There was a great hullabaloo in the blogosphere last week, when word got out that Pope Francis had washed the feet of two young women on Holy Thursday. Was this licit? Was it a rejection of ecclesiastical law? A return to Gnosticism? A bad example for confused Catholics in the pews?
Today in St. Peter’s Square, speaking at the Wednesday General Audience, Pope Francis may have tipped his hand—showing us the direction he is headed with regard to the role of women in the Church.
First he reminded us that it was women who were the first witnesses to the Resurrection:
First, we note that the first witnesses to this event were the women. At dawn, they go to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus, and find the first sign: the empty tomb (Mk 16:1). This is followed by an encounter with a Messenger of God who proclaims: Jesus of Nazareth, the Crucified One, he is not here, he is risen (cf. vv. 5-6). The women are driven by love and know how to accept this proclamation with faith: they believe, and immediately transmit it, they do not keep it for themselves. They cannot contain the joy of knowing that Jesus is alive, the hope that fills their heart.
This should also be the same in our lives. Let us feel the joy of being Christian! We believe in the Risen One who has conquered evil and death! Let us also have the courage to “go out” to bring this joy and light to all the places of our lives! The Resurrection of Christ is our greatest certainty, it is our most precious treasure! How can we not share this treasure, this beautiful certainty with others! It’s not just for us, it’s to be transmitted, shared with others—this is our testimony!
Then he notes that in the culture at the time the gospels were written, women were not considered reliable witnesses. In the Gospels, however, women have a primary, fundamental role. Pope Francis explained that this fact is evidence of the authenticity of the Gospels, since no historian of the time would have given such a prominent role to women, had he not been reporting the truth.
Another element. In the professions of faith of the New Testament, only men are remembered as witnesses of the Resurrection, the Apostles, but not the women. This is because, according to the Jewish Law of the time, women and children were not considered reliable, credible witnesses.
In the Gospels, however, women have a primary, fundamental role. Here we can see an argument in favor of the historicity of the Resurrection: if it were invented, in the context of that time it would not have been linked to the testimony of women. Instead, the evangelists simply narrate what happened: the women were the first witnesses.
God, too, the Pope explains, exhibits no prejudice in choosing witnesses from among his people: choosing to reveal himself to humble shepherds and women. Pope Francis understands that the choice of women to be the first to witness the Resurrection, when Jewish legal system would not have recognized them as credible witnesses, is a form of apologetics for gender equality (but not sameness).
This tells us that God does not choose according to human criteria: the first witnesses of the birth of Jesus are the shepherds, simple and humble people, the first witnesses of the Resurrection are women. This is beautiful, and this is the mission of women, of mothers and women, to give witness to their children and grandchildren that Christ is Risen! Mothers, go forward with this witness! What matters to God is our heart, if we are open to Him, if we are like trusting children.
And likewise in the Church, women—with their deep love and trust—are leaders in our journey of faith.
But this also leads us to reflect on how in the Church and in the journey of faith, women have had and still have a special role in opening doors to the Lord, in following him and communicating his face, because the eyes of faith always need the simple and profound look of love. The Apostles and disciples find it harder to believe in the Risen Christ, not the women however! Peter runs to the tomb, but stops before the empty tomb; Thomas has to touch the wounds of the body of Jesus with his hands. In our journey of faith it is important to know and feel that God loves us, do not be afraid to love: faith is professed with the mouth and heart, with the word and love.
After the apparitions to women, there were others: Jesus becomes present in a new way: He is the Crucified One, but his body is glorious; He did not return to an earthly life, but a new condition. At first they did not recognize him, and only through his words and deeds were their eyes opened: the encounter with the Risen Lord transforms, it gives new strength to faith, an unshakable foundation. The Risen Christ also reveals Himself to us with many signs: Sacred Scripture, the Eucharist, the other Sacraments, charity, these gestures of love bring a ray of the Risen One.
Does this mean that we will soon have women priests? No—there is nothing in the Pope’s remarks to suggest that. There are, in fact, serious doctrinal issues which mitigate against a female presbyterate. However, what we have come to see is that our pope is fair, loving, and respectful of women as full members of the Body of Christ.
There is more: You can read the full text of Pope Francis’ General Audience here.