May 2019

Women in the Early Church by Nancy Enright

Just after Christmas of 2016, my daughter, Rebecca, aged 19 at the time, and I traveled to Rome, where we were there for both New Year’s and Epiphany. The time was very special for both of us, and one of many memorable events was a visit to the Church of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere. This lovely structure, with a front courtyard filled with plants and a fountain, is dedicated to one of many women martyrs from the earliest years of the church. Her story, along with that of two other young women killed for their faith, Saints Perpetua and Felicity, invites contemporary Christians to examine the role of women in the early church—not so much with the polemical eye that would insist upon or deny women the role of priests, but with a truly radical return to the early church’s views on power and how that power, totally different from that of the world (then or now), was shared by women.

I

Beneath the church of Santa Cecilia are the remains of the house that, according to tradition, belonged to the saint. Strongly devoted to remaining a virgin, Cecilia is said to have told her new, pagan husband about her desire to remain chaste, and he acquiesced, becoming a Christian himself after seeing the angel who guarded his new bride. The young man’s brother also converted. Soon the two men were arrested and executed for offering burial to Christian martyrs. Cecilia, as a young widow, was undeterred by the deaths of her husband and brother-in-law. Clearly a leader in her Christian community, she herself was arrested and executed, after an unsuccessful attempt to suffocate her in her own baths, by beheading. This too was not at first successful, but gashed three times, Cecilia eventually died of these wounds in about the year 230.

Her body, at first lodged in the catacomb of San Callisto in Rome, was moved in the ninth century to its current site in the church that bears her name, but this later tomb was reopened in 1599. According to the sworn testimony of the sculptor Stefano Maderno, her body, as he observed it at that time, was incorrupt, and he sculpted a statue of the saint lying as she was buried. Three gashes on her neck show the wounds of which she died, and she holds out three fingers on one hand and one on the other (said to indicate the Trinity, three persons in one God). The statue is moving for its combined realism and grace.

I visited this church again with my husband and daughter later in 2017, when our daughter was studying in London and met us in Rome. And I visited it a third time on a faculty trip to Rome during the summer of 2018. This trip was designed for faculty teaching in the University Core Curriculum of Seton Hall, where I direct the Core program, so we could visit sites important to some of the texts in our Core I and II courses. In both courses, we study the early church, including the prison journal of Saint Perpetua, recounting her suffering and that of her companions, including Saint Felicity.

A group of other women faculty and I went to Santa Cecilia’s, and it was, again, a powerful experience. Somehow sharing it with these women colleagues recollected my first encounter with the saint shared with my daughter. The strength of Cecilia, testifying to her unbending belief even at the moment of death, is inspiring for its heroism, as seen in the statue placed on the altar under which her actual body is entombed. The legacy of the saint persists in the church that bears her name. As my colleagues and I walked through the house church, no doubt some of them were thinking of the reading in our Core II syllabus, Perpetua’s journal and the afterword, for Cecilia was a Roman counterpart to the great African martyrs Perpetua and Felicity, who died under Septimius Severus in 203.

We know a lot more about Perpetua and Felicity than we do about many of the early martyrs, particularly those who were women. Well educated and aristocratic, Perpetua converted as a young married woman, and was a catechumen when arrested. In her prison journal she recounts her fear of the darkness and harsh treatment of the guards and, above all, her concern for her still-nursing baby. Her painful encounters with her doting and unbelieving father, who attempts unsuccessfully to get his daughter to renounce her faith, are deeply human and moving, as seen in the loving but difficult conflict so intimately described by Perpetua. He begs her to consider the effect her absence will have on her son, and takes him away, refusing to bring the baby to see his mother again, hoping with this ploy to gain some leverage with Perpetua.

It fails. Perpetua recalls that the child, once separated from her, stopped needing to nurse, her breasts no longer becoming engorged and thus no longer painful (a detail that no male writer would include, thus refuting those who have claimed the text was not really written by a female). However, despite her being unmovable by her father’s pleas, Perpetua mentions her anguish on seeing him beaten from the podium as he tries to get her to recant at her last hearing. She grieves for him in his great sorrow over her impending death.

In her writings and the account of her martyrdom, it is quite clear that Perpetua was heroic, like Cecilia, and also seems to have been a leader in her community, despite her status as a very new believer. She is the one who asks that her fellow martyrs be granted a last meal that can serve as an “agape,” what the early Christians called the love feasts they included as part of the first Eucharistic celebrations. She insists to the authorities that the martyrs not have to wear the garb of pagan gods upon entering the arena. An unnamed eyewitness (believed by some to be the great North African apologist Tertullian) recounts her courageous death, accompanied by Saint Felicity, a slave who had just given birth in the prison.

The two women stand together as sisters and equals. When Felicity is thrown by the wild heifer—chosen to kill them, the text says, in mockery of their gender since a heifer is a female animal—Perpetua helps her up. Felicity almost did not go to the arena with the others, as pregnant women were not allowed to be killed by the beasts. After prayer by the group, she gave birth early to a daughter, who was given over to another Christian woman. While she was giving birth, one of the guards mocked her as she yelled in pain, asking how she would then find the courage to face the beasts. She replied, “Now I alone suffer what I am suffering, but then there will be another inside me, who will suffer for me, because I am going to suffer for him.” For this answer, Charles Williams says in his Descent of the Dove, Felicity “takes her place forever among the great African doctors of the church.” Both women died by the sword with the other martyrs, with Perpetua guiding the hand of her nervous executioner to her throat.

The person recounting these deaths also writes about the vision of Saturus, the teacher of the young catechumens, who had turned himself in to the authorities to accompany his students in the faith, as he was not with them when they were arrested. In this vision, the martyrs are welcomed into heaven, but see two clergy still outside the gates: Optatus, the bishop, and Aspasius, the priest. Optatus and Aspasius throw themselves down before the martyrs, asking them to help them make peace with each other. Astonished and moved at being honored this way, the martyrs talk to the clergymen. Perpetua, being perhaps the most educated, speaks to them in Greek. The angels ask the fighting clergymen to let the martyrs rest in peace. Even in this vision, Perpetua is shown as a kind of leader.

II

Why are these stories so important? These women martyrs represent the dignity and leadership possible for women in the early church. There are many other similar references to women leaders in the early church, including some important ones in the New Testament. Jesus treated women with respect that surprised even his disciples, as when they were astonished at his talking with the Samaritan woman (not because she was a Samaritan, with whom Jews did not associate, but because she was a woman), in John 4.

Paul mentions important women in his letters. In an article from the April 23, 2018, issue of Commonweal, Michael Peppard writes about Junia, Phoebe, and Prisca, all highly commended by Paul. He calls Phoebe, in fact, a diaconia, or “deacon,” though some argue the role of women deacons was somewhat different from that of male deacons. Nevertheless, these women, like the martyrs Cecilia, Perpetua, and Felicity, were revered in the early Christian communities as fellow soldiers of Christ, “fellow heir[s] of the grace of life” as Peter in his first letter commands husbands to remember to regard their wives (1 Peter 3:7). They were strong, respected, and allowed leadership in the newly forming Christian communities in a variety of ways.

This respect and acceptance of women was noted even by enemies of the church, such as Celsus, who wrote to Origen, “The Christian message is like this: Let no one educated, no one wise, and no one sensible come near. . . . By the fact that Christians admit that these people are worthy of their God [italics mine] they show that they want and are able to convince only the foolish, the dishonorable, and the stupid, only slaves, women, and little children.” Yes, the early Christian community treated women, who tended to flock to the new faith in larger proportions than did men, as “worthy of their God.”

However, one thing important to remember is that power and leadership were different in the early centuries of Christianity from what they came to be during the many centuries after Christianity became legal and gained in power, wealth, and prestige. In the early days, men and women did share leadership, as they risked death and laid down their lives one for another. As Jesus taught his quarreling disciples (after James and John, with their mother, had asked Jesus for the favor of sitting on his right hand and his left in the coming Kingdom), “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who have authority over them are called ‘Benefactors’, but it is not this way with you” (Luke 22:25–26).

In this context, arguments about the hierarchy sharing power with women in the church today—similar to the argument among the apostles over who is greatest—might be illumined by Jesus’s response to his disciples: not by taking sides in the debate (which Jesus definitely does not do), but by an affirmation of the value of both men and women in the church as beloved and equal persons (as Jesus affirms his love for all the disciples and assures them a role in “judging the twelve tribes of Israel”). But he also has just warned them of his impending suffering and death, earlier in the chapter, and he asks James and John if they are prepared to drink from that same cup of suffering. Authority in the kingdom being established by Jesus is one of servanthood and suffering. True, there are leaders, but it is not a leadership of domination or pride.

Within this context we must understand the leadership of women in the early church.  The early Christians were completely inverting the value system of their Greco-Roman society. Where slaves were barely considered human, Christian communities welcomed them as brothers and sisters. Where wealth was an ultimate mark of power and status, Christians asserted that the poor were especially blessed by God. Women, along with other marginalized people, were welcomed and affirmed in the early Christian community, where power meant something very different than it did in the empire.

Today, instead of desiring to have women share in a power that is all too often modelled more on authoritarian structures than on the servant ministry of Jesus, the church needs to go back to the kind of authority Jesus modelled and taught his followers. The saints throughout history have consistently called the church back to this humility and grace-filled leadership, but too often this approach gets lost among authoritarianism and legalism. Pope Francis, true to his namesake Saint Francis, is calling the church back to a different kind of authority. His choices to live simply and to lead the church humbly and collaboratively are huge steps toward the kind of leadership experienced by the early Christians. It is this kind, not the other, that is worth pursuing for today’s Christian women.

Nancy Enright holds a Ph.D. from Drew University. She is an associate professor of English at Seton Hall University and the Director of the University Core. She is the author of two books: an anthology, Community: A Reader for Writers (Oxford University Press, 2015), and Catholic Literature and Film (Lexington Press, 2016) and articles on a variety of subjects, including the works of Dante, Augustine, J. R. R. Tolkien, and C. S. Lewis. Her articles have appeared in Logos, Commonweal, National Catholic Reporter, Christianity Today, and other venues.

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