FutureChurch supporters sent gifts, large and small, helping three young women join educational director Christine Schenk, CSJ and FutureChurch co-director and spiritual director Russ Petrus, M.Div. for our 2019 Rome pilgrimage exploring early Christian sites for evidence of women’s authority. 

To our delight, over 30 people donated gifts making this educational experience possible for Prof. Nontando Hadebe from St. Augustine’s in Johannesburg, South Africa; Sheila Pires, producer for Radio Veritas in South Africa; and Annie Burns, a Maryknoll Missioner who recently returned from Bolivia.

The women joined twenty four other women and men as Sr. Chris Schenk led them through ancient churches, catacombs, and modern museums expertly pointing out the remnants of our holy heritage--women ministering, leading, and praying.  All three women felt their lives had been transformed by the experience and offered their reflections. Pilgrims reflected on Annie Burns’ preaching for the Sunday liturgy in the Catacombs.


As an aspiring lay Catholic woman theologian in Africa, the equality of women in church and society is my core mission and passion. I start with the fact that women are created equal in the image of God called to participate with men in the mission of Christ in restoring the world. The Triune God – the ‘us’ in creation represents diversity in the shared divine nature which, in essence, translates to diversity and equality in human nature. There is no hierarchy in the Trinity.  This is a foreign concept and a fundamental misrepresentation of God. So when I heard about this pilgiamage, and through generous giving awarded a scholarship to attend, my joy knew no bounds. I dived into the experience-- body, mind and soul--drinking deeply from the wisdom and research of Sr Christine, the spirituality of Russ, the organization of Uta and the solidarity and shared vision of my pilgrim sisters!

It is one thing to engage with feminist/womanist theologies but to add physicality, spirituality, scholarship and women in solidarity is beyond description!  It life giving, celebratory and sacred.  

For me every aspect served to enrich my experience--from shared accommodation, meals, walks, worship--to talks and engagement. The sites were well coordinated with lectures and worship. The weather cooperated and sunny skies made walking and visiting easy and enjoyable. The worship and spirituality offered a focus on women in history and a celebration of their lives and witness.  The entire experience was imbued with ‘women in authority in the early Church’ and inspired us to see this as the norm rather than the exception as we have been led to believe. 

In returning home, I take this feast of liberating knowledge with me and will infuse it in every aspect of my work. This trip needs to be mandatory for all women theologians. My tribute to our leaders Christine, Russ and Uta and thanks to all who make it possible for me attend and these phenomenal sisters in pilgrimage whose friendship, love and solidarity made it a life transforming experience! Halala Mbokodos!


During my first trip to Rome in October 2018 during the Synod on Youth, I had the opportunity to meet great Catholic women who are doing amazing work in promoting the inclusion of female voices within the Church.  One of them was Future Church Co-Director Deborah Rose-Milavec, who encouraged me to join this year’s (2019) Rome pilgrimage.

As a radio producer and presenter of ‘women feature’ programs that look at the role of women within the Church and society at large, this pilgrimage enriched me with new understandings that I will bring back to my work on women with their vital role in the Church and in society.

Sheila interviews fellow pilgrim, Rosa Maria Ruiz.

During a period of six days we visited Basilicas and Catacombs around Rome. We learned about the lives and roles of women in Early Christianity. Sr. Chris Schenk co-founder of Future Church offerred lectures prior to each tour. She shared evidence of women’s authority and leadership in places such as Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, San Clemente Basilica, Basilica of St. Pudentiana, St. Praxedes Basilica, Catacombs of Priscilla.  There we explored visual imagery found on burial artifacts of prominent early Christian women and an in-depth analysis of women‘s history in the first four centuries of Christianity. We also visited the Catacombs of Marcellinus and Pietrus, the Church of Santa Sabina, the excavation beneath St. Peter’s, not forgetting the Vatican Museums, The Sistine Chapel, a visit to Ostia, and a tour of the Colosseum & Roman Forum. It was a jam-packed pilgrimage filled with insightful knowledge, an opportunity to meet other likeminded Catholics.

On Sunday we visited the Catacombs of Domatilla, the largest of the catacombs in Rome where Veneranda (4th century) was buried close to Petronella’s grave (1st century). According to research ‘The open capsa (the basket containing the scrolls of Scripture) indicates that Petronella was remembered and venerated as a woman of the Word.’

But having Mass in the Catacombs was the most touching experience.  As we walked into that space reserved for us, I suddenly remembered a vision I once had in 2012 where I held a bible on the one hand and raised my other hand in a preaching pose. Suddenly it all came back to me--the poses on the walls and the drawings of women preaching in the dim lights in the catacombs. As I stood to read the Gospel, I realized that I was living the vision I had in 2012. As I write, I am still in awe and maybe in denial because of my very traditional Catholic teachings growing up. Yet it has all happened in God’s time. My calling, known only to myself, somehow came to the fore that day. I believe that everything happens for a reason, and those events happened according to God’s will.

I came back home feeling empowered to embrace my gifts with more confidence and to continue serving the Lord with more zeal and determination. I will do this by spreading Gospel values through the airwaves, with family and friends, and wherever God takes me.


We have all heard the parable of the prodigal son more times than I imagine we can count. Modern day interpretations error on the side of being patronizing, as we are over and over again told how foolish, wasteful, sinful, and in need of mercy we are, from so many of our dear brother clerics at the pulpit. Perhaps many of you have already thought in these terms that I am about to propose. But in case you haven’t I’d like to offer a different take on things.

What if it’s not us who are the prodigal ones? Not us, but our church leaders who are the prodigal sons? What if it is they who have been foolish, wasteful, sinful, and in need of mercy? Like the prodigal son, many of the leaders of our church have lost themselves in a distant country, an elitist, protectionist, boys-club culture that does not recognize the priorities of Jesus, nor his message of radical acceptance, mercy, and love. Like the prodigal son, our church has hired out its services to the highest bidder. We more commonly refer to this as politics. And while the prodigal son went hungry as he fed and cared for someone else’s swine, our church finds itself providing communion and Eucharist, memory and gratitude, for others, which it itself has not tasted in fullness for a very long time.  Unlike the prodigal son, many of our lost brother clerics have not found their way back to us. Few have come repenting the pain they have caused, the gifts they have squandered, the grace they have denied.

No matter. We are still here. The Jesus movement is alive and well, but the leaders of our Church have gone astray. As we have seen time and again throughout our pilgrimage, throughout our studies, throughout our lived experiences, our brother clerics have taken the money, the riches, the wealth, and the credit and run.

How do we invite these our brothers back into fold? What will the day look like when we see them dotting the horizon, slowly making their way back home to us? I have to admit, I’m not sure I’ll be much more impressed than the older brother in the story. I definitely don’t foresee a rom-com-esque running through the fields to embrace each other kind of scene. Will I be willing to forgive them for the hurt and heartache they have caused me? Let alone drop everything I’m doing and throw them a party. I think this is where maintaining communities like the one we have formed here will be vital. We can come together to welcome our lost brothers, to bring them back into the fold. We can remind each other of the magnanimous love to which we are called, the example of mercy and love we have in our God, and the yearning for peace that is part and parcel of who we are. And we can remind each other to be nice to our prodigal brothers.

Instead of demanding that we are given the share of the estate that we are entitled, as so many of our brother leaders have, we can remind each other that the feast is richer when shared together. We the church, and the church our brothers can mourn together the lost moments, all of the time we spent estranged from each other. And then, trusting that what God provides for us will be enough, we can all pull up a chair and share in what would truly be a heavenly banquet.

Annie Burns with fellow pilgrim, Toni Temporiti.