Until a New York City police officer took up her station, I was the closest woman to Pope John Paul II at the Mass he celebrated in New York's Central Park in 1995. I was several hundred yards away, atop a tower built for still photographers.
Things have not changed.
When Pope Benedict XVI celebrates Mass at Washington's Nationals Park stadium and at Yankee Stadium in New York, everything will be in place to keep women at a distance. Despite church rules allowing women altar servers, it won't happen here. Only cardinals, archbishops, bishops, priests and a few hand-picked seminarians and deacons will be in liturgical vestments and near the altar and the pope.
The symbolism is unmistakable: Women and girls need not apply.
Oh, there will be a few women in the offertory processions, or serving as readers or cantors. But make no mistake, at the highest levels these events are all male, all the time.
The rules are the rules, and make sense within their own framework. Different people do different things during a Catholic Mass. There is always one "principal celebrant," in this case, the pope. Then there are "concelebrants" — the cardinals and bishops who stand near him. There are deacons — typically a "deacon of the word," who reads the Gospel, and a "deacon of the altar," who assists during the second part of the Mass. And there are acolytes, or altar servers, who help in various ways, such as with incense, and with the ritual hand-washing following the offering of the bread and wine.
Women can serve as acolytes, but none of the planners has had the nerve to argue for women servers at a papal Mass. The Vatican has reserved the altar server spots for (male) seminarians. There's also no need for lay Communion ministers, they say, because there are more than enough clergy present to do the job.
But has no one told the pope about the negative symbolism of a nationally televised all-male event?
The Catholic Church has two main reasons for not including women as clergy, effectively eliminating them from more than token presence during formal ceremonies: Jesus was male; Jesus chose only male apostles.
The first point is uncontestable. Jesus Christ was male. But Jesus was human, and Catholicism teaches that all persons are made in the "image and likeness of God."
The second point — Jesus chose only male apostles — is arguable. Did Jesus consider his women followers as apostles? After all, Mary Magdalene was the first to announce the Resurrection.
Ancient traditions of women heading "house churches," of women heading double male-female monasteries, of women ordained at least as deacons, fell away as the Catholic Church gradually developed a mostly celibate male clergy. When the energy of the 20th-century women's movement approached the Catholic Church, arguments and documents from the hierarchy began to fly about.
There are two modern Catholic statements about women priests, one from 1976 and another from 1994.
The first came from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (which Benedict headed for nearly 25 years before his 2005 election as pope). It emphasized that Jesus was male and chose only male apostles.
The second, much leaner statement is a letter from John Paul in 1994 that emphasizes Jesus' choice of men. The unavoidable conclusion is that the church does not believe it can digress from Jesus' choice.
Can all this change? Will the next pope — or the next, or the next — be greeted by women seminarians, or deacons, or priests, or even bishops? Despite protestations to the contrary, neither 1976 nor 1994 produced an infallible "ex cathedra" declaration by the pope, or an infallible teaching of an ecumenical council. Catholic canon law holds nothing is infallible unless it is clearly stated as such.
As far as where Catholicism is, and where it may be going, a picture of a papal Mass will say more than millions of words about the equality and the dignity of women.
(Phyllis Zagano is senior research associate-in-residence at Hofstra University and author of several books in Catholic Studies.)