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Profiles in Catholicism

Mary Mc. Aleese scores a goal in Rome

by Father Michael Collins

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Mary Mc. Aleese, former President of Ireland, has called the Catholic Church “a empire of misogyny.” Speaking in Rome yesterday on the eve of International Women’s Day, Mary Mc. Aleese  stated her belief that “the Catholic Church is one of the last great bastions of misogyny.” 

It made me think of a new movie, Mary Magdalene, to be released this month. Listening to Mary made me think of her namesake who lived two thousand years ago.

The discovery of fragments of a gospel telling the story from the viewpoint of Mary Magdalene gave producers Iain Canning and Emile Sherpoint an idea. Although only a few papyrus sheets survive of the Gnostic Gospel of Mary, dating between the 3rd to 5th centuries, it is clear to scholars that the text enjoyed popularity among early Christians. And now those papyrus pages have been translated to the screen.


The discovery of the Gospel of Mary is fascinating. In January 1896, the German scholar Carl Reinhardt  was visiting the market in Cairo when a bookseller offered him some early Christian writings in Coptic. As he leafed through the papyrus pages, he realised that he held a very ancient text in his hands.


Reinhardt asked where the book came from but the bookseller said that it had been found by a young boy in a wall. The implausible story was impossible to verify. There were strict laws governing the selling of antique artifacts and neither Reinhardt nor the bookseller wanted to jeopardize the sale. Eventually Reinhardt purchased the book and had it transported to Berlin.

As it turned out, there were three works in the binding, the Sophia of Jesus, the Apocryphon of John and the Gospel of Mary. Reinhardt placed the volume in the Egyptian section of the Berlin museum and went on to catalogue other manuscripts which he had brought from Egypt.

Shortly afterwards, the Egyptologist Can Schmidt came across the codice and studied it. He was curious that the first six pages of the work, as well as four from the middle of the work, were missing.

At the same time back in Egypt, two British archeologists, Arthur Hunt and Bernard Grenfell, were excavating a site near the town of Oxyrhynchus in southern Egypt. Among the manuscripts they uncovered were early Christian texts which indicated that the so- called Gospel of Mary must date to the middle or end of the second century.

Schmidt prepared an edition for publication, which he gave to a printer in Leipzig. Just as the edition was to go to print in 1912, a burst water pipe destroyed the plates. Before Schmidt was ready to publish again, the First World War broke out, putting an end to his dreams. With his death in 1938, the task of producing the edition fell the German scholar, Walter Till.

In the meanwhile, portions of another copy of the Gospel of Mary had surfaced in Egypt. This text, similar to the Coptic version, was written in Greek. Till incorporated the new findings but the Second World War prohibited publication. While Till continued to work, finally publishing in 1955 an exciting find took place in Egypt.

In 1945, two brothers came across terracotta jars while they were digging for fertilizer near the town of Nag Hammadi. Among the papyrus text unearthed were the Sophia of Jesus and the Apochryphon of John, written in Coptic. Dated to third century, they gave further evidence that the works were early.

So, back to the movie. In the opening scene Mary is called to assist a young girl in childbirth. She may have been the village midwife. She is then exorcised by her family who are concerned that she is too religious and wanted to pray like a man. She even tried to sit in the area reserved for the men in synagogue. 

Soon afterwards she listens to an itinerant visitor, Jesus, whose works of healing and words of wisdom gain him followers. She is gradually attracted to the charismatic figure and gains his confidence. There is a mutual attraction, which clearly irritates some of the other followers. 

The idea of the new film, Mary Magdalene, is inspired by the post- resurrection dialogue between Mary and the apostles. The movie traces the last months of Jesus life , culminating in his crucifixion and resurrection. Without giving anything away, the meeting between Mary and the apostles, which is inspired by the ancient Coptic text, is highly emotional. It is also highly topical, as Catholics continue argue over the role of women in the Church. 

In the Gospel of Mary, Peter invites Mary to share her memories of Jesus. Mary speaks eloquently and reveals things which they did not know. Both Andrew and Peter are annoyed by her composure and Peter rebukes her, challenging the implicit assertion that Jesus may have told her things which he did not also reveal to the apostles. There is more than a suspicion of misogyny here. 

The Gospel of Mary was composed during a period when early Christianity was highly fluid and where the oral tradition still held sway over the written tradition. Many of these communities, such as the Egyptian one, were isolated. Keep in mind that Paul toured modern- day Greece and Turkey before ending his life in Rome. Egyptian and Graeco- Roman Christianity developed along divergent lines and the Gnostic gospels were not included among the books of the New Testament canon.

The Mary who emerges from the silver screen is an appealing and believable person. She is one of a group of women whom, the gospels recount, followed him and provided for him.  One could almost credit her with bringing together the dismayed apostles and giving them courage to continue believing Jesus. Sadly, the real Mary was edited out of history and relegated to second place while the men moved the Christian community forward, perhaps a pale imitation of Jesus’ original intention. This was perhaps inevitable given the Judeo Greco Roman culture in which the early Christians were immersed. But, as the old saying goes, that was then and this is now. Do we have to be bound by a culture which has changed beyond recognition?


To be balanced, therefore, we must admit that the Christian Churches inherited the patriarchalism of Judaism, thus favoring the public role of the male. The legalisation of the Church by the 4th- century emperor Constantine led to the adaption of the cursus honorum. This was the promotion through grades whereby men, usually having started in the army, progressed through the civil service and political promotions.  The present- day Roman Curia is modeled on the civil service of the secular Roman Empire, right down to the titles they used. The Reformed Churches began to shake that off in the 20th century while the Catholic Church, even after the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), has made negligible progress. It does not appear that there are two camps within the church, one trying actively to stop women and others trying to advance their total inclusion. It seems inertia is weighing the issue down.

But back to the movie. As it draws to its climax, Mary meets the remaining apostles. Without giving away the ending, it is clear that the apostle’s vision is victorious. If Mary Mc. Aleese had been there, perhaps history would have been quite different. But Mary, and countless committed Catholics like her, are here now. Will their voices be heeded?