REGISTER SUMMARY Pope Benedict XVI met with more than 20,000 pilgrims during his Feb. 14 general audience, greeting pilgrims first of all in St. Peter’s Basilica and then in the Paul VI Hall. During his catechesis, he spoke about the role that women played in the early history of the Church. “The history of Christianity would have developed very differently if it were not for the generous contribution of many women,” Benedict said, adding his appreciation to that of Pope John Paul II for the “feminine genius.”
Dear brothers and sisters,
Today we have come to the end of the journey among those witnesses of early Christianity that are mentioned in the New Testament. We will take advantage of this last stage of this first journey to focus our attention on the many women who played an effective and valuable role in spreading the Gospel.
Their testimony cannot be forgotten, as Jesus himself said about the woman who anointed him on the head shortly before his passion: “Amen, I say to you, wherever this Gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be spoken of, in memory of her” (Matthew 26:13; Mark 14:9).
The Lord wants these witnesses to the Gospel — these people who have made a contribution so that faith in him might grow — to be known and their memory to remain alive in the Church. From a historical perspective, we can observe the role of women within early Christianity during Jesus’ life on earth and in the events that mark the first generation of Christianity.
Women Were Also Chosen
As we know, Jesus chose 12 men from among his disciples to be fathers of the new Israel so that “they might be with him and he might send them forth to preach” (Mark 3:14-15). This fact is obvious but, in addition to the Twelve, who are pillars of the Church and fathers of the new people of God, many women were also chosen from among his many disciples. I can mention only very briefly those whom we encounter along Jesus’ path, beginning with the prophetess Anna (see Luke 2:36-38) and followed by the Samaritan woman (see John 4:1-39), the Syrophoenician woman (see Mark 7:24-30), the woman with the hemorrhage (see Matthew 9:20-22) and the sinful woman whom he forgave (see Luke 7:36-50), not to forget the main characters of some of the parables that are so helpful to us, as, for example, the woman who makes bread (Matthew 13:33), the woman who loses the silver coin (Luke 15:8-10), or the persistent widow who pleads before the judge (Luke 18:1-8).
For the purpose of our discussion, the women who played an active role within the context of Jesus’ mission are more significant. Of course, we think, first of all, of the Virgin Mary, who, through her faith and her motherly activity, collaborated in a unique way for our redemption, to the point that Elizabeth was able to call her “blessed among women” (Luke 1:42), adding that “blessed is she who believed” (Luke 1:45).
Having become a disciple of Christ, Mary manifested her complete trust in him at Cana (see John 2:5) and followed him to the foot of the cross where she received from him her mission as a mother for all his disciples throughout the ages, whom John represented (see John 19:25-27).
‘Apostle of the Apostles’
Then, there are various women with areas of responsibilities who gravitated around Jesus in different ways. The women who followed Jesus and helped out with their possessions provide an eloquent example of this. Luke has given us some names: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna “and many others” (see Luke 8:2-3). Later on, the Gospels tell us that the women, unlike the Twelve Apostles, did not abandon Jesus at the time of his passion (see Matthew 27:56, 61; Mark 15:40). In particular, Mary Magdalene stands out among them since she was not only present at the Passion but was also the first witness and the first herald of the risen Christ (see John 20:1, 11-18).
Indeed, St. Thomas Aquinas bestows the special title of “apostle of the apostles” (apostolorum apostola) upon Mary Magdalene, dedicating this beautiful commentary to her: “Just as a woman had announced to the first man the words of death, so too a woman was the first to announce to the apostles the words of life” (Super Ioannem, ed. CAI, 2519).
Moreover, within the early Church the presence of women was by no means of secondary importance. This was the case of the four daughters of Philip the “deacon,” whose names are not mentioned but who resided in Caesarea and were all gifted, as St. Luke tells us, with “prophecy,” the ability to speak publicly under the anointing of the Holy Spirit (see Acts 21:9). The brevity of this information does not allow us to make any more precise deductions.
We owe to St. Paul more ample documentation on the dignity of women and the role of women within the Church. He begins with a fundamental principle according to which for baptized people “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28); all are joined together in the same basic dignity, though each one with specific functions (see 1 Corinthians 12:27-30).
The Apostle admits that it is normal for a woman to “prophesy” within the Christian community (1 Corinthians 11:5), that is, to speak openly under the influence of the Holy Spirit, provided that it is for the edification of the community and that it is done in a dignified manner. Therefore, the famous exhortation that follows, “women should keep silent in the churches” (1 Corinthians 14:34) must be understood in a relative way. We will leave the much-discussed problem that ensues on the relationship between the first remark, women can prophesy in church, and the second remark, that they cannot speak — the relationship between these two remarks seems to be contradictory — to the exegetes. It is not something to discuss here.
Last Wednesday we already encountered Prisca, or Priscilla, the wife of Aquila, who, in two cases, is, surprisingly, mentioned before her husband (see Acts 18:18; Romans 16:3): Paul explicitly describes both as his sun-ergoús, or collaborators (Romans 16:3).
There are some other observations that we should mention. We should note, for example, that Paul also addresses his brief Letter to Philemon to a woman called “Apphia” (see Philemon 2). The Latin and Syrian translations of the Greek text add the descriptive phrase of soror carissima (beloved sister) to the name “Apphia” (ibid.) and we should also note that she must have had an important role in the community of Colossae. In any case, she is the only woman that St. Paul mentions as a recipient of one of his letters. Elsewhere, the apostle mentions a certain Phoebe whom he describes as a diákonos (deacon) of the church in Cenchreae, a small port east of Corinth (see Romans 16:1-2).
Although the title did not have a specific ministerial value of a hierarchical nature at the time, it expresses the fact that this woman truly exercised genuine responsibility within that Christian community. Paul requests that she be welcomed cordially, that they “help her in whatever she may need” and then adds: “For she has been a benefactor to many and to me as well.”
Within that same letter, the apostle considerately recalls the names of other women —Mary, Tryphaena, Tryphosa, the “beloved” Persis, and Julia — whom he openly describes as having “worked hard for you” or as having “worked hard in the Lord” (Romans 16:6,12a,12b,15), thereby highlighting their strong commitment to the Church. Moreover, we have to single out two women in the Church of Philippi called Euodia and Syntyche (Philippians 4:2): Paul’s appeal to them to come to a mutual understanding suggests that the two women played an important role within that community.
In summary, the history of Christianity would have developed very differently if it were not for the generous contribution of many women. For this reason, as my venerated and beloved predecessor, John Paul II, wrote in his apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem (The Dignity and Vocation of Women), “Therefore, the Church gives thanks for each and every woman. ... The Church gives thanks for all the manifestations of the feminine ‘genius’ which have appeared in the course of history, in the midst of all peoples and nations; she gives thanks for all the charisms which the Holy Spirit distributes to women in the history of the People of God, for all the victories which she owes to their faith, hope and charity: She gives thanks for all the fruits of feminine holiness” (Mulieris Dignitatem, 31).
As we see, his praise pertains to women throughout the course of the history of the Church and is expressed in the name of the entire ecclesial community. We, too, join with him in expressing this appreciation, giving thanks to the Lord because he leads his Church, generation after generation, making use without any distinction of those men and women who are able to make their faith and baptism fruitful for the benefit of the entire Church body and for the greater glory of God.