can see positive changes such as single mothers being less marginalized from society and sexual violence being condemned.

"But we didn't need the sexual revolution to achieve these results!" she exclaimed. "We could have done these things ourselves!"

Giorgia Salatiello, professor of Philosophy at the Gregorian University of Rome, added that Christians need to be pro-active in responding to the needs of persons in society. "We often get there five minutes late! We need to be one minute early!"

Many other women spoke of their experience of women in the Church who were pragmatic responders.

Obianuju Ekeocha of Nigera shared how 80 years ago, sisters from Ireland arrived in her home country to share the gospel.

"The peoples' religion offered them practices like polygamy and infanticide," she explained. Were it not for the "loving persistence" of these religious women, "we would still be in darkness" she said.

Participants were reminded of the ultimate witness of love, however, by Michelle Borras – a theologian in residence at the Blessed John Paul II shrine in Washington, D.C.

"When we think about the early Church, really the primary form of dialogue that Christianity had with the world was martyrdom. It was not simply trying to speak to the others. The word that Christians spoke was spoken first with their life and then with their death," she explained.

"And I think there is something of that that remains for any woman of Christian witness in the world. The word in which the intelligent believer can become most luminous is the testimony of a life that is given to the end."