(Pope Francis gestures as he speaks during the weekly general audience in Saint Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican April 3, 2013. REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini)

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.