THREE INSPIRED WOMEN
AS THE GUARDIANS OF FAITH
By Felicia Dian Ravenska Parera
Religions, faith, culture and theology always be interesting subjects for me since I was young, especially about women’s roles and influences in those subjects. I was born and grew up in an island called Flores, with majority of the people, Roman Catholic and Christian, while Indonesia is the country with largest population of Moslem in the world, and most of ethnic traditions are highly influenced by patriarchal cultural system. Although my parents and family are Catholic, we keep our identity as Indigenous Peoples, which was suppressed by Church in the past. We respect the wisdom of our tradition and keep practising our culture, which appreciate and honour the roles of women. Therefore, when there is not much information and teaching about women and their contribution in the history of the Church (especially Roman Catholic), in addition to the patriarchal arrogance of the Church leaders (especially clergy) from the major religion in the Island, a lot of questions are raised in my mind s which lead me to this study. Based on the background above, the topic about three inspired women in the earlier Church is interesting and suitable for me. Here are the three inspired women for me.
Three Women :
- Mary of Magdalene :
Who is Mary Magdalene? There are several theories and myths about her origin, past life, relationship with Jesus and the 12 disciples, also her roles in the history of Christianity. She is a controversial figure, yet one of most prominent feminine characters and voices in the New Testament. Based on her name, she is most likely from Magdala, an ancient city on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.1 She has been labelled as a “prostitutes” for
centuries, since the famous homily of Pope Gregory the Great in the year 591, which addressed her as model of penitence and invented the original image of prostitute .
2 Yet no such a thing has been mentioned clearly in the canonical Gospels. Later on, the Catholic Church changed this label and stated that she was distinct from the sinful woman mentioned in the Gospel of Luke. Only on June 2016, Pope Francis has signed a decree of liturgical feast for honouring Mary Magdalene and putting her on par with the apostles. He addressed her as an Apostle of Hope in his homily on 2017, for her crucial roles as the first person that encountered the Risen Jesus and announced the Lord’s rising.3
In “The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene”, Jane Schaberg puts the nine characters of Mary Magdalene, based on the Gospel of Mary; that Mary is a prominent figure among the followers of Jesus; she exists as a character, memory in a textual world of androcentric language and patriarchal ideology; she speaks boldly; she plays a leadership role vis-a-vis the male disciples; she is a visionary; she is praised for her superior understanding; she is identified as the intimate companion of Jesus; she is opposed by or in open conflict with one or more male disciples; and she is defended by Jesus.4
Based on the description of her characters, there are glimpses on how she becomes a controversial and misinterpreted figure in the Church history, and for those reasons the Church downplayed her roles for centuries. According to Michael Haag, author of “The Quest for Mary Magdalene”, the Gospel of Mary undermines Church bureaucracy and favors personal understanding.5
What is often not brought out about Mary Magdalene is her life after Jesus’ Resurrection and Ascension into heaven and in particular her remarkable mystical life as revealed in the tradition of the Church as presented in early Church documents. When the first persecutions scattered the little Church of Jerusalem, those who were
scattered went everywhere, preaching the word of Christ. Thus the persecuted Christians went about numerous ports around the Mediterranean basin that included Greece, Italy, Spain, France, and many other countries
within the Roman Empire. France was then called Gaul; and the new life of Mary Magdalene begins there, on its Mediterranean coast. The area which cradles her tradition is known as “La Sainte Baume”
The tradition that tells of the arrival of Mary Magdalene and her companions on the coast of Gaul (France) goes back to the earliest centuries of Christianity. Her flight from the persecutions in Palestine is set at the year 42, the same year that James the Greater was executed in Jerusalem. Accompanied by Martha, Lazarus, Mary Salome and Mary Jacoby, the disciples Maximin and Sidonius (two of the 70 disciples referred to in the Gospels), with Marcella their servant, Mary Magdalene embarked on a small boat, crossed the Mediterranean, and arrived near the city of Marseilles (France), then known as Massilia. After some months, Mary Magdalene and the disciple Sidonius left Lazarus in Massilia, where he became its first bishop, and travelled northward, following the Huveaune river until they reached its source in the hills that would become known as La Sainte Baume. Some miles down the valley was the village bearing the Roman name of Villalata that in centuries to come would be known as Saint-Maximin-La-Sainte-Baume .It is here in this hermitage that Mary Magdalene spent the next 30 years of her life in solitude, in meditation and contemplation. Having spent 30 years spent in prayer and longing to be reunited with Jesus, the day came when Jesus enlightened her that death was approaching, and He guided her down the hill toward the village of Villalata. On the way there (and a pillar still marks the place), she was met by Maximin who had been divinely inspired to go to meet her and led her to his church. Once there, having received holy communion from his hand, she fell lifeless before the altar. The date was July 22, around the year 72 A.D. One of the earliest documents on the life of Mary Magdalene after the death of Christ is a text in Latin, by an anonymous author. It dates back to the fifth or sixth century. 6
In my childhood time, there was a movie about life of Jesus according to Gospel of Luke, entitled “Jesus of Nazareth”, that was shown on the national television every year on Easter Sunday. That time, there was
no single movie cinema in the province that I come from, and only 3 television channels ran that time. The Mary Magdalene being portrayed as a beautiful woman, who was released from demons, repented from her dark sinful life in past, and totally fell in love and loyal to served Jesus and His 12 disciples. But she wasn’t cast in much dialogue in that movie. Since then her image in that movie (and other modern movies about Jesus which not really different even sometimes injustice for her character), became an image of Mary Magdalene for me until I started to take an interest in “digging” for more stories of her and other women in the Bible. Nothing really wrong with her image in that movie, because that was the image built by Church and lived for centuries. But until I found out more about her story, then I was stunned by her bold and independent personality, her unshaken loyalty and faith in Jesus, her view and vision about the Kingdom of God on Earth, and the way she carried herself equally with other disciples during their journey with Jesus. Such is an exceptionally unique and controversial character for a woman in that time. Based on some books that have information about her, Mary Magdalene was one of main financial supporters for the journey. It mean she was independent economically and can lived by her own without support from a husband. There is no story relating her to marriage or family. Her special connection and relationship with Jesus, often misunderstood for romance instead of intellectual and equal partnership, as if women are not capable enough for logical thinking and being an equal partner. There might be feelings added in this relationship, but it was beyond shallow romance and attraction. Jesus must have seen and acknowledged her capability, faith and leadership, so that she became the first witness of His Resurrection, the crucial event of Christianity faith. The Christianity might have started from her witness and testimony. She was one the key persons for the birth of Christianity and the early church. For centuries, the Catholic Church has downplayed her roles and leadership, because of the fear of women leadership, as she is one of foundation for women leadership within the Church. The story of Mary Magdalene gave us pictures of how women being misunderstood and treated unjustly for been herself. As the key person, leader and strong foundation of faith in the Church history, for me Mary Magdalene is a prominent feminist from the past that should be a role model for other women to stand out for her beliefs and faith.
- Reverend Dr. Florence Li Tim Oi :
Li Tim Oi (李添嫒) was born in Hong Kong 5th May 1907 and was the first woman to be ordained to the priesthood in the Anglican Church, on 25th January 1944. 7 Her name meant “much-beloved daughter” because her Father wants to show that even though the culture and tradition prefer a son rather than a daughter, he felt blessed to have her. Li Tim Oi had an extraordinary life since she was born. Her Father is an educated and open-minded man, who encouraged his daughter for her studies, despite gender and status as a daughter from concubine (In China,the position of the concubine was generally inferior to that of the wife. Although a concubine could produce heirs, her children would be inferior in social status to a wife’s children, although they were of higher status than illegitimate children. The child of a concubine had to show filial duty to two women, their biological mother and their legal mother—the wife of their father8 ). Although later on, she has to pause her studies for took care her younger siblings and made some money for herself, she was allowed to continue her study after persuaded him and joined the Anglican congregation despite her family background as Christian.9 Her baptist name “Florence” was inspired by Florence Nightingale.
In 1931, Florence Li was present at the ordination of Deaconess Lucy Vincent at St. John’s Cathedral in Hong
Kong when the preacher had asked for women to give their lives to work for Christian ministry. Being inspired by this, Li would eventually go to Canton Union Theological College to receive her theological education before
returning to Hong Kong in 1938. After working for two years in All Saints Church, in Kowloon, helping refugees
in Hong Kong who fled mainland China in the midst of the Second Sino-Japanese War, Li was sent by Bishop Ronald Hall to help with refugees in Macau at the Macau Protestant Chapel. Six months into her new post, she returned to Hong Kong to be ordained as a deaconess on 22 May 1941 by Bishop Hall at St. John’s Cathedral, where she received her first call10, and be the first Chinese woman to be ordained as a deacon. When Hong Kong fell to the invasion of Japan on 1941, Macao becomes the place for refugees, but later on, it becomes one of the dangerous and difficult places to visit and celebrate the Eucharist for a priest from Hong Kong. Despite all difficulties and dangers, Florence Li Tim Oi never stops to serves and lead the Church. She was brave enough to sneak out and brought her family out of Hong Kong. Her service not only for the Church but also for those refugees. Her leadership and service were heard by Bishop Ronald Hall of Hong Kong, whom later after some discernment and reflection on the current situation and need, took an important and brave decision to ordained Florence Li Tim Oi as a priest on January 25th, 1944 and make her the first woman priest in Anglican Church.
Bishop Hall on his explanation to Archbishop of Canterbury at the time, William Temple, shared about his experience and journey with Florence Li Tim Oi that has opened his eyes about the way God called women to be a priest the same as men. although he himself was not an advocate for the ordination of women.11 Because of his controversial decision, Bishop Hall was criticized,reprimanded severely and called to resign from his position.
Reverend Florence Li Tim Oi made her personal decision, to not exercise her priesthood until it was acknowledged by the Anglican Communion, but she never resigns from her holy orders as a priest. She continued her minister and service faithfully, and later she was appointed as rector in St. Barnabas Church, Hepu. When the Communists came to power in China in 1949, Reverend Florence Li Tim Oi undertook theological studies in Beijing to further understand the implications of the Three-Self Movement (self-rule, self-support, and self- propagation) which now determined the life of the churches. She then moved to Guangzhou to teach and to serve at the Cathedral of Our Savior. However, for sixteen years, from 1958 onwards, during the Cultural Revolution, all churches were closed. She was forced to work first on a farm and then in a factory. Accused of counter-revolutionary activity, she was required to undergo political re-education. Finally, in 1974, she was allowed to retire from her work in the factory.
In 1979 the churches reopened, and Florence resumed her public ministry. Then, two years later, she was allowed to visit family members living in Canada. While there, to her great joy, she was licensed as a priest in the Diocese of Montreal and later in the Diocese of Toronto, where she finally settled, until her death on February 26, 1992.12 The story of Florence Li Tim Oi was new for me, although I have heard about Li Tim
Oi Foundation before. After got to know her through our online course, I started to search for more information about her and her extraordinary life journey.
Looking back to a difficult situation and obstacle faced by Christian in China since past time until these days, it was amazing for me to know that the first woman priest comes from China. Not only because of the current situation in China due to the political system, but also China as well as other countries in Asia, is a strong influence by the patriarchy culture system until this moment. This one of the reasons for me to said that Florence Li Tim Oi life was extraordinary since born.
Based on some stories and information about her, I could say that Li Tim Oi was a brave and strong leader who trust and lived her life accordingly with the plan of God. Without hesitant, she answers God’s call and never turns back from that path. She always ready to be sent to wherever places that need her service, and never back
down despite difficulties and danger that came as consequences from her answer to the call. When her ordination was being questioned by Church authority and brought several difficulties not only for her but others who supported her, Florence Li Tim Oi handled it with calmness and patience, which shown through her humble decision to not exercise her priesthood, but never stop to serve. I think for her, served people and
the Church is more important than recognition from the world. She shined not because of her status as a priest, but because of her work and service. That was her way to answer those questions, and to show her capability to be a Church leader. Sometimes action speaks louder than words. Her faith, passion, and trust on God’s
plan could be role models and encouragement not only for women but all leaders in the Church.
- Saint Perpetua and Saint Felicity:
Vibia Perpetua was a married noblewoman and a mother of an infant said to have been 22 years old in the time of her death. Together with her was Felicity, a slave who was pregnant when they were imprisoned. They were two of Christian martyrs on 3rd Century, that believed to have died in 203 AD, at Carthage in the Roman province of Africa (North Africa). 13
At this time, North Africa was the center of a vibrant Christian community. It is no surprise, then, that when Emperor Septimius Severus determined to cripple Christianity (he believed it undermined Roman patriotism), he focused his attention on North Africa. Among the first to be arrested were five new Christians taking classes to prepare for baptism, one of whom was Perpetua.14
Not many stories about their early life, especially on how they became Christian, also about the background and marriage life of Perpetua before imprisoned. But thanks to old text The Passion of Perpetua and Felicity,
we got to know about their love and faith on Jesus Christ, their vision, deep emotion and strong connection that build among those prisoners, the relationship between Perpetua and her Father also between both mother with their babies, and about their martyrdom.15
Although I supposed to choose only one more woman in the past, but when it comes to story of Saint Perpetua, we could not just ignore the story of Saint Felicity. Because they were together in the crucial moment of their martyrdom, despite difference of their social status. This two wonderful and brave ladies, build and tied their special bond during imprisoned time, and suffer together because of their love and faith to God. Both of them also mothers, Perpetua to an infant son , whom brought to her during imprisoned time for nurse and breastfeed before taken by her Father, and Felicity to a baby girl who was born in prison before her martyrdom.
They were gifted and strong, as we can see in the text The Passion of Perpetua and Felicity, how Perpetua got
visions and messages from God in prison, how strong Felicity to carried her pregnancy and delivered her baby
in prison, how their faith and grace influenced people surround them, and about leadership of Perpetua.
During those difficult days, Perpetua naturally became their leaders as she was dared to talked, challenged and
confront those authorities in prison and people who came to watch their execution. She never give up on her
faith, and her visions strengthened others too. As no stories about husband or father of their children, we
could assume whether they were separated before imprison time, or died earlier, or out of marriage for Felicity. For me, this is another point of their strong personality.
What moved me about their stories, is they are not afraid to show their fears, heartbroken and humanity. As mothers, their heart was broken when separated from their babies, as a daughter Perpetua was ached and sad when confronted by her Father. Also doesn’t it beautiful to see their friendship and how they helped each
other, even until the last moment of their life? Those feelings make their stories close and real for me. I have asked myself, which decision will I take if I am in their position. Would I be selfless in the difficult moment of my life, as both of them in their stories? Their stories also showed that God’s call and love is equal for everyone,
no matter your social status or gender or life in the past, we all can be the messenger of God.
For me, there are some important points that can be highlighted and taken from three stories above, about those incredible women in the history of the church. Although those stories about four woman with different characters, they have given us strong messages about the importance of women roles and good samples of leadership in the Church and society. Their stories teach us to be ourself, stand for the truth and our beliefs no matter how the world treated and misunderstood us.We could see also from their stories that for those women, actions speak louder than words, and everyone is equal and capable to be the messenger of God, as long as you believe in God’s plan and love.
Actually took sometimes for me to make a short general conclusion for this article, because of the richness of three stories above, which could not be included all in this short article, and open for multi-interpretation. Therefore, all of us are invited to make our own interpretation and conclusion for ourself from those extraordinary women.
2 “From Saint to Sinner”, Birger A.Pearson
4 Schaberg, Resurrection of Mary Magdalene, p. 129
10 Harrison, Ted (1985). Much Beloved Daughter. London: Darton, Longman & Todd, Limited. pp. 16–40
11 Rose, Mavis (1996). Freedom From Sanctified Sexism – Women Transforming the Church. Queensland, Australia:
Allira Publications. pp. 129–149