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Santa Prassede and Episcopa Theodora

MariaMinervaMonday, we went exploring. Eveline consented to allow Matthew and me, two lowly Angelicum students, to meet her at the august and incomparable Pontifical Gregorian University, right around the corner, for pranzo and some church-hopping.

First stop was a pizzeria near the Gregorian rumored to have pizza at €1 per slice, but alas, for us Anglophones they could only slice €2.40 worth of pizza. But, it was still good, and the first Roman pizza I’ve had since I got here, so I think worth it.

We then ventured to the Chiesa Santa Maria sopra Minervae (Church of St. Mary over Minerva). It is the only gothic church among Rome’s 900 places of worship, and is recognizable by the small Egyptian obelisk mounted on top of a Baroque Bernini elephant, and the fact that it is literally built over (sopra) a temple dedicated to Isis, who was later assimilated in worship to Minerva. The obelisk is one of several found buried on the site.


Saint Catherine of Siena

Two Medici popes and the artist, Blessed Fra Angelico are buried here, along with a number of other once-famous Italian nobility. One of Michelangelo’s sculptures is found inside, Christ bearing the Cross.

The church is probably better known, though, for the saint who died in a small room past the sacristy and who is entombed under the altar: St. Catherine of Siena. Catherine was a lay oblate/tertiary of the Dominicans and known for her extensive reform efforts in the church, including campaigning for the return of the papacy to Rome from Avignon. St. Catherine enjoys a particular devotion from our Eveline, and we had been talking about coming to visit for most of the last week.

As a Dominican church, it was here too that Galileo was tried for his Copernican cosmology, and where he reportedly uttered his famous exit-line, “but it does move.”

Afterwards we set out east, in the direction of Santa Maria Maggiore to find a smaller but no less important minor basilica, Santa Prassede. As we were there sometime before the 4:00pm end of lunch-break, we spent some time over at Mary Major, and then opted for gelato on the Piazza in front of the church. It was there where we were flocked by birds, goaded on by a toothless Roma who wanted coins in return for having taken pictures of the pigeons he was feeding.

On returning to the basilica, I discovered a small plaque next to the entrance of the adjacent monastery. In Slavonic and Italian, the plaque identified this humble building as the place where the saints Cyril and Methodius developed the written Cyrillic alphabet and the form of the Byzantine Liturgy used by the Slavic churches, like the Russian Orthodox, during the years 867-869. (Incidentally, Cyril was born in Thessalonica, the same city where two of my housemates are from, Dimitrios and Theodosius).

The basilica was built in 822, and is filled with Byzantine mosaics, including the Chapel of St. Zeno. In addition to the two first-century saints who inspired for whom the church is dedicated, Sts. Praxeses and Pudentia, you can see Pope Paschal and his mother Episcopa Theodora.

Theodora’s image is an intriguing one, for it figures strongly in the debate about the role of women in the church, especially regarding ordination and jurisdiction.

Given that episcopa is the feminine form of the word used for bishop from the sub-Apostolic age onward (and usually translated that way in the Bible), the simplest way to read the inscription is Bishop Theodora, providing one of a handful of first-millennium images interpreted to indicate the ordination of women in the earlier church.

Current practice in both Catholic and Orthodox churches of the Byzantine tradition is that wives of clergy are given the feminized title of their husband’s order, presbytera or deaconess, and this leads to the interpretation that Theodora is so named as the wife of a bishop (and mother of another).

A third possibility is based on the fact that many medieval abbeys held more influence and jurisdictional authority than some dioceses, and the abbess could in many places be the ordinary for several parishes, and entitled to various episcopal regalia, such as the pectoral cross, mitre, and crozier. And given the early beginning of the development of this time of an ecclesiology that saw the episcopate as a jurisdictional category rather than as a holy order in itself, it seems reasonable that a woman with the juridical office basically identical to bishop might be named episcopa.

After all that, we decided it was time to head home, so we walked Matthew to Termini, and Eveline and I hoped on a bus for home. Actually, the bus we chose turned out to be an express, and we overshot our destination and ended up in Largo Argentina, so we then switched busses to get back to Piazza Venezia, the switched again to get to the Coliseo and walk home from there. A long day, but well worth the walk!

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