Last week, on a visit to his old apartment a few blocks from the Vatican, the newly-elected Benedict XVI wished to inform those gathered outside his door that he was working on his installation homily and would be immersed in drafting it for some time. Tellingly, the messenger he sent was not his priest-secretary nor the Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls, but his housekeeper, Ingrid Stampa.Having delivered the message, Stampa-long known in Rome as the new pope's trusted friend, collaborator and "right-hand woman"-went back inside and helped craft Benedict's cry that "the church is alive, and the church is young." Are we witnessing the beginning of a Benedictine reform? The new pope's first days have seen several moves intended not only to set the tone of his pontificate, but to assuage the anxieties of progressive Catholics nervous about the swift election of arch-conservative "Panzerkardinal" Joseph Ratzinger. One of the most reassuring signs of his personal stamp on the office is taking place away from the public gaze. In an unprecedented move, Benedict has tapped Stampa, a 55-year-old German laywoman and academic who has served as his live-in personal assistant since 1991, to bring her counsel, support, and "brain trust" role to Catholicism's most hallowed corridor of power. Stampa, who has never married, is a lay affiliate of the Schoenstatt Sisters of Mary, a group founded in 20th century Germany which, according to its publications, is dedicated to forming "a community of lay leaders in the Church and secular spheres." Wire reports have characterized Stampa solely as "the housekeeper." But given the Pope's reliance on her as his all-access confidante, the better analogy is to see Stampa as Karen Hughes to Benedict's President Bush. While she has served as Ratzinger's domestic-a role which she took up on the death of his sister and trusted counsel, Maria-she was never just a cook and clerk for Ratzinger. On the contrary, Stampa-a former professor at the conservatory of Hamburg who speaks at least three languages and has an advanced degree in ancient music-ghostwrites and translates for him. She will now serve Benedict XVI as the first member of the papacy's inner circle, just as John Paul II's secretary of four decades, Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, did for the late pontiff. More likely than not, she will function as the pope's eyes and ears in those places he can't directly go, and provide priceless "backdoor" access to Benedict XVI to people who would normally be hindered by the Vatican bureaucracy.
Despite the authoritarian reputation which led him to be known as "The Enforcer" and "Cardinal No," Ratzinger is a firm believer in empowering his close counselors and seeking their advice. As with all his aides, the woman known in Rome as "the Pope's collaborator" has her boss' blessing to speak to the press on-record in his name. (Over four decades, Stanislaw Dziwisz spoke rarely and in spurts for John Paul II outside the Vatican walls, leaving that task to Navarro-Valls.) For an institution that sees a century as fleeting, one month has elevated the role of women in the church light years beyond the Polish nuns who washed the dishes and made the beds for Benedict's predecessor. As one would expect, "Gli Uomini del Papa"-"The Pope's Men"--are almost exclusively priests and bishops. While lacking formal titles, they handle the pope's most sensitive tasks and answer solely to him as opposed to going through the Roman chain of command. Before Stampa, the sole exception to the men-only standard was the German nun Mother Pasqualina Lehnert, whose tight-fisted control over Pope Pius XII earned her the moniker "La Papessa"-"The Popess." By appointing the first laywoman in the Vatican's long history to enjoy a Pope's daily confidences with a strong voice over his schedule and activities, Benedict is not only holding to his policy of keeping the best, brightest, and most honest aides around him. With this move, the Pope has sent a strong indicator of support for those who have called for greater inclusion of rank-and-file Catholics, particularly women, in the Church's daily life and administration at all levels. It's a cause which, traditionally, belongs more to an activist group like the Voice of the Faithful than Benedict's conservative base. For centuries, women working for the Catholic Church-often in rectories and chancery offices-seemed destined to function solely as cooks, clerks or, more recently, public relations mouthpieces. Though women do hold positions of influence in some dioceses-in the US, for example, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver and Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, DC, have long relied on laywomen serving as top-tier aides-critics charge that the lack of non-clerical perspectives hobble the Church in ways which have been beyond damaging. Some believe that the impenetrable circle of clerics in the Church's corridors of power had much to do with enabling the cover-up of clerical sexual abuse. Benedict's eagerness to keep Stampa in his employ might signal that he is not as cold to lay input as some progressives have feared. In fact, one of the most enthusiastic responses at the news of Benedict's election came from Illinois Appeals Court Justice Anne Burke, until recently the chair of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' National Lay Review Board. Having spent hours in meetings with the then-Cardinal Ratzinger-whose Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is the Vatican's point-office for abuse cases-Burke lauded Benedict's openness in a wire interview after his election. "He wanted unfiltered information from members of the laity who had no agenda," she said. Even before the cardinals were released from the Conclave, Ingrid Stampa's boss called her to his side. As she wept at the sight of an old friend in his new robes, he told her, "Let us together follow the will of God." On the Catholic calendar, April 29 is the feast of St. Catherine of Siena, the fearless 14th century mystic who broke through the papal court and single-handedly persuaded Pope Gregory XI to buck the advice of his cardinals and restore the Holy See to its place in Rome after seventy-three years of exile in Avignon, a period Italians call the papacy's "Babylonian captivity."
By inviting Stampa-who could well be his Catherine-to join in his new mission, at the dawn of a new era in the Catholic church, a Pope seen as arch-conservative has sounded a clarion call for openness and change from the top-a sign to the world, and his own bishops, that a woman's place isn't just at the heart of the church, but its head as well.