At Easter Sunday Mass, Only Half the Easter Story

Here comes Easter. Here, too, comes another opportunity for the U.S. bishops to disprove the accusation, long raging in the public square, that the Church fathers suppressed the truth of women's leadership in the early Church and do so to this day.
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Here comes Easter. Here, too, comes another opportunity for the U.S. bishops to disprove the accusation, long raging in the public square, that the Church fathers suppressed the truth of women's leadership in the early Church and do so to this day. Once again, that opportunity will be missed.

Indeed, the Church hierarchy makes no effort whatsoever to spread the news of the archaeological evidence of women's ministerial roles in the early and evolving church, roles that pose a direct challenge to the Scripturally and theologically bankrupt ban on women's ordination as priests and deacons. Today, archaeologist and Catholic theologian Dorothy Irvin travels the globe uncovering and publicizing such evidence. It includes frescos and mosaics that show Christian women being vested, ordained and celebrating Eucharist in the early church, as well as tomb inscriptions attesting to those roles. It is not the Catholic Church hierarchy that sponsors tours to these sites but a progressive reform organization called FutureChurch. One such tour, led by FutureChurch director Sister Christine Schenk and joined briefly by NPR's Sylvia Poggioli, just returned from Rome.

The U.S. bishops' collection of Scripture passages that are read at Mass, based on the standard Vatican lectionary, further obscure women's roles in the early church. Those roles, again, challenge the ordination ban. As revealed by women scholars, Catholics never hear at a Sunday Mass the list of women leaders recognized by Paul in his letter to the Romans (16: 1-16). Most notably, those women include "our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the Church in Cenchreae," and "Junia...prominent among the apostles." Junia, in fact, morphed into Junias, a man, until the research of Catholic theologian Bernadette Brooten--Brandeis University professor of Christian Studies and 1998 recipient of a MacArthur Foundation "genius" award--restored Junia to her rightful gender. That discovery was made official with the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible in 1989. Still, only Catholics who make it to Saturday Mass--and only every other year--will hear about Junia, who stands as a direct contradiction to the Church's contention that there were only male apostles. And Catholics never hear about Phoebe at any Mass at all.

And then there's Easter. There is no question but that Mary Magdalene was the first witness to Jesus' empty tomb. There, Jesus personally charged her with delivering the Gospel message of his Resurrection to his brothers, a call to ministry if ever there was one, which is as close as Jesus ever gets to anything resembling "ordination." Yet, at Easter Sunday mass, no U.S. Catholic will hear about that intimate encounter between Jesus and Mary Magdalene (John 20: 11-18), where Magdalene sits weeping until Jesus appears. What they will hear about are two male apostles racing to the empty tomb, with the reading ending abruptly where the Magadene passage begins.

But how's this for irony: Even if the Gospel passage where Jesus charges Magdalene with delivering the Word were designated for Easter Sunday mass, no Roman Catholic woman would be allowed to read it or preach a homily about it--again, because women cannot be ordained.

In defending their claim to an "unbroken" tradition of male priests, the Church fathers also neatly erase more recent women, like Ludmila Javorova. In 1970, the late Bishop Felix Davidek ordained Javorova a Catholic priest in the underground church in Communist-occupied Czechoslovakia. She served as a priest and vicar-general of a branch of the underground Czech church for twenty years, until communism fell. Then, the Vatican repudiated her ordination and banned her ministry. In the late 1990s, Hartford Seminary theology professor Sister Miriam Therese Winter visited Javorova in Brno and wrote an authorized biography about her (which won a Catholic Press Association award), while the Women's Ordination Conference brought Javorova to the U.S. for a private tour.

By denigrating efforts to spotlight the truth about women's place in the early Church as well as threatening to excommunicate--or actually excommunicating--anyone who dares to challenge the indefensible ban on women's ordination, the Church fathers continue to obfuscate, manipulate, and deny that truth. Catholic women, however, are promoting, publicizing, and in their support for the Roman Catholic women priests' ordination movement, embracing that truth. They know, even if the Church fathers do not, that the integrity, indeed the very survival of the future Church, depend on it.