On Easter morning, while the men were sleeping, the women went to the tomb very early in the morning and witnessed the first appearance of the risen Jesus. This is perhaps the first surprise of the resurrection of Jesus—the first witnesses of the resurrection were women.
Of course, the greatest surprise of Easter is Jesus’ triumph over death. By his resurrection he destroyed death. Death no longer have the final say. Jesus’ resurrection is the greatest reason of our faith. We will not celebrate Easter today, let alone would there be a church and Christian religion, if Jesus did not rise from the dead. Life and goodness will triumph despite all the suffering and misery we now experience. We will rise up with Jesus to new life in the midst of this pandemic.
All four gospels recount that women were the first witnesses of the resurrection of Jesus. Mark narrates that “When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him” (Mark 16: 1). Matthew relates that “After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning; Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb” (Matthew 28: 1). Luke presents us with a number of women at the empty tomb: “The women were Mary Magdalene, Joanna and Mary the mother of James,” as well as the unnamed “others who accompanied them” (Luke 24:10). While John tells us that the risen Jesus appeared only to Mary of Magdala (John 20: 14 – 17). In all four gospels, the name Mary Magdalene was mentioned which gives credence to the belief that Mary Magdalene was one of the first persons to whom the risen Jesus appeared.
For centuries, Mary Magdalene was imputed with a bad reputation and sometimes called a demon-possessed whore. Not until the last century that the Church’s cease to identify her with the “sinful woman” who anoints Jesus’ feet in Scripture. The church later gave Mary Magdalene her due, calling her the Apostle of the Apostles because she was the first to witness the resurrected Jesus.
Why would Jesus first appear to women at a time when women were not considered credible witnesses? This difficulty may have confronted the early Church. For the apostles, at least, this was a problem as Luke writes, “Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them” (24: 10 – 11).
What does this overlooked detail about Jesus’ resurrection tells us about how to live the Easter spirit?
The first lesson of the resurrection of Jesus is that we are all called to witness the resurrection. This is what the women sought when they went to the tomb very early on that Easter morning. True, we have not seen with our eyes the resurrection of Jesus but as the risen Jesus told Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (John: 20: 29). This is us–we are the blessed ones, we all have not seen and yet we believe!
But believing is not enough. We need to give witness and live out the resurrection. As St. Augustine proclaimed: We are an Easter people and alleluia is our song! We are the children of Easter morn. We need to proclaim the resurrection of Jesus with our feet. We need to walk the resurrection and resurrect the walk.
The second lesson concerns the fact that it was to women that Jesus first appeared after his resurrection. There must be a very good reason why God made his risen Son known first to women and only later to the Apostles. This challenges us to take a hard look once again at women’s place in the church. Even as Pope Francis asks us to develop a deeper theology of women, the Church still struggles today to give women their due voice as witnesses to our risen life in Christ.
The attitude of Mary of Magdala and the other women may teach us something about witnessing to the resurrection. The women witnesses had no status, power, and wealth. This may actually made them more open and receptive to the magnificent surprise of Jesus’ resurrection. After all it has been shown in God’s story of salvation that it is to the weak and humble, like Mary, the mother of Jesus, that God first reveals and acts out God’s mission. Witnessing to the resurrection does not involve status, power and wealth. It calls us to embrace the women witnesses’ disposition of humility and willingness to God’s intervention in our lives.
The third lesson has got to do with the difficulty that the women encountered in testifying to the risen Lord—they were met with scepticism and rejection even by the apostles themselves. The difficulties of the women in giving witness to Jesus resurrection are also experienced today by many Christians who are persecuted because of their faith. They are experienced by Christians who stand up for truth, justice and peace in the midst of complacency, violence, falsehood and injustice. They are also experienced by Christians who lead simple, selfless and authentic connections in the midst of the consumerist, selfie and shallow connections of digital culture. They are also experienced by Christians who demonstrate their Christian identities and values in the midst of the secularized and capitalist world. They are also experienced by Christians who sacrificed their lives for their loved ones, friends and even to strangers without receiving any reward in return.
Witnessing to the resurrection of Jesus will always be challenging. But like the women in the gospel today, we do not need power, position and status. We just need to be constantly open to God’s surprise every day of our lives.
In celebration of International Women’s Day (IWD) today, I would like to reflect on the rise of women’s movement called feminism and its implications for the devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help. On the other hand, this short essay will present how Mary, Our Mother of Perpetual Help (OMPH) can be a resource for feminism. Furthermore, this essay will contemplate on the icon of OMPH and its significance to women.
The Rise of Women
One of the most significant movements of the last fifty years of the 20th century was the feminist movement. This movement brought significant changes to the traditional family. As British sociologist Anthony Giddens declares, “As women stake claim to greater quality, traditional family systems are under strain, in many parts of the world.”
A major consequence of this is the gradual breakdown of the patriarchal family. “The inequality of men and women was intrinsic to the traditional family.” Consequently, we are now in a post-patriarchal family: “The heterosexual, nuclear, patriarchal family built around a long-lasting marriage is today the exception rather than the rule in the United States and in the majority of Western Europe.” The breakdown of patriarchal family not only transformed women but also men. Marina Subirats talks about ‘new masculinities’ where men seek new perspectives of meaningful existence by liberating themselves from the burden of their responsibility as patriarchs.
Philippines has one of highest regard for women in Asia. The Philippines is the world’s seventh most gender-equal society among 144 economies and remained the highest-ranked country in the Asia-Pacific region. The World Economic Forum (WEF)’s Global Gender Gap Report 2016 showed the Philippines closing nearly 79 percent of its gender gap. Does the status of the Philippine as a Marian country has something to do with this? Despite this glowing report, however, abuse of women continues in the Philippines—battered women, misogyny in many aspects of life, sexual harassment in the workplace, rape and income inequality, among others.
As the world is beginning to explore the value of women in the workforce especially at a decision-making level, sadly the church is one of the major institution of the world where women are not given as much role as men. Female involvement especially in decision-making processes within the Catholic Church is still very weak. Patriarchy runs deep within the church. Thus, from the beginning of his pontificate, Pope Francis has called for a renewed “theology of women.” Pope Francis also affirms the need for new “anthropological research” in order to understand both the feminine and masculine identity more deeply, and thus “better serve the human being as a whole.”
The shrine has exerted lots of effort in line with Pope Francis’ desire to find ways to empower women in the church.
Feminist critique of Devotion
The French philosopher and considered godmother of feminism, Simone de Beauvoir, claimed that the cult of the Virgin Mary is one of the ways in which Western culture had constructed an artificial version of femininity which was submissive and inferior. Many feminists believe that Mary is a product of the Western patriarchal church. It was the male church who put Mary on the pedestal. The male church is manifested in the penchant for titles, power, status, and hierarchy. For Luce Irigaray, the fertile, corporeal, and maternal aspects of the Christian story have been neglected in favor of a life-denying religion based on the patriarchal and sacrificial relationship between a Father God and his crucified Son. Dutch Professor Catherina Halkes argued that veneration of Mary arose out of a male church glorifying Mary while at the same time stamping male domination. In this context, Halkes calls for liberation of Mary from the image that men have formed of her and from the projections that a male priestly hierarchy has attached to her. Elizabeth A. Johnson, for her part, presented an interesting hypothesis that Mary’s image has been developed historically as a female representation of the divine, precisely because the “feminine” has been excluded from the mainline Christian perception of God as Father, Son and Spirit. The patriarchal bias of Christian theology has made God more as a powerful creator and just judge than a loving, caring, tender, nurturing being. God has been made theologically according to the image of man and the patriarchal society concept of maleness as tough, aggressive, dominant, and thus soft pedaling the so called “feminine” dimension of warmth, concern and love.
Mary was also used as a model which played off against women. Marina Warner explored this through an examination of the cultural history of Mariolatry which places the Virgin on an unreachable pedestal. Through Mariolatry, the Catholic Church has made women, with their ordinary desires and ordinary reproductive lives, feel diminished.
On the other hand, American feminist theologian, Elizabeth Schussler Florenza showed that the development of Mariology throughout the world has contributed to the liberation of women. Feminist theologians have also recovered Mary as a powerful symbol for women. The femininity of Mary is a counter-symbol to power. Thus, Coyle argued that “[T]heologians must critique the silent and submissive images that have presented Mary as sweet and uncomplaining and that do little to uplift marginalized and oppressed women… Mary must be retrieved as a woman strong and resourceful, our sister in faith who did not hesitate to proclaim God’s concern for the oppressed.” Similarly, Elizabeth Schussler Florenza pointed out the silence and neglect concerning women in the Bible and in Tradition. Elizabeth Johnson’s endeavored to pull down Mary from the artificial pedestal that patriarchy have made of her by divesting Mary of all her queenly titles. In so doing, Mary become one like us, in Johnson’s words, Mary is truly our sister. American writer Monique Ocampo explains further,
Mary was just as human as the rest of us. She felt pain, she felt fear, she felt loss just like the rest of us. She was a mother and a wife and a daughter and a cousin. I imagine her as a short and sassy woman who wasn’t picture-perfect in looks, but still beautiful in heart. Once we remember that Mary (and the rest of the saints) are as human as the rest of us, it helps us on the path of relating to her and imitating her.
Contemplatio: Looking through the Icon
Through the icon, Mary saw and heard the suffering and cries of women who contemplated on her icon day and night at the shrine. Mary OMPH identifies with the suffering of abused and degraded women. Through the icon of OMPH, devotees have been invited to build a world where there is gender equality and free of degradation and marginalization of women.
Icons as images of glorious saints and Mary in heaven, invite devotees to a future where all are equal in God. Life with God in heaven transcends gender as St. Paul proclaims in Galatians 3:28: “There is neither…male nor female for all are one in Christ Jesus.” Anthony Kelly adds that,
[W] are not to identify ourselves by gender … all are equal in Christ. Male domination is an abomination. The icon is a rejection of patriarchy. As an icon of the Father in this way, she subverts the religious imagination that would see the ultimate origin in rigidly masculine terms.
In the icon, Mary shows her son Jesus to the devotees as the model of inclusivity and respect for the most marginalized in society including women. He showed mercy for the woman caught in adultery, realizing the injustice of persecuting the woman while no punishment was directed toward her male sexual partner (John 8:3-11). Jesus treated women as people, not servants or sex objects. In a day when men did not even speak to women publicly, Jesus explained the scriptures and offered hope to the woman at the well, a member of an outcast race (John 4: 1 – 26). Moved by compassion, He resurrected the only son of a widow (Luke 7: 11 – 17). He was the perfect gentleman on every occasion, never abusing His power or celebrity status. He taught women, healed women, and accepted women, even those considered “unclean.” more appreciation and understanding of the gift and distinctiveness of femininity in all areas of life—this shines forth Jesus’ inclusive ministry in a deeply patriarchal and exclusive monolithic Jewish society. Through the icon, Mary invites devotees to follow Jesus’ example of treating women.
Missio: Following Jesus with Mary
Mary represents a break from the patriarchy in scriptures. Mary is a counter-symbol to male dominance in the scriptures. We saw Mary as the first evangelizer of Jesus walking 70 km to visit her cousin Elizabeth. She was a courageous prophet in proclaiming the magnificat. She is not meek and mild weakling. We can see her as an archetype for contemporary women in their legitimate desires to be more intensely involved in the mission of the Church and in the healing of societal wounds.
Mary has shown us the true meaning and value of a human being not bound by gender nor any human boundaries but by the grace and power of God. She was chosen by God to be the mother of God’s son not because she was a woman but because of her utmost openness and willingness to participate in God’s mission. As Kelly explains,
She is defined in no other way, by no other relationship – neither by a human partner, nor by social expectations, nor by human ambition, nor even by the common religious notions of her time or ours. What determines her existence is solely what God can be and what God can do.
Mary has a big role in transforming the understanding of the church (ecclesiology). Mary can help the church today in living out her true identity and mission in the world. The Catholic Catechism of the Church considers Mary as the exemplary realization of the Church, and her eschatological icon and preeminent sign of hope. The Swiss theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasar, hailed as one of the most important Roman Catholic theologians of the 20th century, is one of the prominent theologians who vigorously advocated for the Marian transformation of the church. He asserts that the Marian principle constitutes the soul of the Church. Without it, ecclesial life risks being reduced to mere bureaucracy and functionalism.
Balthasar, in the tradition of the early Fathers, saw Mary as the archetypal image of the Church. Balthasar considers Mary’s bridal “yes” of bodily faith, which continues on in the Church as fruitful virginity, not only has implications for the Church; indeed, it is the Marian fiat that defines the Church. The fiat and redemption are so interwoven, so inseparably one, that the creature cannot say “yes” to God without being redeemed, but neither can the creature be redeemed without having somehow spoken his or her “yes.” Mary’s single “yes,” her personal fiat in its unlimited availability to God’s plan, sufficed for the incarnate Lord to say “yes” to all his creatures, and has become “by grace, the bridal womb, matrix, and mater” in and through which each creature can say “yes” to God, and by which “he also forms the truly universal Church.” In this light, he sees the Church as profoundly Marian, feminine, and bridal. He sees the Church as person, as body, as structure, and ultimately, as bride. “The Church is primarily feminine because her primary, all-encompassing truth is her ontological gratitude, which both receives the gift and passes it on.”
Ross Campbell points out Balthasar’s significant view that throughout the history of the Triune God’s dealings with humanity a female principle is present. The history of our salvation is marked by a feminine presence that responds actively and fruitfully to God’s initiatives: first Israel, which is presented throughout the Scriptures in feminine terms (as the daughter of Sion or, in those times when the prophets urge her to repentance, as a faithless wife); then Mary; and now the Church (the bride of Christ). And it is in this context, then, that the experience of the early Church and in particular the experience of Mary becomes pivotal for all believers. For centuries, however, the feminine identification of the church has become subordinate to the symbol of the male provider of leadership which Balthazar calls the Petrine principle. He describes the consequences of a masculine dominance of the church:
It has to a large extent put off its mystical characteristics; it has become a church of permanent conversations, organizations, advisory commissions, congresses, synods… structures and restructurings, sociological experiments, statistics, that is to say, more than ever a male church, if perhaps one should not say a sexless entity.
Balthazar, therefore, argues that the Petrine-Apostolic ministry of word and sacrament is never an end in itself but rather it is always subordinate to, and in the service of, the Marian principle. The Petrine principle is given to us by Christ to enable the Church to become what she already is in Mary, the spotless bride. All that is given to Peter is given to him to make the Church (and us) more like Mary.
The Petrine-Apostolic ministry of word and sacrament is never an end in itself but rather it is always subordinate to, and in the service of, the Marian principle.
In the light of all these, Mary can serve to counteract any tendencies of patriarchy in the church. Mary is a counter-symbol to any tendency within the church for bureaucracy, hierarchy, power and status. As Balthasar has advocated, Mary as prototype of the church entails a shift from structural ecclesiology (rules, order, hierarchy, structures, and management) to Marian ecclesiology (charism, prayer, discipleship; church as mystery). Balthasar declares, “Without Mariology, Christianity threatens to become inhuman. The Church becomes functionalistic, soulless … And people in their masses run away from such a Church”.
Mary’s life and example is at the root and goal of our identity as church. It is in this light that Mary is key to the transformation of the church today.
In this transformation, women participation in the church is an essential dimension. Mary can inspire women to play a meaningful role in transforming the church. Participation of women in the church will make the church reflect more the values of inclusivity, equality, unity and peace of God’s kingdom which goes beyond nationality, culture, race, blood or gender.
Our concerted involvement and struggle for gender equality and other forms of discrimination can enrich our devotion to OMPH. Our devotion to OMPH can be more productive and meaningful if we can learn from Mary about the true meaning of feminism and freedom. For Mary, the meaning of a human being goes beyond gender. The fullness of humanity is experienced in humanity’s utmost freedom towards service to God’s mission and fellow human beings.
 Irigaray, Luce. Marine Lover of Friedrich Nietzsche (New York, 1991). The last chapter of this book, “Epistle to the Last Christians,” offers the author’s most sustained engagement with the Marian tradition, although references to the Virgin Mary are scattered widely throughout her work.
 Edward Schillebeeckx and Catharina J. M. Halkes, Mary: Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow (SCM Press, 1993), 62.
Today, March 8, is International Women’s Day (IWD). International Women’s Day is a global day that celebrates womanhood. Every year the shrine joins the whole world in celebrating the gift of womanhood on International Women’s Day.
Women have played a major role in the ministry of the shrine through these years. For instance, there are many women volunteers in the shrine. The shrine is one of the few if not the only shrine in Manila who has altar girls. The shrine has long wanted to recruit female communion ministers but was discouraged by the standing policy of the Archdiocese of Manila not to allow women to become Eucharistic ministers (though women religious sisters are allowed to give communion in the archdiocese). Most of our lay missionaries are women. Indeed, the shrine has fostered the participation of women in the church for many years.
The shrine has two congregations of women religious working as partners in the shrine ministry: Missionaries of our Lady of Perpetual Help (MPS) sisters and Oblate Sisters of the Most Holy Redeemer (OSR) sisters.
The MPS sisters whose official name is Misioneras de la Nuestra Señora del Perpetuo Socorro have been helping the shrine in administration and management of its services and programs. They are religious sisters founded by a Redemptorist. The Redemptorist began partnering with the MPS sisters in July 1995 when the MPS Sisters helped in the urban mission and subsequently became members of the Baclaran Mission Team.
The OSR sisters have been helping the shrine in responding to the challenges and needs of women at risk especially those engaged in prostitution. The OSR is a Catholic religious congregation founded in Ciempozuelos, Madrid, Spain on June 1, 1864 by Bishop Jose Maria Benito Serra, OSB and Antonia de Oviedo Schonthal, OSR for the evangelization and integral human development of marginalized and exploited women.
Devotees have brought women’s issues to the shrine like unwanted pregnancies, cases of battered women, girls who were victims of incest and rape, trafficking of women and sexual harassment. In the past, we found many dead unborn children fetus in the vicinity of the shrine. We suspect that these fetuses belonged to women who felt deep regret and guilt for having gone through abortion.
Workers of the Night
The shrine has been responding to the challenges and needs of women at risk especially those engaged in prostitution mainly through the efforts of Oblate Sisters of the Most Holy Redeemer (OSR).
The OSR sisters told Fr. Biju Madathikunnel, CSsR that they come to the Shrine on Tuesdays and Saturdays. They spend the night there getting up the following day as early as 2 O’clock in the morning. They go out at this early hour in search of these women to extend a helping hand and an open heart. The women range in age from 18 to 43 years. They come to light some candles before the image of OMPH and pray in the church. Some of them spend time around the statue of St. Therese of Lisieux which is located on the Church grounds.
For the most part, poverty and lack of education prevent them from getting a job and so are almost forced to end up in prostitution. Sometimes they are living with someone and their ‘partner’ forces them to earn ‘rent’ money and so they turn to prostitution. Many of the women come from Visayas islands, Davao, or Mindanao. Their “customers” who come to the bar are mostly foreigners. In many of the bars, the women are paid 150 pesos (about $3 or £2.3 per night. However, if a “customer” chooses them they may earn as much as 3000 pesos depending on the situation and rules of the bar.
Some of the women are into alcoholism and drugs. They say at times they need those to endure the nights. They do so to overcome the deep shame and guilt they feel since most of them are born and brought up in a catholic environment. One woman recounted that she drinks as much as five bottles of wine to endure the nights. When the police stage a raid on them, they need to avoid being caught at all cost. The police arrest them and at times take them and rape them inside the jail.
They also face danger from their “customers”. They are often treated very cruelly by their clients and the bar managers will not step in to help or defend them. Some of the bars are run by foreigners. They marry a Filipina and usually it is the wife who manages the bars. There are neither social security benefits nor proper medical services made available to the women. Recently one woman who was affected by tuberculosis came to the sisters and the Redemptorists helped her get the needed treatment for her disease.
Mostly what they need and hunger for is someone to talk to. They also desperately want to go to confession. When they open up to the sisters or social workers, they just cry in helplessness.
The OSR sisters and the social workers encourage the women to come to take part in a ‘follow up’ program which meets every Wednesday. They are helped to become aware of the reality of their life situation and are motivated to escape to a new and fuller experience of life. Various kinds of training programs are offered by the Shrine to help these women gain the skills necessary to escape their lives of slavery to prostitution. Training is given primarily in the areas of housekeeping, culinary arts, beauty care, and the food and beverage service industry. This training program is also known as ALS (Alternative Learning System). Some are given scholarships to go to the college, and even in some cases, their children are also given scholarships to attend school. Every month there is a meeting for these women that is especially aimed to give value formation, spiritual enrichment, skills for life and lessons on reproductive health.
Within the last two years, they were able to save at least ten women from prostitution and helped them to find other jobs. Actually, many of them are now regular workers at the coffee shop of the shrine—the Sinirangan Coffee Shop. When they were asked whether they missed their former job at the bars, without any hesitation, they answered no. They are far happier and fulfilled now in their present jobs.
Novena Text and Women
One of the reasons for the revision of the novena in 2016 is to incorporate inclusive language. Inclusive language avoids the use of certain expressions or words especially gender-specific words, such as “man”, “mankind”, and masculine pronouns, the use of which might be considered to exclude women. Below are some examples of this revision in the novena. In the prayer for the home, mankind was changed to human family.
Help us to grow daily in genuine love of God and neighbor * so that justice and peace may happily reign * in the entire family of mankind. Amen.
Help us to grow daily in genuine love of God and neighbor * so that justice and peace may happily reign * in the entire human family. Amen.
In the hymn, O Saving Victim, men was changed to all:
O saving Victim opening wide
The gate of heaven to men below!
Our foes press on from every side
Your aid supply, your strength bestow.
O saving Victim opening wide
The gate of heaven to all below!
Our foes press on from every side
Your aid supply, your strength bestow.