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Women of the Early Church

2/15/2007 - 7:00 AM PST

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"The Feminine Presence Was in No Way Secondary"

VATICAN CITY, FEB. 15, 2007 (Zenit) - Here is a translation of the address Benedict XVI delivered at Wednesday's general audience. The Pope dedicated his talk to women who spread the Gospel in the early Church.

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Dear Brothers and Sisters:

We come today to the end of the journey among the witnesses of early Christianity, mentioned in the writings of the New Testament. And we take advantage of the last stage of this first journey to focus our attention on the many feminine figures who played an effective and precious role in spreading the Gospel.

Their testimony cannot be forgotten, in keeping with what Jesus himself said about the woman who anointed his head shortly before his passion: "Truly I say to you, wherever this Gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her" (Matthew 26:13; Mark 14:9).

The Lord wants these witnesses of the Gospel, these figures who have made their contribution so that faith in him would grow, to be known and their memory to remain alive in the Church. Historically we can distinguish the role of women in primitive Christianity, during Jesus' earthly life and during the vicissitudes of the first Christian generation.

Of course, as we know, Jesus chose 12 men among his disciples as fathers of the new Israel "to be with him, and to be sent out to preach" (Mark 3:14-15). This fact is obvious but, in addition to the Twelve, pillars of the Church, fathers of the new People of God, many women were also chosen and numbered among the disciples.

I can only mention briefly those who found themselves on the path of Jesus himself, beginning with the prophetess Anna (cf. Luke 2:36-38), coming then to the Samaritan woman (cf. John 4:1-39), the Syrophoenician woman (cf. Mark 7:24-30), the woman with the hemorrhage (cf. Matthew 9:20-22) and the forgiven woman sinner (cf. Luke 7:36-50).

Nor will I consider the protagonists of some of his effective parables, for example, the woman who makes the bread (Matthew 13:33), the woman who loses the silver coin (Luke 15:8-10), or the vexing widow before the judge (Luke 18:1-8).

More significant for our discussion are the women who played an active role in the context of Jesus' mission. Above all, our thoughts go naturally to the Virgin Mary, who with her faith and maternal endeavor collaborated in a unique way in our redemption, to the point that Elizabeth was able to call her "blessed among women" (Luke 1:42), adding: "Blessed is she who believed" (Luke 1:45).

Becoming a disciple of Christ, Mary manifested at Cana her complete trust in him (cf. John 2:5) and followed him to the foot of the cross, where she received a maternal mission from him for all his disciples of all times, represented by John (cf. John 19:25-27).

There are, moreover, several women who in different ways gravitated around the figure of Jesus with functions of responsibility. The women who followed Jesus to serve him with their properties are an eloquent example of this. Luke gives us some names: Mary of Magdala, Joanna, Susanna "and many others" (cf. Luke 8:2-3). Later, the Gospels tell us that the women, unlike the Twelve, did not abandon Jesus in the hour of his passion (cf. Matthew 27:56.61; Mark 15:40).

Outstanding among these women, in particular, is the Magdalene, who not only was present at the Passion, but also became the first witness and herald of the Risen One (cf. John 20:1,11-18). To Mary of Magdala, in fact, St. Thomas Aquinas dedicates the singular description "apostle of the apostles" ("apostolorum apostola"), dedicating a beautiful commentary to her: "Just as a woman had announced to the first man the words of death, so also a woman was the first to announce to the apostles the words of life" ("Super Ioannem," CAI publishers, Paragraph 2519).

Moreover, in the ambit of the early Church the feminine presence was in no way secondary. This is the case of the four daughters of "deacon" Philip, whose names are not mentioned, residents in Caesarea, all of them gifted, as St. Luke says, with the "gift of prophecy," that is, of the faculty to speak publicly under the action of the Holy Spirit (cf. Acts 21:9). The brevity of the news does not allow for more precise deductions.

We owe to St. Paul a more ample documentation on woman's dignity and ecclesial role. He begins with the fundamental principle, according to which, for the baptized "there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28), that is, all united in the same nature, though each one with specific functions (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:27-30).

The Apostle admits as something normal that woman can "prophesy" in the Christian community (1 Corinthians 11:5), ...

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