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Pope Gelasius I

494 AD

by John Wijngaards

A letter by Pope Gelasius reveals the existence of women’s ministries in the South of Italy. He addressed the bishops in the area roughly indicated on the map. It is likely that the dioceses in those regions reflected the cultural influences of the ancient inhabitants, especially Greek settlers who had established trading colonies there.
The most significant information contained in the letter concerns the possible existence in those regions of women who seem to have ministered as presbyterae for their communities. This may be confirmed by other evidence, such as tomb stones of presbyterae in the same area.
Source: PL 59, c. 55; cf. PL 67, c. 309; Mansi VIII 44.
 Dilectissimis fratribus universis episcopis per Lucaniam et Brutios et Siciliam constitutis.  To my most beloved brethren, all the bishops spread through Lucania, Calabria and Sicily.

 Regarding ministering widows

 c. 13. Viduas autem velare pontificum nullus attentet, quoniam quod nec auctoritas divina delegat, nec canonum forma praestituit, non est penitus usurpandum; eisque sic ecclesiastica sunt ferenda praesidia, ut nihil committatur illicitum.  “None of the bishops (presbyters?) should try to give widows the veil [of the order of widows] because power should not be appropriated which is neither delegated by divine authority nor allowed by the rule of church laws. Ecclesiastical support should be provided for them (the widows) in such a way that nothing illicit is done.”
Comment. It was normal for bishops to constitute women into the ecclesiastical order. It may be that the text here refers to presbyters who are not supposed to give widows the veil (see Council of Hippo, canon 34; Council of Carthage, canon 3).
 c.21. Nam de viduis sub nulla benedictione velandis superius latius duximus disserendum. Quae si propria voluntate professam pristini coniugii castitatem mutabili mente calcaverit, periculi eius intererit, quali deum debet satisfactione placare. Sicut enim, si se forsitan continere non poterint, secundum apostolum nullatenus nubere vetabatur, si habita secum deliberatione promissam deo pudicitiae fidem debuit custodire. Nos autem nullum talibus laqueum debemus injicere, sed solas adhortationes praemii sempiterni poenasque proponere divini iudicii, ut et nostra sit absoluta conscientia, et illarum pro se rationem deo reddat intentio. Cavendum est quippe, quae de earum moribus actibusque beatus apostolus testatur; quod planius exponere praeterimus, ne sensus sexus instabilis non tam deterrere quam admonere videamur.  “For we believe we need to say more about the fact that widows should be given the veil without ordination [lit. blessing]. For a woman who through instability of mind sullies the chastity of an earlier marriage which she had promised with her own free will, runs the risk of [not knowing] with what satisfaction she should placate God. If she perhaps cannot abstain from sex she is not forbidden according to the Apostle (Paul) to marry again, but if she has made up her mind she must keep fidelity in the chastity she has promised to God. We however should not inflict a trap for such women, but only present exhortations about eternal reward and the punishments of divine justice, so that our own conscience will be clear and their own intention can render an account to God.
For we have to keep in mind what the blessed Apostle [Paul] testifies about their morals and deeds; what we should not explain in detail. Otherwise we will be seen not so much to deter as to admonish [encourage] the sensitivities of the instable sex.”
Comment. Gelasius interprets 1 Timothy 5,3-16 as instructing bishops not to encourage widows to enter the order of ecclesiastical widows by promising celibacy. Such widows may not be able to keep their vow to God and so would incur God’s punishment.

 Regarding female presbyters

 c. 26. Impatienter audivimus, tantum divinarum rerum subiisse despectum, ut feminae sacris altaribus ministrare firmentur, cunctaque non nisi virorum famulatui deputata sexum, cui non competunt, exhibere. Nisi quod omnium delictorum, quae singillatim perstrinximus, noxiorum reatus omnis et crimen eos respicit sacerdotes, qui vel ista committunt, vel committentes minime publicando pravis excessibus se favere significant: si tamen sacerdotum iam sint vocabulo nuncupandi, qui delegatum sibi religionis officium sic posternere moliuntur, ut in perversa quaeque profanaque declives, sine ullo respectu regulae Christianae praecipitia funesta sectentur. Quumque scriptum sit, Minima qui spernit, paulatim decidit (Eccli. 19, 1), quid est de talibus existimandum, qui immensis ac multiplicibus pravitatum molibus occupati, ingentem ruinam multimodis impulsionibus ediderunt, quae non solum ipsos videatur perdere, sed et ecclesiis universis mortiferam, si non sanentur, inferre perniciem? Nec ambigant non solum qui haec ausi sunt exercere, sed etiam qui hactenus cognita siluerunt, sub honoris proprii se iacere dispendio, si non quanta possunt celeritate festinent, ut lethalia vulnera competenti medicatione salventur. a) “With impatience we have heard that divine things have undergone such contempt that women are encouraged to serve at the sacred altars, and that all tasks entrusted to the service of men are performed by a sex for which these [tasks] are not appropriate!(b) And of all these obnoxious trangressions which we reprimand singly, all the criminal guilt falls on those priests who either commit them personally, or who by not making the culprits known show that they agree with these wicked excesses – if we may even call by the name ‘priests’ those men who are prepared to so degrade the religious office entrusted to them that, sinking down to perverse and profane pursuits without any respect for Christian regulations, they run headlong into a deadly abyss.(c) And when it is written that ‘Whoever scorns small things will gradually come to a fall’ (Ecclesiasticus 19,1), what should we think about those people who borne down by the immense and multiplicitous burden of their depravities, have caused an enormous downfall by their various impulsive actions which can be seen not only to lead themselves to perdition, but inflict a mortal plague on all churches if they are not healed?(d) And let those people have no doubt, not only whoever has dared to do these things but also those who, in spite of knowing about it, kept silence, that they lie under the loss of their own honour if they do not hasten, as fast as they can, to heal the lethal wounds with adequate medication.”

Overall Comment

Archeologist and historian Giorgio Otranto forcefully argues that paragraph (a), together with other evidence, shows that some women ministered as presbyterae in parishes of Lucania, Calabria and Sicily. Read his texts:

“Priesthood, Precedent and Prejudice. On Recovering the Women Priests of Early Christianity” .

“The Problem of the Ordination of Women in the Early Christian Priesthood”.

However, in my view, the evidence could be explained in other ways. Gelasius does not talk of women having been ordained as presbyters. He could just refer to instances where priests had only delegated some liturgical functions to women – like serving at the altar, distributing communion, etc. This would explain why he says that small deviations could lead to major upheavals. The full-scale ordination of women to the presbyterate is, unfortunately, highly unlikely in the ecclesiastical climate of that time.

And even if some women were ordained presbyterae, they would remain exceptional cases which add little, if anything, to the argument of Tradition. It is the indisputable centuries-long sacramental ordination of women to the diaconate in major parts of the Church that proves women can be admitted to higher orders.