This handout picture released on Nov 5, 2021 by Vatican Media shows Pope Francis greeting Franciscan sister Raffaella Petrini, who was appointed on Nov 4, 2021 as the new secretary-general of the governorate, making her the first woman to ever hold the post. (Photo by Handout: VATICAN MEDIA/AFP)
Pope Francis has appointed three women as members of the Dicastory of Bishops, the body that coordinates recommendations to the pope regarding candidates for episcopal appointments as well as other matters pertaining to bishops throughout the world. This is the first time in history that women have officially been assigned a position of such importance (and authority?) in the Catholic Church.
Of course, it remains to be seen if they will in fact have any impact upon the working of the dicastory or are doomed to merely be decorative sops tossed to those who like Pope Francis advocate more meaningful and essential roles for women in the administration of the Church.
Will this be the Roman beginning of a process already begun in some dioceses and parishes where the involvement of women in the central administration of the Church will one day be normal? Pope Francis may intend this as a beginning, but popes die and the Roman curia is to all intents and purposes (especially its own) immortal and generally unmoveable.
Perhaps this will mark the reversal of a history of marginalizing the female majority of Catholics. It is certainly overdue. The People of God have had to wait nearly two millennia for a return to the mind of Jesus.
In the story about Jesus in the home of Martha and Mary, Mary’s posture is key to understanding not only the account, but a sign of an important point about those whom Christ calls. According to Luke, Mary “sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak.”
"For a woman to be occupying the position of a full disciple was a radical challenge to the society in which Jesus lived"
The difference between Martha and Mary has been used to contrast the so-called “active” life with a life of quiet contemplation, especially for women. It supposedly shows that passive attentiveness, symbolized by Mary, is more appropriate to women than action, epitomized by Martha.
But, the story is not about that. To see what Jesus was doing in that house we need not concern ourselves with dinner preparations. We must look at Mary’s posture.
She was sitting at the feet of Jesus.
In the world in which Jesus lived and taught, that posture had a special meaning, a meaning that those who saw it and those who originally read Luke’s Gospel would have understood. That meaning would have surprised or even shocked them. It clearly bothered Martha.
Those who sat at the feet of a teacher were that teacher’s disciples. We still speak of a disciple sitting at the feet of a master. Mary was a disciple of Jesus, as entitled to sit at his feet as any other disciple like Peter, James or John.
But in that time and place, women belonged in the kitchen, doing what Martha was doing. For a woman to be occupying the position of a full disciple was a radical challenge to the society in which Jesus lived.
"Today, those who want to restore the equality that Jesus taught are attacked as 'radical feminists' without that charge being really defined"
Mary was claiming equality with men! And Jesus not only allowed it; he even said to Martha that Mary had “chosen the better part.” And, he added, “it will not be taken from her.”
In fact, though, not much time passed before it was taken from those women who followed Mary as disciples. In St. Paul’s authentic letters, as opposed to those written in his name after his death, we even see women in leadership roles in various communities.
But Jesus’ and the early Church’s radical view of women’s equality with men did not long survive. The force of customary attitudes toward women, even on the part of women, was just too strong. It has remained strong, though throughout the history of the Church exceptional women like St. Catherine of Siena in the fourteenth century have managed to play forthrightly leading roles in our community. And the service to the poor and needy by women religious throughout the world is still the pride of the Catholic Church.
Today, as attitudes that subvert the practice of Jesus are changing in many places, we in the Church are challenged to once again accept the fact that Jesus still has something to teach us that subverts the so-called “normal” ordering of society and the Church.
Today, those who want to restore the equality that Jesus taught are attacked as “radical feminists” without that charge being really defined. But, the first radical feminist in the history of our faith was Jesus himself.
So, the question we all — male and female alike — are forced to ask ourselves is: What do we do as individuals and as a Church that betrays women’s vocation to full discipleship, and what must we do to recapture this important aspect of what Jesus meant his followers to be?
Putting women in positions of authority in the Church is a beginning, but that is only window dressing unless we accompany it with a change of attitude on the part of men and women. Until we men of the Church meet the women of the Church as equals, and in some contexts as our superiors, we are merely at the beginning of the road to where Jesus awaits our belated arrival.
*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.