Thursday, February 15, 2007

"Anything Other Than Secondary": All the Pope's Women

In a touching moment at the close of yesterday's General Audience, amidst the usual bishops and dignitaries, a Japanese man afflicted with leprosy was received by the Pope. But the real story from the packed weekly classroom was Benedict XVI's catechetical talk, which highlighted the extent of collaboration and involvement played by women in the life of Jesus and in the first days of the church.

Suffice it to say, it's a tradition which Joseph Ratzinger has sought intently to build upon, and realizing this is key to understanding and fully appreciating his public impressions on the topic, even those offered in a retrospective context.

The pontiff's personal history is replete with the presence of women in trusted roles of influence who have acted as his aides and advisers. The first of these was his sister, Maria, who died in 1991. Living with the then-Grand Inquisitor in his cardinalatial apartment in the Piazza della Cittá Leonina, Maria Ratzinger kept house for her brother, but more importantly acted as his sounding board, listening to his lectures and speeches at the table and offering pointers and ideas to sharpen and flesh out his thought.

At the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the cardinal-prefect elevated through the ranks the Belgian theologian Marie Hendrickx. In a Curia whose heights are overwhelmingly dominated by clerics, Hendrickx is currently the highest-ranking laywoman in any dicastery and the second-ranking layperson overall, after Dr Angelo Scelzo, the undersecretary of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications. However, though Scelzo enjoys "superior" status as the his office's #3 official, given the purview and prestige of the CDF -- to say nothing of her personal ties to her boss of two decades -- the case could well be made that Hendrickx, who wrote a celebrated 2001 piece in L'Osservatore Romano protesting animal cruelty, is the most influential layperson in the Curial bureaucracy.

On his election to the papacy, the new Pope brought three of his most trusted hands with him to the Apostolic Palace and his direct service. Thanks to his public presence at Benedict's side, the member of this group the world knows is his priest-secretary, Msgr Georg Gänswein. What's often forgotten, however, is that the other 2/3 of this inner ring are laywomen.

One is Birgit Wansing, a member of the Schoenstatt community of professed lay faithful who served on Ratzinger's staff in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The other is the famous Ingrid Stampa, the polyglot German musician and professor who took on the sisterly role in the cardinal's household after Maria Ratzinger's death and now shares the same official rank in the Secretariat of State as Gänswein, his co-secretary Msgr Mieczyslaw Mokrzycki, and the legendary close collaborators of pontificates past. (In light of her changed responsibilities following Benedict's election, Wansing is now likewise accredited to Stato's staff, where she's been placed one rung behind below her fellow collaborators in the papal apartment.)

No less than Peter Seewald -- the author of three book-length conversations with Ratzinger -- has referred to Stampa as "the first lady of the Vatican." And for the first two years of the pontificate, she's been able to keep a low profile (some say involuntarily), but routinely takes her place alongside the clerics of the papal household at major liturgical functions.

The Benedict aide who translated two of John Paul II's books into German remains a figure of keen interest on the Roman street, and noting her role a week after the conclave ended was one of my first big forays into the world of talking-headdom.

In his televised sit-down last summer with German media, Papa Ratzi said he was keen "to rejoice when the female element achieves the fully effective place in the Church best suited" to what he called "their energy and strength... their superiority... what I’d call their 'spiritual power.'" With that in mind, and as sound-byting an important discourse on this contentious question would be an injustice, below is the Whispers translation of yesterday's catechesis in full.

* * *

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Today we've arrived at the end of our path through the testimonies of the early Christians mentioned in the writings of the New Testament. Let us use the final stage of this first journey to dedicate our attention to the many female figures who carved out an effective and precious role in the spreading of the Gospel. Their witness cannot be forgotten, conforming to what Jesus himself said to the woman who anointed his head shortly before his Passion: "Amen, I say to you, wherever this gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be spoken of, in memory of her" (Mt 26:13; Mk 14:9). The Lord wants that these witnesses of the Gospel, these figures who have given their contribution so that faith in Him might grow, be known and that their memory remain alive in the Church. Let us historically highlight the role of women in primitive Christianity, during the earthly life of Jesus and during the events of the first Christian generation.

We know for certain that Jesus chose among his disciples twelve men as Fathers of the new Israel, chosen "that they might be with him and he might send them forth to preach" (Mk 3:14-15). This fact is evident, but, alongside the Twelve, the columns of the Church, fathers of the new People of God, there were also in that chosen number of disciples many women. I can indicate very briefly the women who found themselves along the way of Jesus himself, beginning with the prophetess Anna (cf Luke 2:36-38) to the Samaritan woman (cf Jn 4:1-39), to the Syrophoenician (cf Mk 7:24-30), to the one suffering hemorrhages (cf Mt 9:20-22) and to the pardoned sinner (cf Lk 7:36-50). I'm not even referring to the protagonists of some effective parables, for example that of the housewife making the bread (Mt 13:33), to the woman who loses the dracma (Lk 15:8-10), to the widow who bothers the judge (Lk 18:1-8). More significant for our purposes are those women who took on an active role in the area of the mission of Jesus. In the first place, our thoughts naturally turn to the Virgin Mary, she who with her faith and her maternal work collaborated in a unique way to our Redemption, so much so that Elizabeth could proclaim her "blessed among women" (Lk 1:42), adding "blessed is she who believed" (Lk 1:45). Becoming a disciple of her Son, Mary manifested at Cana her total trust in him (cf Jn 2:5) and she followed him until the foot of the Cross, receiving from him there a maternal mission for all his disciples of every age, represented by John (Jn 19:25-27).

Then there are various women, who in different ways gravitated toward the figure of Jesus with functions of responsibility. There's the eloquent example of the women who followed Jesus to aid him with his sustenance and of which Luke hands down to us some of their names: Mary of Magdala, Joanna, Susanna and "many others" (cf Luke 8:2-3). Then the Evangelists inform us that the women, as opposed to the Twelve, would not abandon Jesus in the time of his Passion (cf Mt 27:56,61; Mk 15:40). Outstanding among these in particular is the Magdalene, who wasn't only present at the Passion, but was also the first witness and announcer of the Resurrection (cf Jn 20:1,11-18). Just for Mary of Magdala, St Thomas Aquinas reserves the singular description of "apostle of the apostles" (apostolorum apostola), dedicating to her this beautiful comment: "As a woman had announced to the first man words of death, so a woman first announced to the apostles words of life."

In the ambit of the primitive Church also, the feminine presence was anything other than secondary. We're not insisting that the four unnamed daughters of the "deacon" Philip, residents of Cesarea Marittima were all given, as St Luke tells us, the "gift of prophecy," that is some power of intervening publicly under the action of the Holy Spirit (cf Acts 21:9). The brevity of the notice doesn't permit more precise deductions. We must rather look to St Paul's more ample documentation on the dignity and on the ecclesial role of the woman. This part of the principal foundation, according to which the baptized were not only "no longer neither Jew nor Greek, nor slave, nor free," but also "neither male, nor female." The motive is that "we are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal 3:28), that all share the same dignity of source, although each with specific functions (cf 1 Cor 12:27-30). The Apostle admits as something normal that in the Christian community a woman may "prophecy" (1 Cor 11:5), that is speak openly under the infusion of the Spirit, that it may be for the building up of the community and done in a dignified way. So the following, well noted, exhortation that "women should keep silent in the assemblies" (1 Cor 14:34), must rather be relativized. The consequent problem, much discussed, of the relation between the first word -- women may prophecy in the assembly -- and the other -- they may not speak -- on the relation between these two indications, apparently contradictory, we must leave to the exegetes. It's not to discuss here. Last Wednesday we already encountered the figure of Prisca or Priscilla, wife of Aquila, who in two cases was surprisingly mentioned prior to her marriage (cf Acts 18:18; Rm 16:3); the one and the other similarly are explicitly spoken of by Paul as his sun-ergoús: "collaborators" (Rm 16:3).

Some other highlights cannot be neglected. It's necessary to see fit, for example, that the short Letter to Philemon in reality is addressed by Paul also to a woman named "Affia" (cf Pm 2). Latin and Syriac translations of the Greek text add to this name "Affia" the appellation of "dearest sister," and it must be said that in the community of the Colossians she must have occupied a post of importance; in each case, she is the only woman mentioned by Paul among the recipients of a letter of his. Elsewhere the Apostle mentions a certain "Phoebe," cited as diákonos of the Church of Cenchreae, the harbor city east of Corinth (cf Rm 16:1-2). Although the title in that time didn't have a specific ministerial value of the hierarchic kind, this expresses a real and proper exercise of responsibility on the part of this woman for the good of the Christian community. Paul recommends that they receive her cordially and assist her "in whatever she may need," then adding: "in fact, she has protected many, as well as myself." In this same epistolary context the Apostle treats with delicacy and records other names of women: a certain Mary, then Tryphena, Tryphosa and "dearest" Persis, and also Julia, of whom he writes openly that "they have worked hard for you" or "they have worked hard in the Lord" (Rm 16:6,12a,12b,15), so underscoring their strong ecclesial commitment. In the Church of the Philippians he then singled out two women called "Euodia and Syntyche" (Phil 4:2): the appeal that Paul makes for understanding leaves evidence as to say that the two women undertook an important function inside that community.

In good substance, the story of Christianity would've had a very different trajectory were it not for the generosity brought to it by many women. For this, as was written by my venerated and dear Predecessor John Paul II in the Apostolic Letter Mulieris dignitatem, "The Church gives thanks for all women and for each... The Church gives thanks for all the the manifestations of the feminine 'genius' which have appeared in the course of history, in the midst of all peoples and nations; she gives thanks for all the charisms which the Holy Spirit distributes to women in the history of the People of God, for all the victories which she owes to their faith, hope and charity: she gives thanks for all the fruits of feminine holiness" (31). As you can see, the praise regards women in the course of the history of the Church and is expressed in the name of the entire ecclesial community. We, too, unite ourselves to this appreciation, giving thanks to the Lord for leading them to his Church, generation after generation, making use indiscriminately of men and women, who have made fruitful their faith and their baptism for the good of the entire ecclesial Body, to the greater glory of God.

PHOTO 2: AP/Plinio Lepri
PHOTO 3: Reuters/Tony Gentile