Home » Overview of Women Deacons’ Ministry in the West

Overview of Women Deacons’ Ministry in the West

In Western Europe, women deacons became more generally known from the 3rd century onwards when the Didascalia – with its explicit recommendation to bishops: ‘choose women as deacons!’ – gave women’s diaconate a wider publicity.

We know that women deacons ministered in the West until about the 12th century. The evidence is contained in decisions by local church councils, in the ordination rite preserved in 6 sacramentaries & 9 pontificals (all of which published on our website), in historical documents and the life stories of 15 women deacons we know by name. For details, see below!

1. The difference between East and West
2. Ordained women deacons in Gaul
3. Ordained women deacons in Italy, especially in Rome
4. The western ordination rite for women deacons

1. The difference between East and West

Three factors militated against a sizeable increase in women deacons: prejudice against women in traditional Roman law, the lack of the strong pastoral demands for women deacons found in the East and a cascading of liturgical prejudice against women.

In contrast, in the East women deacons flourished. Practically every parish church had its own local female deacon, more than a hundred of whom we know by name. The ordination rite for women deacons was certainly sacramental and virtually identical to that of male deacons. The rite as been preserved in eight ancient manuscripts all of which are published on our website. Women deacons in the East played a key role in preparing women catechumens for baptism, assisting at their baptism and ministering to them in church and in their homes.

The weakened status of women deacons in the West is also apparent from two other features:

1. Since the expectation grew that male deacons, like priests, should abstain from sex, their wives became ‘deaconesses’ – after having given their consent and after their being ordained deaconess in their own right. More information here.
2. In many places the true function of deaconesses was not known. So it soon became identified with a form of monastic dedication. This kind of deaconess was a ‘glorified nun’. This is clear from, for example, the life of Sigolena and from glosses to ancient texts. Theologians in the Middle Ages reveal an appalling lack of understanding of what the ancient women deacons stood for – apart from some exceptions.

However, women deacons did function in the West.

2. Ordained women deacons in Gaul

There is good evidence to show that ordained women deacons existed in Gaul from the fourth century onwards.

(1) We know 6 women deacons in Gaul of this period by name: Geneviève of Paris, Radegund of Poitiers, Theodora of Ticini, Sigolena of Arles, Hilaria of Reims and Ida of Remiremont.

sigolenalist theodoralist hilarialist genevievelist radegundlist idalist

(2) Eight local Councils mention the presence of women deacons: Nîmes, Orange, Vannes, Epaon, Orléans, Tours, Macon and Reims. Most of these belong to the Province of Lyons. Usually the response to women deacons is negative: they should no longer be ordained; their diaconate should be abrogated ‘from our region’; etc. This reveals both the prejudice of the original Roman colonisers, but also, perhaps, macho opposition from the new masters, the Franks. But the repeated rejection of women’s diaconate proves its persistent presence.

Council of Nîmes 394

“some women have been admitted to the levitical ministry”

Council of Orange 441

“no women deacons to be ordained”

The Synod of Vannes 465

“women who obtained ordination by the laying on of hands”

Council of Epaon 517

“we abrogate the consecration of
widows whom they call female deacons”

Second Council of Orléans 533

“From now on the diaconal ordination should not be imparted to any woman.”
Second Council of Tours 567

“We abrogate the consecration of widows whom they call women deacons.”

Council of Macon 581

“… if a woman has obtained ordination …”

Council of Reims 630

“women who have been consecrated to the Lord…”

The Map depicts the situation ca 300 – 800 AD


3. Ordained women deacons in Italy, especially in Rome

Women deacons are found throughout Italy and Rome in smaller numbers. Historical records show that from the 5th to the 11th centuries, the ordination of women deacons was an ecclesiastical fact in Rome itself, with women being ordained deacons by the Popes themselves, usually in St. Peter’s Basilica. For the evidence, click on the thumb nails of the Popes.

convoked Council of Chalcedon which fixed age for deaconesses

ordained deacons and deaconesses on the same day

condemned men who marry deaconesses

sent to France sacramentary with rite to ordain deaconesses

deaconesses joined his triumphal entry in Rome

both deacons and deaconesses ordained in St. Peter’s at Rome

both deacons and deaconesses ordained in St. Peter’s at Rome

both deacons and deaconesses ordained in St. Peter’s at Rome

Deaconesses in Italy

1st cent
3rd cent
4th cent
5th cent
6th cent
8th cent
in Capua

11th cent

4. The western ordination rite for women deacons

The fluctuating status of women’s diaconate in the West is reflected in the The Ordination Rite for Women Deacons in the West. The rite has been preserved in ancient sacramentaries [= collections of liturgical prayers for bishops] and pontificals [= collections of fully worked-out eucharists. On our website we publish the text found in six such sacramentaries and nine pontificals [click on the icons to see those texts].We are able to reconstruct the development of the key ordination prayer through stages such as:

the oldest ordination prayer
the ancient Roman sacramentaries 313 – 600 AD
the protogregorian rite ca 600 AD
the old ‘German’ sacramentary ca 500 – 750
the text in the ‘Hadrianum’ 786 AD

We can also follow the stages in the ordination mass for women deacons:

the socalled Mainz Original version ca 850 AD
the Mainz A version (in five pontificals) ca 900 AD
the Mainz B version (in four pontificals) ca 950 AD
Read the full story here.

This website is maintained by the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research.