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Rome Pilgrims Explore Sites of Women Officeholders

Deceased woman leader between apostles as found in the Pio Christiani museum.
Deceased woman leader between apostles as found in the Pio Christiani museum.
Agape celebration at Catacombs of Priscilla.
Agape celebration at Catacombs of Priscilla.
NPR's Sylvia Poggioli (center) joined us for two days.
NPR's Sylvia Poggioli (center) joined us for two days.

From March 13-22, seventeen women and men from all over the U.S. embarked on FutureChurch’s second pilgrimage to Rome and Ostia to learn about early women officeholders in the Catholic Church. New sites visited this year included the Pio Christiani Museum, the church of St. Pudentiana and the Museo Civilta Romana.

The Pio Christiani museum was a highpoint since it houses wondrous 2nd-4th century sarcophagi richly adorned with sculpted biblical figures surrounding a prominent women leader depicted either alone or with her husband. On three sarcophagi, women leaders are shown holding codexes from which they explain, teach or preach beloved biblical stories from both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. These little studied and rarely photographed funerary figures bear mute but powerful testimony to the important leadership exercised by early Christian women.

The pilgrimage was greatly enriched by academic advisor Dr. Janet Tulloch, a specialist in early Christian images. Her extensive research of frescos in the catacombs of Petrus and Marcellinus can be found in A Woman's Place: House Churches in Earliest Christianity by Carolyn Osiek, Margaret MacDonald (Fortress Press, 2005).

Tulloch’s scholarship about women’s coequal leadership in early Christian funerary rituals provided an important link to St. Monica, the mother of St. Augustine. Tulloch described Monica as, “The good women leader who went from martyrs tomb to martyr’s tomb with wine and water.” St Augustine wrote about Monica’s participation in Christian funerary celebrations, providing the only written reference that this practice actually took place.  Monica died at Ostia where the group toured excavated ruins of this important Roman port city.

The basilicas of St. Pudentiana and St. Praxedis honor two sisters who heroically buried the shattered remains of early martyrs. Both structures stand on land historically owned by Pudens, who is named in 2 Timothy 4:21.   St. Pudentiana’ basilica contains visible second century apartments.  Public baths are located several levels below. These provided a plausible reason for Christians to gather in secret to pray.  The luminous 9th century mosaic at the basilica of St. Praxedis honors Pudentiana, Praxedis, “Theodora Episcopa,” and Mary the Mother of Jesus, who is often portrayed as ratifying the ministry of early women leaders. The stunning mosaic chapel was built in the 9th century by Pope Pascal to honor his mother “Bishop Theodora.”  

Prayer services at each site deepened our awareness of God’s faithfulness to women leaders in the 21st century as well as in the first. An especially moving bread breaking agape honoring St. Prisca was conducted in the Catacomb of Priscilla, site of an early women’s Eucharist.  At St. Praxedis, we honored “Anonymous Women,” systematically naming aloud women leaders in Church history whose stories are often hidden.  Prayer resources were from FutureChurch’s Celebrating Women Witnesses packet.

Excavated columbarium at the early Roman city of Ostia
Excavated columbarium at the early Roman city of Ostia

We were blessed to have Margot Patterson from the National Catholic Reporter join us for the pilgrimage. A story is in process. National Public Radio's Sylvia Poggioli joined us again this year for two days of our tour. For her accounts of both pilgrimages visit: www.npr.org

Another pilgrimage is planned for October 7-16, 2008. If you are interested email pilgrimage@futurechurch.org

A Journey of Discover: Pilgrimage to Archaeological Sites of Women Officeholders in the Early Church, Rome-Ostia.  October 7-16.  Learn, Pray and Reflect with Sr. Christine Schenk csj, FutureChurch Executive Director; & Education Director Dr. Janet Tulloch, Specialist in Early Christian Images.
To receive a free brochure, please email pilgrimage@futurechurch.org
or call 216-228-0869 ext. 6

Sr. Chris Schenk is available to speak and show slides about archaeological evidence for early women officeholders. email chris@futurechurch.org

Focus on FutureChurch

Spring 2007


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