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With New Pope, Catholic Women Hope To Regain Church Leadership Roles

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The newly elected pope's focus on the poor and the marginalized has instilled great faith among many Catholic women. They hope the papacy of Pope Francis will promote a leading role for women in the church.

A group of American nuns and Catholic women recently made a pilgrimage to Rome to make their requests heard.

They visited ancient sites that provide evidence of the important leadership role women played in the early centuries of Christianity.

Sister Carolyn Osiek, a scholar of women's role in early Christianity, guided the pilgrims through Ostia, the ancient port city of Rome. The excavations help illustrate how people lived in the early centuries of the first millennium, when worship was still relegated mostly to private homes.

Ostia was the final stop on a pilgrimage to honor the many women who helped spread the faith at the dawn of Christianity.

The American women gathered on the steps of an old Roman theater and sang "Come Sophia," a prayer song in which God is evoked in a feminine metaphor: "Come Sofia, holy wisdom, gateway to eternity. Sacred source of all that is from long before earth came to be. In your womb the primal waters from below and from above gently rock your sons and daughters born to wisdom and to love."

Throughout the Mediterranean, inscriptions and images on tombstones, frescoes and mosaics provide compelling evidence that women held leadership and ministerial roles in the early church — roles identical to those held by men as prophets, priests and deacons.

These American pilgrims have visited catacombs where frescoes show women clothed in priestly vestments and celebrating the Eucharist.

"Certainly in the first two centuries, we see women — at least parts of the early communities — holding co-equal roles with men," says Sister Chris Shenk, executive director of the Catholic group FutureChurch, which organized the pilgrimage.

She says everything changed after the year 313, when women were pushed out of the public arena and lost their roles as officeholders.

"After Constantine made Christianity legal, worship moved from the house church into the basilicas, and it became a public space where women's leadership was not as accepted because of the cultural norms of the time," Shenk says. "And so around that time, you see more and more suppression of women in leadership roles."

The pilgrims also came to the ancient site to offer their individual prayers, reciting in unison: "We pray. Jesus prophet of wisdom lead and guide us ...."

Then one woman chimed in, "That all women may find their voice and realize its value."

Shenk stressed that "part of the power of our pilgrimage is that women's experience is validated not only in seeing women leaders in church archaeology, but it is also validated in prayer and often women do not experience that."

The pilgrimage ended at the Vatican, where the group handed over some 25,000 signed postcards and open letters, asking Catholic officials to help resolve the growing problem of the worldwide shortage of priests by allowing celibacy for men to be optional and by letting women once again be deacons.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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