What shape will the role of women in the Church take under Pope Francis? As we celebrate Easter it is good to remember the role women played during the first Easter event.
Recall that the first to visit the tomb of Christ the early morning after Good Friday was Mary Magdalene together with other women. When they discovered the opened tomb, they rushed to report it to the disciples. The disciples did not believe them.
Also recall that the first person to whom Jesus appeared (after Mary the Mother of Jesus, the logical first person to whom he would appear, according to St. Ignatius) was Mary Magdalene. When she reported the event, the disciples did not believe.
It was probably the mindset of the time. Women were looked down upon. So Peter and John rushed to the tomb to check whether the women were merely hallucinating. They had to see for themselves. Men even then tended to marginalize women. But Christ did not.
And so on Easter Sunday we recall the encounter of the Risen Lord with Mary Magdalene. He expressed his appreciation of womanhood in one word: “Mary!” And Mary herself had only one Hebrew word to express what was in her heart: “Rabboni,” which means “Master.”
The marginalization of women continues to this day. The continuing dominance of men in their relationship with women finds expression in many ways. It comes out not only in sociological practices but even in laws. Male dominance assumes different forms in different cultures, more explicitly in some than in others.
The situation, however, has begun to change all over the world. And this, due in large part to women themselves who have awakened to the injustice of the situation and have not only courageously protested against it but have also launched campaigns for the recognition and protection of the rights of women. Some of them are in the forefront of political life all over the world.
The social teaching of the Church, especially in the last 10 years, has likewise reacted strongly against the discriminatory practices against women. Even as Church teaching continues to emphasize the important role of women in the family, the Church has likewise stressed the need for women to make a contribution not only to the work of the Church but also to public life.
The disciples on the first Easter day did not believe the women. Perhaps they were not even willing to listen to the women. This attitude continues. As one modern document puts it: “Many women feel that men simply do not listen to them. There is no substitute for such listening. More than anything else it will bring about change. Without listening, action in this area, no matter how well-intentioned, is likely to by-pass the real concerns of women and to confirm male condescension and reinforce male dominance.”
The Holy Father Pope John Paul II, on the occasion of the Beijing Conference on Women held in 1995, made some valuable statements on the subject. He began by thanking God “for the ‘mystery of woman and for every woman’—for all that constitutes the eternal treasure of her feminine dignity, for the ‘great works of God’ which throughout human history have been accomplished in and through her.” He followed this with words of gratitude to women: “Thank you, every woman, for the simple fact of being a woman! Through the insight which is so much a part of your womanhood you enrich the world’s understanding and help to make human relations more honest and authentic.”
He likewise lamented the injustices women have suffered: “Women’s dignity has often been unacknowledged and their prerogatives misrepresented; they have often been relegated to the margins of society and even reduced to servitude.” He even made a confession of guilt: “And if objective blame, especially in particular historical contexts, has belonged to not just a few members of the Church, for this I am truly sorry. May this regret be transformed, on the part of the whole Church, into a renewed commitment of fidelity to the Gospel vision…. Transcending the norms of his own culture, Jesus treated women with openness, respect, acceptance and tenderness.”
Last year, on the occasion of the Easter celebration, Benedict XVI said that that the role of women is fundamental in the Christian community. Reflecting on the role of women, he adverted to women as witnesses of the resurrection. He referred to it as something mysterious “not as something unreal, but as something beyond the reach of our knowledge—as a light so bright the eyes cannot bear it.” This event “transformed history and gave meaning to human existence.” “In those days, in Israel, women’s testimony could have no official legal value,” Joseph Ratzinger explained. But the angels entrusted this task to women, because “women had experienced a special bond with the Lord, which is crucial for the practical life of the Christian community, and this always, in every age, not only at the beginning of the Church’s pilgrim journey.”
Now the ball is in Pope Francis’ court. It is clear that the evolving attitude to women within the Church has its foundation in the early history of the Church. How much role will Pope Francis give to women specifically in the administrative task of the Church until now generally reserved, in their more important aspects, for men?