Key Questions and Answers
Q. Is there a woman in Leonardo’s Last Supper?
Let’s do the math. Jesus and twelve apostles (all men) = 13 people. That’s how many people are in the picture. If Leonardo wanted Mary Magdalene in there, he would have to paint 14 people.
Let’s do the history. The Last Supper was painted to decorate a dining room of a group of Dominican friars. Anyone of them was surely capable – especially when the painting was fresh and new – of noticing and asking why a woman was in the painting. But there is no record of anyone thinking that the figure to Jesus’ right was anyone but St. John because St. John was usually portrayed as a beardless, “pretty” rather than handsome youth. This “prettiness” was the artist’s way of highlighting his youth.
Log on to www.wga.hu, click on Enter Here, click on “B” under “Artist Index,” scroll down and click on Bassano, Jacopo, scroll down his paintings and click on his Last Supper to get an enlarged view and see another young and “pretty” St. John.
Or just think of Jeffrey Hunter playing Jesus in the “King of Kings” for a modern counterpart.
Q. Wasn’t Jesus a rabbi and didn’t rabbis have to be married?
The term, "rabbi" comes from the Hebrew "rav," meaning great. It was used to mean "master," as opposed to a slave, and gradually became a form of address to those Jews who were learned in the law. In Jesus' time it was in the process of becoming a title for sages or learned men, such as scribes. Jesus criticizes the use of the titles "rabbi" and "father," which he would have considered recent innovations (Matt 23:7). It was not until the second century at the earliest that the title became identified with graduates of rabbinical schools who were "ordained" as masters of the law, or rabbis in the sense we understand the term today. There was no specific requirement to be married, though it was presumed the normal course.
Q. Wasn’t Jesus Celibate?
The theological concept of a celibate clergy is based on the Church’s belief in the example of the celibacy of Christ himself.
Some have argued that voluntary celibacy was unknown among the Jewish men of Jesus’ time. While it may have been unusual, it was not unheard of. It is not likely that John the Baptist could have been married, and near contemporary evidence indicates that at least some of the members of the Jewish community of the Essenes were celibate.
Another indirect proof of Jesus’ celibate state may be his own words about those who remain unmarried. After he rejects divorce as accepted in the Law of Moses, his disciples say that “it is better not to marry” (Mt 19:10). Jesus then speaks about those incapable of marriage “because they were born so” or “made so by others” and also those who “have renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Whoever can accept this ought to accept it” (Mt 19:12).
St. Paul—who writes to the Corinthians, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1)—also writes, “Now to the unmarried and to widows I say: it is a good thing for them to remain as they are, as I do, but if they cannot exercise self-control they should marry, for it is better to marry than to be on fire” (1 Cor 7:8-9).
This call to celibacy does not diminish the importance of marriage. Matrimony, like Holy Orders, is a sacrament, one of the seven signs through which Christ’s abiding presence is active in his Church. In marriage, the spiritual and physical relationships between husband and wife become a holy symbol of Christ’s love for the Church (Eph 5:25-33).
Q. So what really happened between Mary Magdalene and Jesus?
Jesus’ relationship with Mary Magdalene has become an issue when discussing whether Jesus was unmarried. Some of the Gnostic writings have been used to support a claim that Mary was Christ’s spouse. In addition, some have claimed that Jesus intended that she head his Church. The evidence for these claims supposedly lies in a few passages in the Gnostic writings that show a closeness between Jesus and Mary and describe some hostility toward her on the part of St. Peter and St. Andrew. But these passages do not, in fact, actually state either that Mary and Jesus were married or that he intended that she head his Church.
In the New Testament, Mary Magdalene is a prominent disciple of Christ. She is one of the women described as accompanying Jesus on his earthly mission after he cast seven demons out of her (Mk 16:9, Lk 8:1-3). For many centuries she was thought to be the unnamed woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and dried them with her hair (Lk 7:36-50). Although this association is no longer made, it was never an attempt to diminish Mary’s memory, since repentance is the first step for any disciple of Jesus, who began his ministry proclaiming, “The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mk 1:15).
However, the claims about her made on the basis of the Gnostic texts cannot be taken seriously. First, the Gnostic writings are historically more distant from the time of the apostles and written significantly later than the four New Testament gospels. Second, the prominence of Mary as a disciple and her closeness to Jesus are confirmed by the gospels, not evaded by them. At the same time, at no point do they offer any support for the gratuitous assertion that Jesus and Mary were married. Jesus is also shown to have a spiritual closeness to several followers: Peter alone; Peter, James, and John together; the “beloved disciple” in St. John’s gospel; and Lazarus and his sisters Martha and Mary. Lastly, the New Testament does not conceal tensions among the apostles, especially, at one point, between Peter and Paul. It is not likely that it would conceal evidence of other conflicts, such as the alleged one between Mary and Peter, if it existed.
Q. Does the Church really exclude women?
The Gospels tell of a group of women companions who accompanied Jesus and the apostles. They portray the women as remaining more steadfast during the Passion than the apostles themselves. In all four gospels, women are the first to receive the announcement of the Resurrection. Clearly the memory of these women was revered by the early Church community.
St. Paul’s letters and the Acts of the Apostles record the support given by women to the spread of the Gospel. The women whose names appear in the Roman Canon testify to the reverence given to female as well as male martyrs.
As new ways emerged for Christians to answer the call to discipleship, women as well as men founded great religious communities—St. Scholastica along with St. Benedict in the sixth century, St. Clare with St. Francis of Assisi in the thirteenth century, and St. Jane Frances de Chantal with St. Francis de Sales in the seventeenth century.
Women renowned for their piety exercised powerful influence in their eras: St. Catherine of Alexandria in the third to fourth centuries, St. Catherine of Siena in the fourteenth century, and St. Teresa of Avila in the sixteenth century.
Three Americans saints are women who profoundly influenced the Church in this country: St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, who served the needs of immigrants and the underprivileged; St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, who is considered the founder of the Catholic school system; and St. Katherine Drexel, who left a life of luxury to work with African and Native Americans.
Above all, the Church has always had a special devotion to Mary, the mother of Jesus, the handmaid of the Lord, and the perfect disciple.
All of these examples testify to the truth that in discipleship of Christ the lives of both women and men enrich the Church by their holiness.
Q. Are Opus Dei members monks?
Numerary and associate members of Opus Dei – a minority – choose a vocation of celibacy in order to be free to organize and carry out Opus Dei’s programs and activities. Like all members of Opus Dei, however, they have regular secular work and continue to be laypersons. They do not take vows, wear robes, sleep on straw mats, spend all their time in prayer and corporal mortification, or in any other way live like Silas in The Da Vinci Code.
Q. Do Opus Dei members practice “corporal mortification”?
Within this spirit, numeraries and associates (celibate members) sometimes practice traditional Catholic penances such as using the cilice and discipline. Unlike the exaggerated picture presented in The Da Vinci Code, the cilice and discipline do not cause injury. These are practices that Catholics have used for centuries and are commonplace in the lives of the saints, for example: St. Francis of Assisi, St. Thomas More, St. Therese of Lisieux, St. Padre Pio and Blessed Mother Teresa. The motivation for these voluntary penances is to imitate Christ and to join him in his redemptive sacrifice (cf. Matthew 16:24), and they can also be a way to suffer in solidarity with the many poor and deprived people in the world.
Q. Is Opus Dei a fundamentalist sect, as described in The Da Vinci Code?
No. Opus Dei is part of the Catholic Church. As a personal prelature (an organizational structure of the Catholic Church), it complements the work of local Catholic parishes by providing people with additional spiritual education and guidance. Opus Dei is directed by a prelate appointed by the Pope, Bishop Javier Echevarría. It carries out its work in more than 60 countries, always with the knowledge and permission of the local bishop.
Q. Do women have the same status as men in Opus Dei?
Yes. Women and men share the same dignity as children of God and share the same calling to holiness. Lay men and women in Opus Dei share the same spirit, carry out parallel apostolates, and have the same commitment to sanctify their work and family life; they also undertake identical responsibilities in governing and providing formation within Opus Dei.
Women members of Opus Dei can be found in all sorts of professions, those which society views as prestigious and those which society today tends to undervalue, such as homemaking or domestic work. Much has been made of the fact that some women members of Opus Dei take care of the domestic work in Opus Dei’s centers. But the same is true in many families, and to suggest that this work lacks dignity and value is demeaning to those who do it. Opus Dei teaches that any kind of honest work done with love of God is of equal value.
Q. What’s the go with Gnostic and Other non-New Testament Writings?
Texts that were later called “apocryphal gospels” were not considered divinely inspired, such as the “Protoevangelium of James.” Another is the “Infancy Gospel of Thomas.” This book contains stories of wonders supposedly worked by Jesus as a young boy. However, many of these stories are so fantastic and even unbecoming to Jesus—in one, a child dies after the boy Jesus rebukes him for accidentally bumping into him—that this “gospel” was rejected as an unfaithful account of Jesus’ early life.
These writings, most of them coming down to the present day in fragments, have been known and studied from early Christian times. Between 1945 and 1947, a library of seemingly Christian texts was uncovered in Egypt and came to the attention of scholars. Almost all of these texts were unknown until this discovery. Some of them are now known as the “Gnostic gospels.” (These writings should not be confused with the “Dead Sea Scrolls,” texts belonging to the Jewish sect of the Essenes, which were discovered around the same time.)
While these “gospels” may have similarities to Christian teaching, they also reflect the beliefs of Gnosticism, a religious movement that derives its name from “gnosis,” the Greek word for “knowledge.” Central to Gnosticism was belief in a saving knowledge that was not available to everyone but was only for an intellectual and spiritual elite. Gnosticism was originally thought to be a Christian heresy. Scholars now consider it a religious movement of its own, having a number of sources in the restless religious environment of the ancient world. Some of its branches absorbed elements of Christian belief that were treated very freely. As a result, early Church leaders opposed these “Christian” Gnostics.
Generally, the “Gnostic gospels” contain collections of sayings. They are very unlike the New Testament gospels in that they have little or no narrative about Jesus’ life or about his Passion, death, and Resurrection. While some of the sayings may be similar to those found in the New Testament and ancient in origin, most scholars agree that these “gospels” were, on the whole, written significantly later than the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John and may even depend on one or more of them. Some of these writings may have been intended to challenge the authority of the New Testament writings.
Despite the similarities, the way to view these texts is neither as “alternatives” nor as supplements to the Christian gospels. They are writings in which Christian persons and beliefs are filtered through the lens of a religious philosophy that, in many important ways, differs from the Christianity of the New Testament.