Projecting the Catholic Church as an all-male community is wrong


RITE & REASON:An icon commissioned for the Eucharistic Congress in Dublin next June depicts the church as an all-male community. Why?

The 2012 Dublin International Eucharistic Congress has commissioned four icons to reflect the theme of the congress: communion with Christ and with one another.

These icons are travelling to parishes throughout the country.

One of these icons, entitled Pentecost, is a reproduction of a 16th-century icon from Mount Athos, representing the Christian community being sent on mission.

It depicts 12 men receiving the Holy Spirit in the form of tongues of fire. It would appear that through this lens the Christian community, the church, like Mount Athos, is an all-male community! The Pentecost event as related in the Acts of the Apostles is very inclusive: “When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. And suddenly out of the sky came a sound like a strong rushing wind and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. There appeared tongues as if of fire which parted and came to rest upon each one of them. All were filled with the Holy Spirit . . .” (Acts 2:1-4).

While no names are given of members of this group, biblical scholars assume that the “all” refers to an earlier list of Jesus’ disciples and family members gathered in constant prayer in the upper room. Besides the 11 leading male apostles listed by name, we are told that “with them were some women and also Mary, the mother of Jesus, and his brothers”. ( Acts 1:13-15).

That community numbered about 120 disciples.

The icon belongs to a long line of what the theologian Elizabeth Johnson calls “the product of an androcentric imagination that erases women and insignificant men”. That narrow imagination permeates our tradition.The most widely used Confirmation workbook for children, Alive-O, contains two illustrations of Pentecost. One has 12 men only.

The other one on the cover is even more telling and disturbing: there are two women with the 12 men, but the tongues of fire are only over the men! What message is being communicated?

And this in a scriptural context where the gender inclusiveness of the Spirit is clearly affirmed with Peter quoting the prophet Joel: “. . . And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and daughters will prophesy. . .” (Acts 2:17-18)

The narrow imagination that blinds us to the gender inclusiveness of the Spirit at the birth of the church is at work in our images and in our texts.

The Missal puts in “the apostles” where Acts say “they”, so most people at Mass on the feast of Pentecost will be led to believe there were only 12 male recipients of the Spirit. Official church texts do the same.

Pope John Paul II’s encyclical on the Holy Spirit (Dominum et Vivificantem) tells us that “the era of the church began with the descent of the Holy Spirit on the apostles gathered in the upper room in Jerusalem, together with Mary, the Lord’s mother.”

Here Mary is included with the 12 male apostles, but the wider group of disciples is excluded. In that wider group were the faithful women who had followed Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem, who supported his ministry financially, who had been witnesses to his crucifixion, his entombment and his being risen from the dead.

Women were the first to understand the resurrection faith that is the church’s foundation. Mary of Magdala was the first to encounter the risen Christ and to be commissioned by him. (John 20:17-18): Apostle to the apostles, equal to the apostles . . . first apostle?

The congress icon Pentecost is a powerful testimony to our blindspot. Unless women are again an integral part of the picture, there will be no wholeness and no true communion.

Soline Humbert has a pontifical diploma in spiritual guidance and is an advocate for womens ordination.