* Pope Francis says women have special mission in Church
* Pontiff has repeated theme over Easter celebrations
* Catholic groups seek greater role of women in Church
By Naomi O'Leary
ROME, April 3 (Reuters) - Pope Francis emphasised the "fundamental" importance of women in the Roman Catholic Church on Wednesday, saying they were the first witnesses of Christ and have a special role in spreading the faith.
The pontiff's decision a week ago to include women in a traditional foot-washing ritual drew ire from traditionalists, who see the custom as a re-enactment of Jesus washing the feet of his apostles and said it should therefore be limited to men.
Francis, elected last month as the first non-European pope in 1,300 years, said women had always had a special mission in the Church as "first witnesses" of Christ's resurrection, and because they pass belief onto their children and grandchildren.
"In the Church, and in the journey of faith, women have had and still have a special role in opening doors to the Lord," Francis told thousands of pilgrims at his weekly audience in S. Peter's Square.
He said that in the Bible, women were not recorded as witnesses to Christ's resurrection because of the Jewish Law of the time that did not consider women or children to be reliable witnesses.
"In the Gospels, however, women have a primary, fundamental role ... The evangelists simply narrate what happened: the women were the first witnesses. This tells us that God does not choose according to human criteria."
See the pope's full address here: (http://www.news.va/en/news/audience-the-fundamental-role-of-women-in-the-chur).
It was the second time Francis had spoken of women's role as witnesses to the resurrection of Christ, a subject of bedrock importance to the Catholic faith.
His Easter Vigil address on Saturday reached out to women and urged believers not to fear change.
"This is very encouraging," said Marinella Perroni, a theologian and leading member of the Association of Italian Women Theologians, which promotes female experts on religion and their visibility in the Church.
"Pope Francis is taking up, with a stronger emphasis, the teaching of previous popes about the role of women in the foundation of faith and the resurrection of Jesus," Perroni told Reuters.
"The fact that the Pope acknowledges that the progressive removal of female figures from the tradition of the resurrection...is due to human judgments, distant from those of God...introduces a decidedly new element compared to the previous papacy."
Supporters of liberal reform of the Church have called on the institution to give a greater voice to women and recognise their importance to the largest religious denomination in the world.
Some groups call for women to be ordained as priests, which the Vatican says is wrong as Jesus Christ willingly chose only men as his apostles. Advocates of a female priesthood reject this position, saying Jesus was merely conforming to the customs of his times.
The election of Francis, an Argentinian, last month came in the wake of another break with tradition when predecessor Pope Benedict became one of the few pontiffs in history to resign.
His 76-year old successor has set a new tone for the papacy, earning a reputation for simplicity by shunning some ornate items of traditional dress, using informal language in his addresses, and so far choosing to live in a simple residence rather than the regal papal apartments.
Sources inside the Vatican have said Francis could reform the Vatican's bureaucracy and restructure or even close down the Vatican's bank following a series of scandals at the heart of the Holy See that damaged the Church's reputation. (Reporting by Naomi O'Leary; Editing by Mark Heinrich)
Dr. Ingrid Mattson is Professor of Islamic Studies, founder of the Islamic Chaplaincy Program and director of the Macdonald Center for Islamic Studies and Christian-Muslim Relations at Hartford Seminary in Hartford, CT. She earned her Ph.D. in Islamic Studies from the University of Chicago in 1999. From 2006-2010 she served as President of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA); she previously served two terms as Vice-President. She is the first woman elected to those positions. Dr. Mattson was born in Canada, where she studied Philosophy and Fine Arts at the University of Waterloo, Ontario (B.A. '87). From 1987-1988 she lived in Pakistan where she developed and implemented a midwife-training program for Afghan refugee women.
The Most Rev. Dr. Katharine Jefferts Schori was elected Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in June 2006. She serves as Chief Pastor and Primate to the Episcopal Church's members in 16 countries and 110 dioceses. She joins with other principal bishops of the 38 member Provinces of the worldwide Anglican Communion, seeking to make common cause for global good and reconciliation. Over the course of her nine-year term, Bishop Jefferts Schori is responsible for initiating and developing policy for the Episcopal Church and speaks on behalf of this Church regarding the policies, strategies, and programs authorized by General Convention. She has been vocal about the Episcopal Church's mission priorities, including the United Nation Millennium Development Goals, issues of domestic poverty, climate change, and care for the earth, as well as the ongoing need to contextualize the gospel.
Rev. Dr. Sharon E. Watkins serves as General Minister and President of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the United States and Canada. As General Minister, she is general pastor of the 700,000-member denomination, responsible for representing the wholeness of the church, for reconciling differences, and for helping the church retain its clarity of mission and identity. As General President, she is the chief executive officer for the denomination, responsible for overseeing the work of the church's various structures. She holds a Doctor of Ministry degree from Phillips Theological Seminary, a Master of Divinity from the Yale Divinity School, and a Bachelor's Degree in French and Economics from Butler University.
Sharon Salzberg has been a student of Buddhism since 1971, and has led meditation classes and retreats worldwide since 1974. She teaches both intensive awareness practice (insight meditation) and the profound cultivation of lovingkindness and compassion in a non-sectarian, inclusive framework. She is a co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts and The Barre Center for Buddhist Studies. Her newest book, Real Happiness, The Power of Meditation: A 28-Day Program was published in January 2011. She is also the author of The Force of Kindness, Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience, Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness and A Heart as Wide as the World, and co-author with Joseph Goldstein of Insight Meditation: a Step-by-Step Course on How to Meditate.
Ruth Messinger is the president and executive director of American Jewish World Service (AJWS), an international development organization providing support to more than 200 grassroots social change projects in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. Ms. Messinger is also a visiting professor at Hunter College, teaching urban policy and politics. Prior to assuming her position at AJWS in 1998, Ms. Messinger was in public service in New York City for 20 years. She served 12 years in the New York City Council and eight years as Manhattan borough president. She was the first woman to secure the Democratic Party's nomination for major in 1997. Among her numerous accolades, Ms. Messinger has been named one of the 50 most influential Jews of the year by the Forward for the last five years. Ms. Messinger graduated from Radcliffe College and received a Master of Social Work from the University of Oklahoma in 1964.
Rev. Joyce Meyer is one of the world's leading practical Bible teachers. A New York Times bestselling author, her books have helped millions of people find hope and restoration through Jesus Christ. Through Joyce Meyer Ministries, she teaches on hundreds of subjects and has authored over 80 books, which have been translated into over 80 different languages. More than 12 million of her books have been distributed around the world, and in 2007 more than 3.2 million copies were sold. Joyce holds a PhD in theology from Life Christian University in Tampa, Florida; an honorary doctorate in divinity from Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma; and an honorary doctorate in sacred theology from Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, Arizona.
The Rev. Dr. Suzan D. Johnson Cook is a United States Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, pastor, author, and presidential advisor. She has had a distinguished career in public service, having served as a White House fellow on the Domestic Policy Council and worked with a Cabinet Secretary. She participated in the historic Obama Presidential inauguration at the National Cathedral. Rev. Suzan Cooks is also the president and CEO of Charisma Speakers Inc. She was a television producer with NBC and ABC and also served with CBS. She is the author of three bestsellers, Moving Up, Live Like You're Blessed and Sister Strength.
Sister Carol Keehan is the ninth president and chief executive officer of the Catholic Health Association of the United States (CHA). She assumed her duties as of October 2005. Sister Carol has worked in administrative and governance positions at hospitals sponsored by the Daughters of Charity for more than 35 years. Sister Carol has held influential roles in the government of a variety of health care, insurance, and educational organizations. She is a representative to the International Federal of Catholic Health Care Associations (AISAC) of the Pontifical Council for Pastoral Health Care and serves on the board of Catholic Relief Services, Baltimore.
Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum serves as the spiritual leader of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah (CBST) also known as the LGBT synagogue, and is regarded as one of the most important rabbis in America. Under her leadership, CBST has become an important voice in Judaism, in the worldwide discourse on the nature of religious community, and in the movement to secure basic civil rights for gay people everywhere. Prior to joining CBST, Rabbi Kleinbaum was Director of Congregational Relations at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington, DC, from 1990-92. Rabbi Kleinbaum is a recipient of the Jewish Fund for Justice Woman of Valor Award. She is a graduate of the Frisch Yeshiva High School and Barnard College and was ordained by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.
Anju Bhargava is the only Hindu American appointed to President Obama's Inaugural Advisory Council on Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships and was the only Indian-American to serve in the Community Builder Fellowship, President Clinton's White House initiative. She is the Founder of Hindu American Seva Charities, which is now becoming a national movement for Hindu faith-based community service programs addressing social issues. A Vedantic teacher, she strives to combine philosophy and practice from a contemporary view and is active in interfaith collaboration. She was a founding member of the New Jersey Corporate Diversity Network, is the President of Asian Indian Women in America (AIWA) and a Trustee of Council for a Parliament of World Religions.