In an inspired move, Pope Benedict has declared that the Year of Paul which ends this month will be followed by the Year of the Priest starting on June 19, 2009.
In the past year we’ve been captivated and challenged by this extraordinary layman’s passion for the gospel. As mystic, missionary and martyr Paul’s power and authority came from a baptism lived radically. He was never ordained.
In the coming year priests are being asked to reflect on the life of St John Vianney presumably to understand what ‘added value’ ordination brings to baptism as lived by the early Christian communities.
Paul’s understanding of baptism
Around 2000 years ago Paul wrote to the Galatians:
For all of you who were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
One reading of this extraordinary passage is as a baptismal formula. Paul says that the Galatians have entered into a new form of life—in Christ through baptism.
Women and men symbolised this by putting on a white robe during the ceremony, hence Paul’s reference to putting on Christ (3:27). The robe was an outward sign of inner transformation. Race, class and gender discriminations have been erased because social distinctions have been reinterpreted. They no longer benefit some while disadvantaging others. For Paul baptism is the moment when Christ, like a garment, envelops the believer.
In Paul’s society where a woman’s privileges came only through her connection to an adult male, this was a radically new departure. Men and women are equal members because they share in Christ through the same baptism.
Paul took it for granted that women ministered in the church in the same way that men did. He recognised the diverse gifts of both as fruits of the Spirit.
Evidence of what the women actually did is found at the end of arguably the most important New Testament document outside the gospels, the letter to the Romans.
Paul entrusted this letter to a woman, the deacon Phoebe. Unfortunately Romans 16:1-16 appears nowhere at all in the Lectionary. The Sunday Lectionary features only two early church women: Mary, Jesus’ mother and Chloe, both named in passing.
We don’t hear about Mary the mother of John Mark, Rhonda, Tabitha, Lydia, Prisca, Philip’s four prophet daughters, Mary of Rome, Junia, Tryphaena, Tryphosa, Persis, the mother of Rufus, Julia, the sister of Nereus, Euodia, Syntyche, Apphia, Nympha, Eunice, Lois and Claudia.
In Romans 16:1-16 Paul lists 26 individuals, including 10 of the above women.
Phoebe is of particular significance. As a deacon or minister of the church at Cenchreae in Corinth, she is obviously a prominent woman. She heads the list of co-workers to be welcomed and greeted by the church in Rome to which she is being sent as an official minister, one who preaches and teaches. Paul uses the same word ( diakonos) to describe himself (1 Cor 3:5, 2 Cor 6:4). Paul also acknowledges that Phoebe has been a prostati (benefactor, patron or leader) of many, including himself (Rom l6:2). This meant that she used her resources to support the missionary work of Paul and others, perhaps paying their expenses and ensuring connections were made to other wealthy patrons. It also meant that she was able to direct operations—choosing where missionaries were to go and the points they were to make in their message. As a patron her house would have been available for the community’s Eucharist over which she probably presided. Paul also calls Phoebe ‘our sister’ ( adelphē). He frequently uses the masculine equivalent of the term, ie, ‘brother’ when referring to his important missionary collaborator, Timothy—Phlm 1; 2 Cor 1:1; 1 Thess 3:2—so the title carries much respect.
Phoebe’s importance is also emphasised in Paul’s recommendation of her to the Romans (Rom 6:2), just as he recommends Timothy to the Corinthians (1 Cor 16:10). Some suggest that she may have been a frontrunner for Paul’s plan to evangelise Spain.
From this brief look at one of the women at the end of Romans, it is easy to see that being ‘baptised into Christ’ meant something different in Paul’s day from what it means today. Women were able to participate fully in the early Christian communities. Presiding, preaching and decision-making did not require ordination.
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