Women of the Early Church
"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), that is, pronounce herself openly under the influence of the Holy Spirit, on the condition that it is for the edification of the community and in a dignified manner. Therefore, the famous exhortation "the women should keep silence in the churches" must be relativized (1 Corinthians 14:34).
The much-discussed problem on the relationship between the first phrase -- women can prophesy in church -- and the other -- they cannot speak -- that is, the relationship between these two indications which are seemingly contradictory, we leave for the exegetes.
It is not something that must be discussed here. Last Wednesday we already met with Prisca, or Priscilla, wife of Aquila, who in two cases is mentioned surprisingly before her husband (cf. Acts 18:18; Romans 16:3): Both are described explicitly by Paul as his "sun-ergous," or collaborators (Romans 16:3).
There are other observations that must not be neglected. It is necessary to state, for example, that the brief Letter to Philemon is addressed by Paul also to a woman called "Apphia" (cf. Philemon 2). Latin and Syrian translations of the Greek text add to the name "Apphia" the description "soror carissima" (ibid.), and it must be said that in the community of Colossae they must have had an important role. In any case, she is the only woman mentioned by Paul among the recipients of one of his letters.
In other passages, the Apostle mentions a certain Phoebe whom he calls "diakonos" of the church of Cenchreae, the small port city east of Corinth (cf. Romans 16:1-2). Although at that time the title still did not have a specific ministerial value of a hierarchical character, it expresses a genuine exercise of responsibility on the part of this woman in favor of that Christian community.
Paul requests that she be received cordially and "help her in whatever she may require," and then adds: "For she has been a benefactor to many and to me as well." In the same epistolary context, the Apostle, with delicate lines recalls other names of women: a certain Mary, and then Tryphaena, Tryphosa and Persis, "beloved," as well as Julia, of whom he writes openly that they "have worked hard for you" or "have worked hard in the Lord" (Romans 16:6,12a,12b,15), thus underlining their intense ecclesial commitment.
Moreover, two women, called Euodia and Syntyche, are distinguished in the church of Philippi (Philippians 4:2): Paul's appeal to mutual agreement suggests that the two women carried out an important function within that community.
In sum, the history of Christianity would have developed very differently if the generous contribution of many women had not taken place. For this reason, as my venerated and beloved predecessor, John Paul II, wrote in the apostolic letter "Mulieris Dignitatem": "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" (No. 31).
As we see, the praise refers to women in the course of the history of the Church and is expressed in the name of the whole ecclesial community. We also join ourselves to this appreciation, giving thanks to the Lord because he leads his Church, from generation to generation, making use indistinctly of men and women, who are able to make their faith and baptism fruitful for the good of the whole ecclesial Body for the greater glory of God.
[At the end of the audience, the Pope greeted pilgrims in several languages. In English, he said:]
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Today, as we near the end of our reflections on the earliest Christian witnesses in the New Testament, we turn our attention to the women who played an important role in spreading the Good News. Above all, we remember the Virgin Mary, who cooperated in a unique way in our Redemption. As a faithful disciple of her Son, Mary manifested her complete trust in him at Cana. She received a special mission from him at the foot of the Cross to be the mother of all disciples. Others who assisted our Lord were Mary Magdalene -- the first to announce his Resurrection -- as well as Joanna, Susanna, and the sisters Mary and Martha. Saint Paul writes that in the early Church, it was normal for a woman to prophesy under the influence of the Holy Spirit (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:5). In his Letter to the Romans, Paul refers to Phoebe as diakonos, showing that she had a unique responsibility in the early Christian community. Indeed, the history of Christianity would have developed much differently if it were not for the generous contribution made by so many women. Today, let us give thanks to God who, through Baptism, continues to use the gifts of both men and women for the good of the entire Church.
I am pleased to welcome the many English-speaking pilgrims present, especially those from England, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Japan, and the United States of America. My special greetings go to the members of the National Catholic Committee on Scouting from the United States, to the representatives of the John Carroll Society from Washington, D.C., and to the students and faculty of the Ecumenical Institute of Bossey, Switzerland. Upon all of you I invoke God's blessings of peace and joy.
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