What is the current, grass-roots attitude of the Church of Rome toward the ministry of women? Judging by the staff of the Basilica (that is, the church) of Saint Praxedes, the answer is not what most Protestants would guess.
Visiting the church for the first time in May, we were on a mission to see the famous mosaic of Theodora, Christian church leader. Arriving with only forty five minutes before closing, I had no time to waste. So, I immediately found a staff member and a priest and asked where was the famed mosaic of this remarkable woman. “Episcopa! Episcopa!” the priest immediately exclaimed and literally ran to an alcove in the chapel of St. Zeno in the very front of the church, snapped on a light, and a beautiful set of mosaics glowed. Above a door to the right was Jesus and the disciples. In the center, the haloed heads of three women, Jesus’ mother Mary, Pudentiana and Praxedes, the two daughters of Pudens, the senator mentioned in 2 Timothy 4:21, and the likeness of the head of Theodora herself (with a nimbus rather than a halo, indicating she was still alive when the mosaic was made).
“Episcopa” means “bishop,” or overseer, of course, and a dispute exists over whether she is so called “because she was the mother of Pope Paschal I” (from page 30 of the well researched and exquisitely illustrated booklet we bought at the church’s book table),[i] or because she was indeed just what the title says: a bishop. Since all the popes had mothers and many of these were pious and active church women, the title suggested to me just what it literally says – she was indeed a bishop.
Along with Theodora, several other early Christian women are celebrated in this lovely (and modest by St. Peter’s and St. Paul’s Churches’ standards) church building. These include both Praxedes (aka Prassede, for whom the church is named) and her sister Pudentiana, Pudens’ two heroic daughters who defied the emperor Antoninus Pius by building a baptistery and having worship in their house. Praxedes, after her sister’s death, continued to run an underground community in her home, rescuing Christians the emperor wanted to kill. Yet another woman, St. Catherine, a Roman citizen who was beheaded for her faith in Jesus, is also honored.
At a mere mention of these women’s names, the male staff on duty, when we visited, began to tell these women’s stories in the most enthusiastic manner. Obviously, they are very fond and proud (in the best sense) of their female “episcopa” and their women leaders. And so should all of us be as supportive and proud (in the best sense) of all the wonderful, divinely-gifted Christian women that God has blessed us with to help lead Christ’s church in our time.
[i] While all the booklets we bought at the various religious sites (churches and catacombs) were helpful, this one was particularly outstanding, by Paola Gallio, The Basilica of Saint Praxedes, English version, from Edizione d’Arte Marconi – No. 28 – III edizione Settembre 2009, Tel. 010 6515914, pg. 30.