Mary, Mother of Jesus: Apostle, Liturgical Leader, and Bishop- A Role Model for Women’s Empowerment

Dr Ally Kateusz’s book, Mary and Early Christian Women : Hidden Leadership presents numerous texts and illustrations of women doing what men did in the early Church preaching, baptizing, and leading worship. She focuses on Mary, mother of Jesus, as a woman with spiritual authority who led the apostles, healed with her hands, exorcised evil spirits, officiated at Eucharist at the Last Supper with Jesus and who was depicted as a bishop. This portrait shatters the submissive woman stereotype and offers Mary as a role model for women’s empowerment that is egalitarian and perfect for the 21st century. 

See illustration Paul (balding ) and Peter (bangs) standing next to Mary, portrayed wearing an episcopalpallium, a bishop’s vestment worn during celebration of the Eucharist.”  Her episcopal pallium has a red cross and she also wears red shoes. Both the pallium with a red cross and the shoes are still insigna of the bishop of Rome.(Mosaic 650 AD , San Venantius, Lateran Baptistery, Rome, A. Kateusz, p. 87. 
***In recent times Pope, you may recall photos of Benedict XV1 wearing red shoes. Now I know where this tradition comes from! 

The author of the Protevangelium, an early extra canonical gospel, outside the New Testament Canon, twice stated that Mary had been inside the Holy of Holies of the Jerusalem Temple. According to Leviticus 16 and Hebrews 9:7, only a high priest was permeated to enter this sacred space. This text identifies Mary with the qualities of a high priest. The Gospel of Bartholomew, which scholars date around the third century, describes  Mary partaking of bread and wine at the Temple altar just before the Annunciation.

The Gospel of Bartholomew also portrayed her spiritual authority over the apostles. The author describes a debate between Mary and the male apostles on who is more qualified to lead them in prayer. In the end, the author concludes that Mary’s liturgical leadership is greater than Peter’s. The text states that Mary standing in front of the male apostles, said, “’let us stand up in prayer’.” Then the apostles stood behind Mary who “spread out her hands to heaven and began to pray.”  (Gospel of Bartholomew, 2:13, Sheneemelcher, New Testament Aprocrypha, 1:54 cited in A. KATEUSZ p. 7)

San Gennaro Catacombs, Naples, Fresco of Cerula

In the fourth century, Bishop Epiphanius complained about women priests sacrificing bread to the name of Mary on the altar table. (Epiphanius of Salamis, Frank Panarion, 78:23.3-4, 79:1-7, (in Frank Panarion, 618,621, A. Kateusz, p. 8, 195) 

According to the Life of the Virgin, an early biography of Mary, Mary and the women disciples were present at the Last Supper. During the meal, first Mary, and then Jesus, modeled a ritual of female and male co-priesthood. In this source, Mary is portrayed as the teacher of the women and ‘for this reason,’ at the supper, ‘she sacrificed herself as the priest and she was sacrificed, she offered and she was offered.’ Then, Jesus offered his body and blood.” Dr. Kateusz, concludes “This supper scene would appear to explain why Mary was widely portrayed as a Eucharistic officiant, for example, wearing the episcopal pallium or holding the Eucharistic cloth, as well as why she and her son were paired on Eucharistic utensils.” (A. Kateusz,”’She sacrificed herself as the Priest’: Early Christian Female and Male Co-Priests’” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion,33, No. 1 (Spring 2017) 45-67 Feminae Article of the Month, 2018, cited in Mary and the Early Christian Women,  p, 133

Dr. Kateusz notes that there are five mosaics in three basilicas that show women wearing this pallium. Two mosaics portray male bishops, two portray Mary, and one portrays Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist with an episcopal pallium hanging down in front, from beneath their coats. (The Visitation of Mary,  Mosaic 550, Euphraisana Basilica, Porec, Croatia, Wilpert, Romischen Mosaiken,  figure 313, A. Kateusz, p. 85. )

Other interesting artifacts show women and men in a gender-parallel liturgy inside two of the most prominent churches in Christendom-Old Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome and Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. 

This carving on an ivory reliquary box in Rome depicts female and male clergy with parallel roles in celebrating a Eucharistic liturgy.  This ivory reliquary box is dated 425-450 and was discovered near Polo, Croatia, Museo Archeologica, Venice, (cited in A. Kateusz, p. 165)


A number of prominent scholars believe that a vast array of ancient extra canonical gospels and artifact provide data that support the following conclusions:  1) there were female and male leaders with equivalent authority around the Mediterranean in the early centuries of Christianity; 2)  women performed the same ministries as men did modeled after Mary; 3) they were referred to as “apostles” because they preached, sealed and baptized; and 4) women officiants, depending on their location and community, presided at Eucharist in house churches in the New Testament and were referred to as president, bishop, priest, presbyter, deacon and minister. ( See 1 Corinthians1:11 for Chloe’s house; Colossians 4;15 for Nympha; Philemon, 1;2 for Apphia’s ; Romans 16:3 for Priscilla 1 Cor. 16:9 for the church in her house; Act 16:40 for Lydia’s; Acts 12:12 for Mary, the mother of John Mark and 2 John 1:1 for the unnamed lady. Additional evidence conclude that women functioned in the role of overseer, or bishop of churches in various communities in the Mediterranean. For example, in the east, Epiphanius of Salamis reported that some Christians ordained women bishops and that they were not under the authority of their husbands. (See A Kateusz, p. 154, Madigan, Woman Officeholders, 193, Eisen ,Women Officeholders 199-200.)

Dr. Kateusz’ striking images of Mary and other courageous women leaders in our early Christian tradition are a rich treasure chest for reflection. The evidence that women were leaders in the early centuries of the Jesus movement is a clarion reminder that patriarchy has no place in today’s Church and an inspiration for all who are working for the full equality of women. ARCWP is walking in the footsteps of our sisters as we use equal rites to achieve equal rights by ordaining women and men in a renewed model of priestly ministry in the Roman Catholic Church.

Bridget Mary Meehan ARCWP, https://arcwp.org