Pope Francis has advocated for the widespread participation of women in all levels of the Church and society, saying that their unique gifts enrich both their families – as well as the public sphere.

“A more widespread and incisive female presence in the community is desirable, so that we can see many women involved in pastoral responsibilities, in the accompaniment of persons, families and groups, as well as in theological reflection,” the Pope said Feb. 7.

He encouraged women to make contributions in various social, cultural and economic structures, including education, pastoral activities, teaching the faith and within their own families.

Speaking to women directly, the Pope said they know “how to show the tender face of God, his mercy, which translates in the availability to give time more than to occupy spaces, to welcome rather than to exclude.”

“In this sense, I like to describe the feminine dimension of the Church as a welcoming womb that regenerates life.”

Pope Francis’ address was directed to participants in the Pontifical Council for Culture’s annual plenary assembly in Rome. Held Feb. 4-7, this year’s gathering discussed the theme “Women’s Culture: Equality and Difference.”

The topic, which is “very close” to the Pope’s heart, consists of finding and studying new criteria, so that women don’t feel like “guests,” but rather “full participants in the various areas of social and ecclesial life.”

This is a challenge, he said, “that can no longer be postponed.”

Alongside his endorsement for the advancement of women in society, Francis also cautioned that “we cannot forget the irreplaceable role of women in the family.”

“The qualities of gentleness, of particular sensitivity and tenderness, which is abundant in the female soul, represent not only a genuine force for the life of families, for the irradiation of a climate of peace and harmony, but also a reality without which the human vocation would be unfeasible,” he said.

Pope Francis encouraged the participation of women in the working field as well as in positions where important decisions are made, saying these roles should serve to uphold women’s special presence and attention in and for their families.

Headed by Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, the culture council organized the plenary as a review of various analysis on current challenges women face, both in society and in the Church, which were prepared by a panel of female consultants.

In his speech to participants, Pope Francis said that Western societies have “left behind” the social subordination of women to men, although some negative effects still remain. Another societal model which presents men and women as absolute equals has also changed.

What has emerged instead is “a new paradigm – that of reciprocity and in equivalence and in difference.”

“The man-woman relationship, therefore, should recognize that both are necessary in that they possess, yes, an identical nature, but with their own modality. One is necessary to the other, and vice versa, so as to truly fulfill the fullness of the person.”

On the topic of the feminine body, which the plenary’s working document noted is often subject to manipulation and violence, the Pope said that it is a symbol of life, and lamented the many ways it is often “disfigured, even by those who should be guardians and companions in life.”

“The many forms of slavery, of commodification, of mutilation of women's bodies, oblige us therefore to work to defeat this form of degradation, which reduces (a woman’s body) to a mere object to sell on various markets,” he said.

Francis closed his speech by encouraging participants to work hard in carrying out the commitments they made during the plenary discussion, and entrusted their efforts the Virgin Mary, who is a “sublime and concrete example as a woman and mother.”