How and whether it was observed depends on perspective.
I happened to be in Rome, in the middle of a brief visit with my son, who came by the hotel in time to head to St. Peter’s Square for the Angelus and read me the message on his cell phone from Vodafone (in Italian) which said something like ‘If the world is an epic, it is thanks to woman.’ The message then said in celebration, free internet access would be given to all subscribers that day… And I asked him to repeat that. Neither of us knew anything about this Festa taking place on a day already important to me and marked for celebration for other reasons. So he said it’s apparently Women’s Day in Italy, and we thought it nice that the cell phone company started it off with a nice message. It was a little baffling to us both, since Italy celebrates Mother’s Day as the US does, and this day was set apart from that to celebrate all women, which we did not know.
Then we headed to St. Peter’s. I’ll get back to that in a moment.
Sometime late that day, a splendid one in Rome with family spending hours outside in glorious weather walking, dining, strolling, talking, enjoying gelato, with more strolling amid countless other families, I went online ever so briefly. And learned that articles and blog posts were dedicated to revealing the origins of International Women’s Day in socialism and communism, something most citizens of the US never knew because it’s not celebrated here and hardly noticed as an international story.
But when we read that, it stood so at odds with our experience in Rome, the first experience of this occasion. Whatever it is or was for anyone else anywhere, here’s how I first encountered the Day of the Woman (besides the Vodafone message my son read to me).
At the Angelus in St. Peter’s Square, Pope Francis finished his remarks relating to the Sunday Gospel with these remarks.
…“a greeting to all women! To all the women who work every day to build a more human and welcoming society. And a fraternal thank you to those who in a thousand ways bear witness to the Gospel and work in the Church. This is for us an opportunity to reaffirm the importance and the necessity of their presence in life. A world where women are marginalised is a barren world, because women not only bring life, but they also give us the ability to see beyond – they see beyond themselves – and they transmit to us the ability to understand the world through different eyes, to hear things with more creative, more patient, more tender hearts. A prayer and a special blessing for all women present here in the square and for all women! Greetings!”
It was a beautiful finish to a message that sent us off on what I said was a glorious day, and along the way we saw everywhere the Italian bouquets of ‘mimosas’, the small yellow flowers that symbolize the day, and I was greeted by shop owners and restaurant hosts with a warm ‘Buona Festa!’
Reading the stories online later about the socialist roots of the day, decades earlier, I thought of the many times we had crisscrossed the Pantheon walking around Rome those days. It was originally erected as a pagan temple or building of some sort, possibly dedicated to many gods. It was later consecrated as the church of St. Mary and the Martyrs. Which seemed emblematic to me, of meeting something where it is and bringing to it a Christian presence, reflecting the glory of what Pope Benedict referred to as the ‘new humanism.’
Like when my family visited Ireland and came upon the Hill of Slane, on which St. Patrick lit a Paschal fire to rival the ‘festival fire’ on the opposite Hill of Tara lit by a pagan king, initiating a longstanding, sacred Catholic Easter Vigil rite.
In other words, it is indeed what you make of it.
So since my initiation into this festival honoring women on March 8th happened as it did in Rome, hearing Pope Francis honor the role of women as he did, it seemed to me a current day acknowledgement of the unique role of women recognized by the Second Vatican Council in its closing remarks, among countless individual ones by popes and councils. After addressing different, diverse identity groups, the Council fathers said this:
And now it is to you that we address ourselves, women of all states — girls, wives, mothers and widows, to you also, consecrated virgins and women living alone — you constitute half of the immense human family. As you know, the Church is proud to have glorified and liberated woman, and in the course of the centuries, in diversity of characters, to have brought into relief her basic equality with man. But the hour is coming, in fact has come, when the vocation of woman is being achieved in its fullness, the hour in which woman acquires in the world an influence, an effect and a power never hitherto achieved. That is why, at this moment when the human race is under-going so deep a transformation, women impregnated with the spirit of the Gospel can do so much to aid mankind in not falling.
Simply not falling? That’s it? Yes, that is what they were saying.
You women have always had as your lot the protection of the home, the love of beginnings and an understanding of cradles. You are present in the mystery of a life beginning. You offer consolation in the departure of death. Our technology runs the risk of becoming inhuman. Reconcile men with life and above all, we beseech you, watch carefully over the future of our race. Hold back the hand of man who, in a moment of folly, might attempt to destroy human civilization.
Wives, mothers of families, the first educators of the human race in the intimacy of the family circle, pass on to your sons and your daughters the traditions of your fathers at the same time that you prepare them for an unsearchable future. Always remember that by her children a mother belongs to that future which perhaps she will not see.
How beautiful is that?
And you, women living alone, realize what you can accomplish through your dedicated vocation. Society is appealing to you on all sides. Not even families can live without the help of those who have no families.
How sensitive an understanding of roles that was, and is.
Especially you, consecrated virgins, in a world where egoism and the search for pleasure would become law, be the guardians of purity, unselfishness and piety. Jesus who has given to conjugal love all its plenitudes, has also exalted the renouncement of human love when this is for the sake of divine love and for the service of all.
Lastly, women in trial, who stand upright at the foot of the cross like Mary, you who so often in history have given to men the strength to battle unto the very end and to give witness to the point of martyrdom, aid them now still once more to retain courage in their great undertakings, while at the same time maintaining patience and an esteem for humble beginnings.
What a profound statement of understanding, acknowledgement, appreciation and appeal this is, even in its brevity.
Women, you do know how to make truth sweet, tender and accessible, make it your task to bring the spirit of this council into institutions, schools, homes and daily life. Women of the entire universe, whether Christian or non-believing, you to whom life is entrusted at this grave moment in history, it is for you to save the peace of the world.
This needs to be recalled now. We are presently in the midst of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. Next Monday, my radio program will be dedicated to the proceedings of some lively, engaging, and intense meetings. And to giving voice to women who speak to the role of life giver, nurturer, caregiver, humanizer, peacemaker, and the witness of what Vatican II saw as “the vocation of woman…achieved in its fullness, the hour in which woman acquires in the world an influence, an effect and a power never hitherto achieved.”
Which beats the hell out of whatever socialists and communists intended by fabricating something like an international women’s day according to their designs.