Women in Priestly Ministry. Uncovering the Lost History - Mary Betz
In recent years, despite the assertion in Pope John Paul II’s Ordinatio Sacerdotalis that “priestly ordination … has in the Catholic Church from the beginning always been reserved to men alone”1, evidence from many sources has accumulated to show that this is not quite true.
For many years, scholars and even casual readers of Scripture have pointed out that women served as deacons in the early years of the Church. In Romans 16:1, Paul commends Phoebe, a deacon in the church at Cenchreae. The first letter to Timothy (3:8-12) stipulates the behaviour expected of both male and female deacons.
Many women deacons are known, some from their correspondence and relationships with well-known Church leaders: Olympias of Constantinople (d. 418), a friend of SS Gregory of Nazianzen and St John Chrysostom; Procula and Pentadia, to whom St John Chrysostom wrote letters; Salvina, known by St Jerome; Macrina, the sister of St Basil the Great; Theosebia the wife of St Gregory of Nyssa; and so on. Other deacons are known by inscriptions on their tombstones, for example, Sophia of Jerusalem, Theodora of Gaul, Eneon of Jerusalem and Athanasia of Delphi.2
But what about women priests or bishops? Tourists and pilgrims who have visited the catacombs and churches of Rome and other places in the ancient world may have puzzled over the occasional fresco or mosaic depicting women who appear to be celebrating Eucharist, wearing priestly vestments or even episcopal crosses. These were explained away with claims that women were simply praying or the women were actually the wives of bishops. But scholarship over the past three decades has uncovered archaeological and literary evidence of the existence and Eucharistic ministry of women priests (called presbyters in the early church) and bishops in both the Eastern and Western church from the second to the ninth centuries.
Who were these women? Kale’s tombstone was found in Centuripe, Sicily, and dates from 350-450 based on the script, which reads simply “Here lies Kale the presbyter who lived 50 years irreproachably she ended life on the 14th of September.” The inscription ends with a chi-rho. One hundred years ago, the tombstone of Leta was found in Tropea, Italy, and is dated by scholars to 320-470. Her inscription reads: “Of blessed memory Leta presbitera who lived years 40, months 8, days 9 whose husband prepared her burial she departed in peace the day before the Ides of May.” Vitalia is known from a fresco in the Catacomb of San Gennaro in Naples. Written on the fresco are the words “Bitalia” (Vitalia) and “in pace” (in peace), and the fresco shows Vitalia dressed in a red chasuble and standing at an altar with her hands raised above two cups and a flat loaf of bread. Portrayed above her are books of the gospels with the names Joannes, Marcus, Matteus and (illegibly) Luke. The fresco is dated between 350-500.3
If women such as these were functioning as priests, why do church documents of the time seem to have so little to say about them? A few are beginning to be found, for example, mentions of both male and female presbyters in the fifth century Testamentum Domini (which may have originated in Egypt) in connection with community prayer. If something is not an issue, then there is likely to be little mention of it. But if a practice existed and then became objectionable, there are likely to be records of sanctions, and that is mostly what has been found. In 494, Pope Gelasius I (a pope known for his liturgical reforms) sent a letter to four episcopates (dioceses) in the south of Italy when he discovered they had traditions of women priests: “divine affairs have come to such a low state that women are encouraged to officiate at the sacred altars and to take part in all matters imputed to the offices of the male sex.”4 Also in the second half of the fourth century, the Council of Laodicea prohibited the ordination of women, as well as the Eucharistic ministry of those women already ordained: “It is not allowed for those called presbyterae to be appointed to preside in the church.” 5
Such church documents together with repeatedly studied evidence of women ministers from tombstones, a mummy tag, mosaics and frescoes, indicate that bishops in many places in Christendom had ordained women over hundreds of years, and that the women were faithfully carrying out their ministries. Evidence of women deacons, priests and bishops has come to light not only in Italy, but in France, Belgium, Turkey, Jordan, Israel, Greece, Egypt and Algeria.6
One of the most accessible depictions of women in orders is in a chapel at the Church of St Praxedis in Rome. A beautiful mosaic portrays four women, the first identified in the mosaic as “Theodo-Episcopa” (Bishop Theodora). The women to the right include St Praxedis, Mary the mother of Jesus, and St Pudentiana. Praxedis and Pudentiana were thought to be slave and descendant, respectively, of Pudens (a second century Christian, perhaps the one mentioned in 2 Timothy 4:21), who owned the properties on which this church and the nearby Church of St Pudentiana now stand. The two women are revered as leaders in the early Roman church when Christianity was still an ‘underground’ religion. Their heads and that of Mary are surrounded by round halos, attesting to their sainthood. The head of Theodora is surrounded by a square halo, signifying that she was alive when the mosaic was created, about 820. She and St Praxedis both wear episcopal crosses, and their portraits together with Mary and Pudentiana, indicate that Theodora was the bishop of the Church of St Praxedis in succession of office through Praxedis, Pudentiana and Mary.7
The Catacombs of Priscilla in Rome house a number of underground chambers in which women are depicted celebrating Eucharist, in the robes of a deacon, and dressed in priestly vestments being ordained by a bishop. The early church also flourished in North Africa, and Hippo (present day Annaba, Algeria) was the seat of St Augustine. There on the floor of the cathedral is a mosaic with a Latin inscription covering the tomb of Julia, which reads (in English) “Julia Runa priest (feminine) passed away in peace she lived 50 years.”8
As more and more evidence comes to light of the ‘ordered’ ministries (deacon, presbyter/priest and bishop) of women in the early centuries of the Christian church, especially evidence which has been thoroughly examined by scholars and corroborated by church documents, it makes one wonder that this history has been erased from ecclesial memory. Surely it is a tradition that Catholics can celebrate – and join with our many sister Christian churches in building on.
1. John Paul II. Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, 22 May 1994. http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/apost_letters/documents/hf_
2. John Wijngaards. “Women Deaconesses in Historical Records.” http://www.womenpriests.org/traditio/deac_rec.asp
3. Dorothy Irvin. The Archaeology of Women’s Traditional Ministries in the Early Church.The Calendars (2003, 2004, 2005, 2006) Rebound. (calendars available from email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
4. Ute E.Eisen. Women Officeholders in Early Christianity:Epigraphical and Literary Studies. (The Liturgical Press: Collegeville, 2000) p 129.
Ute E. Eisen, as above, pp 126-127, and Giorgio Otranto. “The Problem of the Ordination of Women in the Early Christian Priesthood.” 1991 lecture. trans. Mary Ann Rossi.
6. Dorothy Irvin, as above.
7. Dorothy Irvin, as above. A very readable and inexpensive eight page summary pamphlet by Christine Schenk, csj. Women Officeholders in the Early Church. (FutureChurch: Cleveland, 2005) is available from www.futurechurch.org)
8. Dorothy, Irvin, as above.
Being attentive to the word of God
“Inspiration is what the Holy Spirit does in our lives – especially through God’s Word.” Sr Barbara Reid, an American Dominican, recently lectured throughout New Zealand as part of the 800th Dominican Jubilee celebrations"
What do you understand by ‘inspiration’?
Inspiration, in its root meaning, is what the Spirit does in our lives, the breath of God that infuses everything we do. In the Biblical context it means that privileged mode of God’s revelation to us and with us – a vehicle by which the Spirit of God suffuses the whole process of the life of God’s People.
Inspiration enables portions of the Biblical story to be preserved. It is a continuing interpretative endeavour by the whole community to embody the word of God in the here-and-now. This process is ongoing: God being made manifest to us and we finding our meaning in God. The formation of a canonical text is a privileged moment in the process.
As we continue to interpret our life story with the aid of the Scriptures, the Word continues to be a living word, not a dead letter. It becomes the way we discover the meaning of God in our own lives. God offers us an invitation through Jesus, which we must take seriously and act upon.
Let me give you an example. The violent endings in some of Matthew’s parables (see page 8) are metaphors to underscore the extreme seriousness of our need to respond: there will be awful consequences if we do not heed and act on the compelling invitation of God’s love. These are our final choices. It is not that God is violent: the parable is a metaphor to shock the hearers into making a decision, hopefully the right one.
God is always constant, always offering life. So these violent endings are not there to be emulated, say, by a punitive parent. The consistent message all the way through Scriptures is that God is Love, strongly reinforced by the message and example of Jesus.
When the Evangelist writes the word, when a preacher preaches the word, when we listen to that preacher, then the Spirit is working in us and in the whole of the community gathered to listen. It is the Spirit that transforms hearts and minds. The Biblical word is a privileged partner in that communication between God and the congregation.
The written word itself was fashioned in a community, so what happens in Sacred Heart church this Sunday is reflecting what happened in the community of Mark in the First Century. Jesus plays a peak role in the process. Jesus is central. He is named by John as ‘the Word’. For Christians, the word of God becomes incarnate, human like us yet living the divine life in a unique way which opens for us the promise, so we too can live the life of God.
What is the role of the scholar in this process?
The scholar immerses herself in the Scriptures. Her role is to develop the tools so as to understand the text in its original context as best as possible. She seeks also to know the world behind the text, the history of the times and peoples and events being described. As a lover of literature she will understand the world of the text: the way figures of speech are used, the development of plot, characters etc. Finally she must be attentive to the world in front of the text: what it means in our lives, how it enhances how we live as Christians, how it will help us to be more just and compassionate: how we as a community can embody the kind of life that Jesus lived.
How is a scholar ‘inspired’ by a text? Everyone has favourite texts. The lectionary cycle, however, also demands that the preacher wrestles sometimes with a text which is not a favourite, one which is really difficult and challenging. So a very mixed diet is offered. The reading of the day is the one we have to preach from: and that fixes us.
Can you give an example of a ‘difficult’ text?
An example, for me, has been the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Mt 20, 1-16) I have never liked it, because I identify with the resentment of the workers who bore the heat of the day and were angry that the latecomers received the same as themselves.
A personal story. As a family, we had constantly prayed for the conversion of my grandfather. On his deathbed he received five of the seven sacraments. The preacher at his funeral used this parable, identifying my grandfather as an 11th hour customer. I accepted that happily.
Later on, when I preached on this parable, I used this interpretation. But a woman said to me afterwards: “That was all very nice about your grandfather, but that’s not how I see it. You see I’m one of the people who stand on the street corner all day. I have three small children; my husband has left me; I have no marketable skills.
“I think the ones in the marketplace are the sick, the disabled, the unskilled, the elderly and unemployed, those left in the lurch like me. If at the end of the day I don’t receive a day’s wage like those who have worked, how am I going to feed my children – or pay the medical bills? The ones working all day long have the satisfaction of knowing they will be able to feed their children. That parable teaches me that God’s justice is not like our justice.”
In my wrestling with that text I had only got so far. But that woman had experienced the truth of that parable from a totally different social location. My experience would be that listening to those who are marginalised, those at the bottom of the social ladder, helps me to better understand what Jesus means by his stories. It was necessary for me to hear how she experienced that parable in her life for my understanding of it to grow.
Inspiration is the work of the Spirit in our midst. We are still needing a renewal of the theology of the Spirit. Our imagination needs the stimulus of knowing that it is through imagination that the Holy Spirit works upon us. We, as humans in an institution, are too keen on boxing things in, on defining every ‘jot and tittle’ of the law. I pray that the Spirit help us to be open to the wild, creative, unpredictable energy of God doing astounding things for us, bringing God’s purposes to fruition in ways we can never plan, anticipate or control. Inspiration is truly a work of the Holy Spirit.