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Interview: Ally Kateusz, cultural historian

18 October 2019

‘Three artefacts depict women at the altar, either alone or in parallel with men’

Essentially, I’m a detective running down leads. I research and read at the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research. I don’t make any claim to theology — I’m a cultural historian. Mostly, I work near nature.

I can do research anywhere, and it happens that my husband works in the US, and most of the time I live there in the country and at the ocean. I prefer research to teaching; so being a research associate is perfect for me.

The award that made the most difference to me was the Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza New Scholar Award, which I received for my first peer-reviewed journal article. That made me realise I was on the right track, and to keep going. It was a deep analysis of some texts about Mary.

As a child, I was unchurched, and when I began to study early Chris­tian women, I noticed patterns in the data that scholars raised in the Church seemed to overlook. When I discovered that some early Christian authors had described Mary and other women with markers of litur­gical authority, I felt that it was im­­portant to publish. I was really sur­prised by the amount of censorship, both ancient and modern, of women’s roles in the Early Church.

Another surprise came after I finished the book. The book in­­cludes many iconographical artefacts — items like a chalice, a pyx, mosaics, altar carvings — including three that depict women at the altar of a real church, either women alone or in parallel with men. Since we all have been told that men, and only men, were priests, after the book was completed I began to look for other artefacts that I imagined must exist and show only men at the altar of a real church. But I couldn’t find any dated before the ninth century.

In the early 400s, you have these depictions of men and women at the altar at Old St Peter’s Basilica, in Rome, and in the Hagia Sophia, in Constantinople, plus, in the 500s, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. All depict women at the altar. These are important churches that modelled the liturgy for smaller churches.

The artefact depicting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem shows solely women at the altar. I suppose, although I’m not a theo­logian, this makes sense from a theo­logical point of view, because this was the site where the risen Christ appeared to Mary Magdalene, the apostle to the apostles, and the other women. It makes sense that this church’s tradition would preserve only women in its liturgy.

My book Mary and Early Christian Women: Hidden leadership was launched in July. Several colleagues already told me that they are using it in classes or assigning it to doctoral students. I read my subsequent paper at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome this summer, regarding the three oldest artefacts to depict people at the altar of a real church. It was very well received — especially considering how con­troversial the topic of women clergy is in some Churches. Catholic publications, such as The Tablet, Crux, and The National Catholic Reporter, did not debate whether the women were at altars: they debated whether the women were deacons or priests and bishops.

It felt holy to present my research in Rome. I had a fairly large roomful of scholars, and the questions were affirmative. The way art speaks for itself surprises me sometimes: it’s logical, visual, obvious evidence that has not been brought forward before. I haven’t had anybody say anything that isn’t basically in agreement, although some may come — that’s what scholarship is all about.

Sometimes, I find that the Catholic Church prefers to be silent about things in order not to draw attention to them. What is more symbolically potent than an artefact that depicts a woman at the altar inside old St Peter’s, the very heart of the Vatican? In the 1940s, after Vatican excavators dug beneath the high altar of the modern St Peter’s, they found an ivory artefact depicting the liturgy in Old St Peter’s: an artefact that three decades of art historians concluded depicted a woman at the altar. The Vatican quietly attempted to redefine the scene by claiming there must have been a portable altar in old St Peter’s. I expose this artful effort in my book.

I think a great deal of work is still to be done, but Christians today are hungry to know their origins, and there has always been a drive in the Church to follow the traditions as they once were. These artefacts are precious windows through which we can see the liturgy as it was once performed. Recovering the ancient Christian tradition of women and men in parallel at the altar table — as Genesis 1 says, male and female in the divine image — could potentially redeem Churches suffering from male clerics corrupted by the idol­atrous belief that they are entitled to sexual power over women and chil­dren.

Maybe the Eastern Church is not only physically closer to the Holy Land, but also remains theologically closer to the roots of early Christ­ianity, including Mary as a role model for women with church au­­­thority, as I demonstrate in my book. I think that’s perhaps why, in the East, we still see the theotokos figure en­­­throned and upright, gazing straight ahead, whereas the Blessed Virgin of the Western Church be­­came an ancillary inter­ces­sor, often seen slumped, eyes down­cast.

As a child, my family were poor, and lived in the middle of the Ozark forest in southern Missouri. Today, my husband, David, and I still live close to nature.

One cold night, 3 January 2002, I was out shopping when I received a call that our daughter had been in an accident, and was being life-flighted. As I raced to the hospital, each time I nearly swerved off the road with fear, Mary’s voice came to me and told me she would be OK. I feel Mary has tethered me to Christianity.

I’m currently working on a book, The Invention of the All-Male Priesthood.
I’m still doing my re­­­­­search, but, as far as I can tell now, it was a slow process with multiple turn­ing-points. Everyone wants to think there’s a smoking gun out there, but the change to an all-male priesthood was gradual, probably over a period of eight to ten cen­turies — maybe longer. Even near the end of the first millennium, we still see women clerics giving the people the body and blood in some communities. But it is more local, not widespread, as in the fifth century when we see women at the altars of some of the most important churches around the Mediterranean.

This change away from the early Christian liturgical tradition
corres­ponds, in part, to the end of late antiquity and the beginning of “the Dark Ages”, as some people used to call it. Perhaps, at least in part, it was caused by fear.

There are lots of things I still want to do. I want to trek through Africa. I want to celebrate 50 years of marriage with my husband. I want to travel to Bali with our children.

Injustice makes me angry, especially against women and children.

Finishing a major research project always gives me a high, but I am happiest when with my family.

The way girls today are stepping for­ward gives me hope for the future.
I believe women’s leadership, long suppressed, will lead the way. Malala and Greta are fearless, even in the face of strong male oppo­sition, and, in Malala’s case, of the most egre­gious sort; but it doesn’t stop them. They have a fortitude and belief that is an example for other girls and boys. They are not falling back on stereotypes: they are in their own power, and they are going with it.

If I was locked in a place of worship for a few hours with anyone, I’d choose Mary, of course. I would ask her where to find a copy of the lost Hebrew Gospel.

Dr Ally Kateusz was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

Mary and Early Christian Women: Hidden leadership is pub­lished by Palgrave Macmillan, part of Springer International Publishing, at £20 but can be accessed free online.


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