AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
The newly elected pope has made clear he wants to focus attention on the poor and the marginalized. And that has instilled great hope among many Catholic women. They hope this papacy will promote a greater role for them in the church.
A group of American nuns and Catholic women recently made a pilgrimage to Rome, to make their feelings heard. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli joined them as they visited sites that show women taking on leadership roles in early Christianity.
SISTER CAROLYN OSIEK: And the main north-south road, the cardo, went that way and the civic basilica was over there.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Sister Carolyn Osiek, a scholar of the role of women in early Christianity, is guiding the pilgrims through Ostia, the ancient port city of Rome. These excavations help illustrate how people lived in the early centuries of the first millennium, when worship was still relegated mostly to private homes. Ostia is the final stop on these American women's pilgrimage as they honor the many women who helped spread the faith at the dawn of Christianity. The pilgrims gather together on the steps of an old Roman theater, and sing a prayer song in which God is evoked in a feminine metaphor.
NUNS, WOMEN ON PILGRIMAGE: (Singing) Come Sofia, holy wisdom, gateway to eternity. Sacred source of all that is from long before earth came to be. In your womb...
POGGIOLI: Throughout the Mediterranean, inscriptions and images are found on tombstones, frescoes and mosaics that provide compelling evidence that women held leadership and ministerial roles in the early church; roles identical to those held by men as prophets, priests and deacons. These American pilgrims have visited catacombs, where frescoes show women being clothed in priestly vestments and celebrating the Eucharist.
SISTER CHRIS SHENK: So certainly in the first two centuries, we see women - at least, some parts of the early communities - holding co-equal roles with men.
POGGIOLI: Sister Chris Shenk is executive director of the Catholic group FutureChurch, which organized the pilgrimage. She says everything changed after the year 313, when women were pushed out of the public arena and lost their roles as officeholders.
SHENK: After Constantine made Christianity legal, worship moved from the house church into the basileia, the basilicas. And it became a public space where women's leadership was not as accepted because of the cultural norms of the time. And so around that time, you see more and more suppression of women in leadership roles.
POGGIOLI: These pilgrims have also came to this ancient site to offer their individual prayers.
SHENK: We pray.
NUNS, WOMEN ON PILGRIMAGE: Jesus, prophet of wisdom, lead and guide us...
SHENK: That all women may find their voice, and realize its value.
NUNS, WOMEN ON PILGRIMAGE: Jesus, prophet of...
POGGIOLI: Sister Shenk.
SHENK: Part of the power of our pilgrimage is that women's experience is validated not only in seeing women leaders in church archaeology, but it's also validated in prayer and often women do not experience that.
POGGIOLI: The pilgrimage ended with an encounter at the Vatican, where some 25,000 signed postcards and open letters were handed over, asking Church officials to help resolve the growing problem of the worldwide shortage of priests by allowing celibacy for men to be optional and by letting women once again be deacons.
Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.