In an open letter published last year, Maria Zervino, president of the World Union of Catholic Women’s Organizations, encouraged Pope Francis to expand roles for women’s leadership in the church’s predominantly all-male institutional structures. “As a woman I feel that something is due to us,” she wrote in March last year. “I think that not enough has been done in taking advantage of the wealth of women who make up a large part of God’s people.” “The suitability of women has been demonstrated in civil society, in the economy, in health, in education, in caring for the planet, in the defence of human rights and in many other fields, of course, as well as in the family and catechesis,” she continued. “May the desire expressed by you, that women enter decision-making groups together with men, cease to be considered a utopia and become something common in the Church.” (source: National Catholic Reporter, 13 July 2022).

This plea comes to mind with today’s story of Jesus meeting two women, both sisters, in their home. In last Sunday’s story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus taught of the need for us to be ‘neighbour’ to everyone, responding to their difficulties whatever their creed, culture or race. In today’s story of Martha and Mary, which immediately follows last Sunday’s episode, we have a counterbalance which highlights a woman, Mary, simply listening to Jesus. In recording this, some 40 years later, St Luke was reminding his audience that while Jesus requires us to be involved in caring for others, to be a Good Samaritan, we also must be like Mary, spending time in his company and listening to him.

It can be easy to forget that in meeting the two sisters alone (no one else is mentioned) Jesus was once more breaking the taboo that prevented a man being in the company of a woman without her father, husband or brother being present. St Luke’s Gospel frequently records Jesus doing this, and it can be difficult for us to appreciate how radical Jesus was in ignoring this convention.

Luke’s presentation of this event was ground-breaking also in that it showed that a woman – Mary in this case – was as much entitled as a man to receive instruction or ‘sit at the feet’ of an eminent Rabbi or teacher. This was unheard of in a society where women remained solely in the background. And it was unheard of for centuries in our Church where the role of women was considered secondary and inferior to men.

On Wednesday the Pope responded to Maria Zervino’s letter by appointing her and two other women to the Vatican’s department that advises him on which Catholic priests to appoint as bishops across the world.  It’s a small step but, God willing, will lead to further recognition and development of the ministries of the Marthas and Marys and other women in our Church – and bring an end to our predominantly all-male institutional structures ‘for our good and the good of all the Church’.

Michael Campion
Holy Name, Jesmond
17 July 2022

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