Pilgrims Trace Women's Role in Early Church American Catholic women visit Rome to see frescoes and mosaics that provide historical evidence of female church leadership dating back to the ninth century. Their findings challenge the official Vatican stance on the issue.
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Pilgrims Trace Women's Role in Early Church

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Pilgrims Trace Women's Role in Early Church

Pilgrims Trace Women's Role in Early Church

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According to the gospels, after Jesus was arrested women disciples accompanied him to the foot of the cross and were the first witnesses to the resurrection. Women continued to play prominent roles in early Christianity, although official church doctrine often downplays the part of women. Earlier this month, a group of 31 American Catholic women visited Rome. They went to trace the archeological evidence of the roles once held by women, despite official Vatican denials.

NPR's Sylvia Poggioli joined them and has this report.


One of the first sites on the itinerary was the small church of St. Praxedes, an early Christian female figure. Dorothy Irvin pointed to a large mosaic of St. Paul resting his arm on St. Praxedes' shoulder.

Ms. DOROTHY IRVIN (Archeologist): What is St. Paul doing?

Unidentified Woman: (Unintelligible)

Ms. IRVIN: Yeah. Is that something? Why?

Unidentified Woman: Companionship.

Ms. IRVIN: He really appreciates the values of women. He acknowledges them as teachers.

POGGIOLI: Irving holds a pontifical doctorate in Catholic theology and is also an active field archeologist.

Ms. IRVIN: What about his cousin, his kinswoman? What's her name?

Unidentified Woman: Junia.

Ms. IRVIN: And what does he call Junia as a title?

Unidentified Woman: Apostle.

Ms. IRVIN: He calls her an apostle. Now, if Paul says she's an apostle, who are we to argue?

Unidentified Woman #1: Right.

POGGIOLI: Irvin led her group to a massive marble slab covered with inscription.

Ms. IRVIN: Can you read that phrase?

Unidentified Woman: Theodora.

Ms. IRVIN: Yeah. Theodore, ethiscope(ph), that is of Theodora the Bishop.

POGGIOLI: The group moved into a small side chapel, where a 9th century mosaic depicted three women with round halos: the Virgin Mary, St. Praxedes and St. Prudenciana(ph). Irving explained why the fourth woman's head is framed by a square.

Ms. IRVIN: She's still alive when her picture's made. And who is she?

Unidentified Woman: Bishop Theodora.

Ms. IRVIN: And she is the mother of Pope Pascal I. Some people say, well, that's what they call pope's mothers. They give them honorary titles as bishop. Do you know of any parallels to that?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Woman: Mother of God.

POGGIOLI: This pilgrimage was organized by the American Catholic group FutureChurch. It included visits to catacomb sites with ancient frescoes of women being clothed in priestly vestments and celebrating the Eucharist. Inscriptions and images found on tombstones, frescoes and mosaics throughout the Mediterranean provide compelling evidence that women held leadership and ministerial roles in the early church identical to those held by men, as apostles, prophets, teachers of theology, priests, deacons and bishops.

Unidentified Woman: But the question is, why is all this evidence denied?

Unidentified Woman #2: It's a power thing. I mean, there'd be so much power to lose.

Unidentified Woman #3: The implications are too political for power, shared power.

Unidentified Woman #1: Everything would be just totally upside down. There'd have to massive change, massive change.

Unidentified Woman #2: But it could be very enriching.

Unidentified Woman #1: Oh, of course, of course, of course, very creative.

Unidentified Woman #3: We all long for it.

Unidentified Woman #1: Yeah.

POGGIOLI: Those were Marie Sweeney(ph), Rosemarie Gandley(ph) and Kay Fennel(ph). Sister Christine Schenk, co-leader of the pilgrimage, said the church shift away from women began in the fourth century.

Sister CHRISTINE SCHENK (Co-Leader of Rome Pilgrimage): It was at the Council of Laodicea where there was suppression of women priests. And they were suppressed not because they were not orthodox, but because of the belief that women were subordinate to men.

POGGIOLI: And that belief continues to the present day. The visit to Rome's early Christian sites had a profound impact on the pilgrims. Marie Sweeney, a former nun, said it inspired her to be even more active in her house church.

Ms. MARIE SWEENEY (Member of FutureChurch): That means that there are faithful and dissident Catholics gathering together in people's homes to celebrate Eucharist, to pray, to encourage each other, to be involved in their ministerial work beyond that prayer.

POGGIOLI: It sort of sounds like you're going back to the catacombs.

Ms. SWEENEY: Yes, we are. We're going back to our roots.

POGGIOLI: Before coming on the pilgrimage, Patricia Straw Wheatley(ph) had been weary about joining religious groups outside of the official church.

Ms. PATRICIA STRAW WHEATLEY (Member of FutureChurch): I needed to see the historical background before I could do anything with the underground activities. Now it's real and I am incredibly excited.

POGGIOLI: And Sister Schenk has a simple but precise goal.

Sister SCHENK: We would just like to talk to our leaders and tell them of our experience, how we can begin to re-institute that wonderful balanced leadership that we had in the first three centuries of both women and men leading the communities.

POGGIOLI: The visit to St. Praxedes ended with prayer and song.

Unidentified Woman: All are welcome to gather and to give praise and thanks for the women who have gone before us. St. Praxedes.

Women: (In unison) Pray for us.

Unidentified Woman: St. Prudenciana.

Women: (In unison) Pray for us.

Unidentified Woman: Bishop Theodora.

Women: (In unison) Pray for us.

Unidentified Woman: St. Clare of Assisi.

Women: (In unison) Pray for us.

Women: (Singing) In the name of Jesus (unintelligible) in unity. Let us (unintelligible)...

POGGIOLI: Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

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