By Naomi O'Leary
ROME (Reuters) - Pope Francis stressed the "fundamental" importance of women in the Roman Catholic Church on Wednesday, a message hailed as a significant shift from the position of his predecessor Benedict.
Supporters of liberal reform of the Church have called on it to give a greater voice to women and recognize their importance to the largest religious denomination in the world, and some groups call for women to be ordained as priests.
The head of the Women's Ordination Conference, which calls for women to be treated equally in the Church and to be allowed to become priests and bishops, said Francis's words were the most encouraging she had heard in her lifetime, but did not go far enough.
"While the pope was trying to be positive about women's role, where he's actually wrong is that women were actually disciples, like Mary Magdalene," WOC Executive Director Erin Saiz Hanna told Reuters.
"He said women are able to communicate Christ's words, but actually women can't preach so that's a false statement."
The Vatican says woman cannot be priests 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.
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 deem 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," Francis said.
The address 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 made prominent mention of women and urged believers not to fear change.
Francis'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.
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, said the pope's words marked a significant shift from the previous pope.
"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."
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 after a series of scandals at the heart of the Holy See that damaged the Church's reputation.
(Editing by Mark Heinrich)