The ancient sacramentaries of Roman Empire times

from (100 ?) 313 – 600 AD

by John Wijngaards

(n.b. Click on images to enlarge them)

We present below the ordination of women deacons as it must have been in the – now lost – sacramentaries used by early bishops during the years of the Roman Empire. We infer the original text of the ordination rite from evidence found in later sacramentaries and pontificals.

During the Roman Empire, and especially since the Edict of Milan (313 AD) which gave Christians freedom to worship, women were ordained as deacons.

The ministry of women in Britain, for instance, is documented in the so-called Walesby Tank (5th cent.) and among ‘British’ immigrants who came to Gaul (Letter 511 AD


The strongest evidence comes from Gaul (present-day France). As can be seen from the map, many dioceses were founded before 590 (yellow circles) and many more from 590 to 690 (blue circles).

Because of Roman prejudice against women’s leadership, and perhaps fear of menstruation, there was fierce opposition to women ministering as deacons. But the multiple demands to stop ordaining women as deacons prove it was still done. For a list of these Synods, their full texts and an assessment, click here.

Gallic opposition against the ordination of women is confirmed by the Leonine Sacramentary (600 AD) a loose collection of prayers judged useful by its Gallic scribe. It does contain the ordination rite for male deacons, but omits the ordination rite for women deacons.

Tradition has left us the names of women who served as deacons. In Rome they were Tryphena (1st cent.), Tatiana (3rd cent.) and Melania the Younger (383-439). In Padua we find St. Justina who died as a martyr in 340 AD. St Geneviève of Paris (419-502) and St Radegunde (520–586) lived in Gaul. More information found here.

legendagermany768German lands too were evangelised with the coming of Christian Roman soldiers. On the map, notice the dioceses (marked yellow or blue) that date from before 690 AD.

Indeed, there have been bishops from the earliest times. For instance, we know the names of at least 40 bishops who presided over the diocese of Mainz from 80 to 745 AD. These bishops used sacramentaries for their liturgy. What did they contain about women deacons?

Nine Germanic pontificals based on an ancient Romano-Germanic sacramentary provide the clue. From evidence preserved by them we can deduce that, in parallel to the ordination of male deacons, they offered an ordination rite for women deacons that held:

1. a title
2. an invitation prayer
3. a first full ordination prayer
4. a consecratio prayer

The rite of a woman deacon’s ordination as can be inferred from evidence in nine Pontificals
Sacramentaries at this time contained more prayers under each heading, e.g. under ‘to make a priest’, ‘to make a deacon’, because these were the chief prayers which were said by the celebrant, the bishop, during the ordination. Rubrics – saying what needed to be done, such as the laying on of hands – were not written in the early sacramentaries. The liturgical master of ceremony would tell the bishop what to do. Readings of Scripture were contained in a separate lectionary. The appropriate antiphons, chants and psalms were seen to by the choirmaster.

So when we read a sequence of prayers belonging to an ordination within a sacramentary, they are not recorded at random. People at the time knew where they needed to be put within the context of the ordination mass.

In Pontificals, the original sequence of ordination prayers is ‘dressed up’ within a fully outlined Mass, now including also rubrics, references to chaunts and psalms, readings, blessings, etc.

So from a fully-fledged ordination Mass we can extract the ordination prayers and from them extrapolate [= infer] what sequence of ordination prayers were contained in the sacramentary it used.

Our sources for this extrapolation of the rite of ordaining women deacons are nine manuscripts of pontificals (click on each for its detailed text):

stalbanl hittorpl cassinol vallicellal salzburgl
eichstatts bambergs luccas pistoias

The Text

Ordination of a woman deacon


Ordination of a male deacon

as reconstructed from the 9 Pontificals listed above by way of comparison
found in ancient Sacramentaries & Pontificals
To make a woman deacon

Title To make a (male) deacon
“Beloved, let us pray that the Lord may bless this maidservant of yours who has been bought with the precious blood of your Son, that she may obtain the grace of your blessing [= ordination], and offer a worthy service to you without offending your majesty in any way with the help of our Lord, etc.” Invitation prayer
The prayer for men is in the pontificals as printed here.For women this prayer has been reconstructed from the unique blessings on women deacons at the end of her ordination Mass (see no 25 here).
let us pray that God the Almighty Father may mercifully pour the grace of his blessing [= ordination] over this (these) servant(s) of His; and grant him (them) the gift of consecration by which He may lead him (them) to eternal rewards, with the help of our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you as God. Through. . .
“Hear, o Lord, our petition and send down on this your maidservant the Spirit of your ordination so that, since you have conferred on her your heavenly office, she may obtain favour with your majesty and may present to others the example of a good life. Through.”
Ordination prayer
identical for men & women
preserved in the Sacramentaries and Pontificals
More information here.
“Hear, O Lord, our petition and send down on this (these) your servants the Spirit of your ordination so that, now you have conferred on him your heavenly office, he (they) may obtain favour with your majesty and may present to others the example of a good life. Through.”
(i) God who preserved Anna, Phanuel’s daughter, who escaped the yoke of marriage after just seven years, for eighty-four years in holy and unblemished widowhood, so that you, just remunerator, led her who day and night mixed prayer with fasting, to the grace of being a prophet at the circumcision of Christ,
God who has further ordered, through the intention [var. instruction] of the apostle(s), that the hands of these women which are sanctified by this ordination equip her gender – i.e. adolescent and young women – with the visitation of sacred chrism,
Consecrationalso known as second ordination prayerThe justification for ordaining women as deacons.
Just as for male deacons the main model is the Levites who served in the Temple, for female deacons the main model is Anna who also served in the Temple.
Women deacons are (a) to be prophetic [= instruct in the faith] and (b) anoint women with chrism. They fulfilled both functions at the baptism of women catechumens.
Consecration(i) Be present we ask you, O Lord, you giver of all good things, distributor of ranks and assigner of tasks, who while remaining true to yourself renews everything and through your word, power and wisdom arranging everything, prepares in your eternal providence Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord, and who fixes everything for each unique moment in time; you, who grant that his (Christ’s) body, your Church, grows and extends distinct in a variety of celestial gifts and a difference of its (the Church’s) members by a marvellous law a unity of coherence into an increase of your temple, stipulating that a service of the sacred task through three degrees of ministers serve your name; having chosen from the beginning the sons of Levi to stay in the inner rooms of your house attending to their mystical tasks, so that they might possess the inheritance of eternal blessing through a perpetual fate,
[(ii) look down well disposed on this maidservant of yours whom we humbly dedicate to the ministry of the diaconate . . .] This must have been part of the original consecration prayer, here reconstructed from the male ordination. It is missing in the Pontificals. ii) look down well disposed on this (these) servant(s) of yours whom we humbly dedicate to the ministry of the diaconate to serve your holy spaces.
(iii) because you, designer of all creatures, rightly understand that the attractions of the world cannot be avoided, but that, when refuge is taken in you, through you neither terrible sufferings nor the lure of pleasures can ever seduce souls once they have been brought to life; for to senses into which you deign to instil [your values], nothing is more desirable than your kingdom, nothing more horrific than your judgment. Calling on God to make up for deficiencies in the candidate
The texts are found in the Pontificals.
(iii) We who are, indeed, as human beings not aware of divine perception and supreme reason, we assess, to the extent we can, his (their) life. But things unknown to us do not escape you, O Lord. You do not miss what is hidden. You scrutinise secrets of the hearts. You can examine his (their) life with your heavenly judgement through which you are always able to purge what is missing and allow what needs to be done.
[(iv) Send down on her, we ask you, O Lord, your Holy Spirit through whom she may be strengthened to fulfil the work of her ministry faithfully . . . Also this crucial part of the consecration preface for women deacons is now missing in the Pontificals.
We reconstruct it here from the male parallel.
(iv) Send down on his (them) we ask you, O Lord, your Holy Spirit, through whom he (they) be strengthened to fulfil the work of their ministry faithfully with the gift of his sevenfold grace
[Give] therefore, Lord, at our request to this your maidservant fruit [= reward] which is thirtyfold among married women, sixtyfold for widows.
May her mercy be tempered by a clear focus, her freedom by uprightness, her social graces by soberness. May she be intent on your work day and night.
Grant that she may merit to be such on the day of her calling as you wished her to be by the spirit of prophecy.
Through our Lord, [etc.]
The concluding prayer for help still contains references to her ministry among women. (v) May the form of every virtue abound in him (them): restrained authority, constant modesty, the purity of innocence and the observance of spiritual discipline. May your precepts shine in (his) their morals, and may the people through their example of chastity obtain holy imitation. And may he (they) carrying the good testimony of conscience, persevere firm and unshakable in Christ, and may he (they) deserve in worthy steps to proceed from the inferior rank through your grace to higher things (ranks). Through our Lord. . .