As 115 cardinals begin the process of choosing the next pope, there is growing unrest among those calling for gender equality within the Roman Catholic Church.

Among those gathering at the Vatican this week are protesters who say the time has come to allow female priests and elevate women’s roles within the church.

“It’s been the belief, the tradition of the church…that since Jesus appointed 12 men, there’s something about men that predisposes them to this ministry,” said Josephine Lombardi of the Toronto School of Theology.

But critics say barring women from priesthood has no place in today’s society and the new pope needs to put a stop to the centuries-old discrimination.

“Who are we to reject God’s call of women to the priesthood?” one priest said.

There was a time when Catholic women couldn’t participate in mass, sing in choirs or even touch the cloth on a church altar. Now, there are female chaplains, Eucharistic ministers and Catholic scholars. A large proportion of Catholic school teachers are women.

But Benedict XVI, who retired last month, followed his predecessors’ footsteps and refused to allow women to be ordained.

A recent U.S. survey found that 52 per cent of Catholics believe the church is out of touch with parishioners. More than 60 per cent said the church needs to change its stance on the ordination of women, as well as the ban on contraception and marriage for priests.

It’s believed that more than 200 Catholic women worldwide have been secretly ordained and then quickly excommunicated.

Therese Koturbash, a Canadian who is fighting the church’s position on female priests, says Catholics must challenge the status quo.

“The interesting thing is, if you are a woman who is ordained you are immediately excommunicated. I still haven’t heard of a pedophile priest who has been excommunicated,” she said.

Koturbash said she and her group will release pink smoke on Tuesday as the conclave begins. It’s a sign of protest she hopes will send a message to the new leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics.

A Vatican spokesperson told reporters last week that the role of women in the church was discussed during the cardinals’ pre-conclave meetings, but no details were offered.

With a report from CTV’s Jill Macyshon