The Popes and Women Deacons

A thousand years of Popes and the diaconate of women

sylvesterSylvester I (314-335)

The Pope who saw the end of the persecutions.

Until the end of the 4th century the liturgical language was Greek, even in Rome. Many of the Popes during the time of the persecutions were of Greek origin. They were familiar with the ministry of women deacons testified to in the writing of the Greek Fathers.

* “But the latter [the apostles], in accordance with their ministry [διακονια], devoted themselves to preaching without any distraction, and took women with them, not as wives, but as sisters, that they might be their co-ministers [συνδιακονους] in dealing with women in their homes. It was through them that the Lord’s teaching penetrated also the women’s quarters without any scandal being aroused. We also know the instructions about women deacons [διακονών γυναικών] which are given by the noble Paul in his other letter, the one to Timothy [1 Timothy 3,11].”
Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-215)

* This text( ROMANS 16,1-2) teaches with the authority of the Apostle that even women are instituted deacons in the Church. This is the function which was exercised in the church of Cenchreae by Phoebe, who was the object of high praise and recommendation by Paul.”
Origen (185-255)

* “There exists for the Church the order of deaconesses [διακονισσων ταγμα], not for the purpose of performing priestly functions or for the purpose of administration. Its purpose is to preserve decency for the female sex, whether in connection with baptism or in connection with the examination of [women undergoing] suffering or pain, or whenever the bodies of women are required to be uncovered, so that they need not be seen by the men officiating, but only by the deaconess [διακονουσησ], who is authorised by the priest to minister to the woman at the time of her nudity.”
Epiphanius of Salamis (315-403).

∎ Representatives of Pope Sylvester attended the Council of Nicea in 325 AD. That Council clearly accepted the position of deaconesses in the Church. Read the text here.
∎ Holy deaconesses were venerated in the Roman liturgy. The feast day for the Roman martyr St. Tatiana fell on the 19th of January.

 SUMMARY: 400 – 800 AD

The Popes know of, and approve of, the full ministry of women deacons as practised in the Catholic East.

Papal Sacramentaries contain the ancient Latin rite for ordaining women as deacons.

Some women in the West, also in Rome, serve as deaconesses, but their ministry is only a faint shadow of the diaconate in the East.

innocent1Innocent I (401-417)

∎ Innocent I corresponded with John Chrysostom, the archbishop of Constantinople. He supported him against the emperor when John was exiled for some years. The Pope must have known, and approved of, the women deacons whom John Chrysostom routinely ordained in his archdiocese. John’s basilica, the famous Hagia Sophia was served by no less than 40 women deacons, among them Olympias and Amproukla

* “Paul says:’The women likewise’ (1 Timothy 3,8-11). Paul meant the women deacons. There are those who think he was speaking of women in general. No, that is not the case. It would have made no sense to have inserted here something about women in general. Paul was referring to women having the diaconate.”
John Chrysostom (344-407), Homily 11.1.

∎ The Celtic monk Pelagius, a contemporary of Innocent I in Rome, is clearly aware of the existence of deaconesses in the East.

* ” ‘I commend to you Phoebe our sister who has a position in the ministry [= diaconate] of the church [= community] of Cenchreae’ [= Romans 16,1]. Just as now itself in Oriental regions the deaconesses can be seen to minister to persons of their sex in baptism, or in the ministry of the word, since we find that women have taught in private as Priscilla whose husband was called Aquila.”

* ” ‘Women similarly should be pure.’ [= 1 Tim 3,11]. Paul orders that women should be chosen in the same way as male deacons. From which we can understand that he is talking about those women, who until today one calls deaconesses.” Pelagius (354-418), Homily 11.1. Read the full texts here.

∎ Another contemporary, St Melania the Younger (383-439 ), ministered as a deacon in Jerusalem. But she had been born in Rome and lived in Rome till her late twenties. Information here.

leo1Leo I (440-461)

∎ The Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon in 451 was convened with the cooperation of Pope Leo the Great who sent legates to the Council to represent him. Afterwards he approved its decrees. Canon 21 laid down conditions for the ordination of women deacons.

* “Canon 21. “A Woman shall not be ordained [ Greek original: not receive the laying on of hands] as a deaconess under forty years of age, and then only after searching examination. And if, after she has had hands laid on her and has continued for a time to minister, she shall despise the grace of God and give herself in marriage, she shall be anathematized as well as the man united to her.” ”
Council of Chalcedon (c. 150-215).
Read the full text here.

∎ At that time the ministry of women deacons was becoming known in the West through the translation into Latin of important documents from the East, such as the Didascalia. The Verona Palimpsest of 494 AD shows these texts were widely copied.

* “O bishop, appoint workers of righteousness as helpers who may cooperate with you unto life. Those that please you out of all the people you should choose and constitute as deacons: a man for the performance of many things that are required, but a woman for the ministry of women. For there are homes to which you cannot send a male deacon to their women, on account of the heathen, but you may send a deaconess. Also, because in many other matters the office of a woman deacon is required. In the first place, when women go down into the [baptismal] water, those who go down into the water ought to be anointed by a deaconess with the oil of anointing.” ”
Didascalia III 12,1-2.
Read the full text here.

∎ Ancient sources in Gaul [= present-day France] attribute a Sacramentary with ordination prayers to Pope Leo I. The original has been lost. But overwhelming evidence from Gaul indicates it contained the old ordination rite for deaconesses. [A document mistakenly known as the ‘Leontine Sacramentary’ is of later date and has only selected parts from the original.] We will call the lost original Sacramentary of Pope Leo the OLD ROMAN RITE. More information here.

* Local Synods in Gaul, while opposing the ordination of deaconesses in their area, testify to the continuing existence of the ordination: Nîmes (394), Orange (441), Vannes (465), Epáon (517), Orléans (553) and Macon (581).

* This is confirmed by women deacons in Gaul whom we know by name: Geneviève (ca 450), Hilaria (530), Theodora (539) and Radegunde (557).

gelasius1Gelasius I (492 – 496)

 ∎ Pope Gelasius was an austere, well-meaning heresy-hunter from North Africa, a man with little imagination.

* During his brief reign Gelasius suppressed Roman festivals relating to ancient pagan customs & broke with the Patriarch of Constantinople on account of doctrinal issues.
* We mention him here because of an angry letter he wrote to the bishops of Lucania, Calabria and Sicily in the South of Italy. He recognises the order of non-ordained ministering widows, but rails against the bishops for allowing women to perform functions at the altar reserved to male priests. The precise details of this presumed ‘abuse’ are unclear. Did he refer to the existence of female priests as Giorgio Otranto, with good arguments, maintains? Or did he object to priests allowing women to assist them at Mass? Curiously, he does not mention the diaconate of women which must have existed among these Greek-speaking communities. See a full discussion here.

gregory1Gregory I (590 – 604)

 ∎ We know that women deacons ministered in Rome at this time, with close connections to the papal court. We have a tomb inscription of Deacon Anna, who was the sister of “Dometius, Deacon and Treasurer of the holy, apostolic and papal See”. Another tomb at the time in the Roman province of Dalmatia honours the memory of the Deacon Ausonia.∎ Pope Gregory I knew of, and sanctioned, the custom of giving the abbesses of certain monasteries a status later known as ‘sacerdos maxima’. See here.∎ Roman historians tell us that Pope Gregory compiled a new sacramentary containing ordination prayers. It was based on older sacramentaries which must have included the OLD ROMAN RITE (see above under Pope Leo I). The original text has been lost but it contained an ordination prayer for women deacons as we know from manuscripts that copied from it. We call this Sacramentary the PROTO-GREGORIAN. More information here.

* From reconstructions we know that the original ordination prayer was short and to the point: “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, etc.” More details here.

∎ It was Pope Gregory I who, in 604, sent Augustine and his companions to Canterbury to support the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity . They must have carried a copy of Gregory’s sacramentary with them. Local Synods kept stressing that the Church in Britain should remain faithful to its foundation under Augustine. That was the intention of the Synod of Whitby (664) and of the First Synod of Cloveshoe (742) which “carefully examined how things were ordered at the first beginning of the Church here in England”. So it is highly significant that we find the original ordination prayer for a deaconess in the Sacramentary of Egbert of York (732) and the Leofric Missal of Exeter (920).

constantine1Constantine I (708 – 715)

 ∎ A description of ordinations by the Pope in Pope Constantine’s time outlines the ordination of male deacons and priests, and then states: “In the same way the[ir] women, the deaconesses or female priests who are ordained on the same day.” Read the full text here.

* Clergy wives were obliged to observe celibacy. But it is clear from texts such as these that women deacons did receive some kind of ordination and acquired ecclesiastical status of some sort. Study the details here.

∎ In 710/711 Pope Constantine travelled to Constantinople to make peace with Emperor Justinian II (669-711). The Emperor’s Code of Law treated women deacons as ‘clergy’ on a par with male deacons and repeatedly affirmed that they receive a full sacramental ordination. The Pope obviously is aware of this since the legislation also affected Italy and Rome. Remember also that the Pope was of Greek descent.

* “Whatever we have decreed about the venerable [male] clerics, we want also to apply to the God-pleasing deaconesses [διακονισσων], so that they too do not transgress the [right] practice … All those women who will be ordained [χειροτονουμενας] as venerable deacons [διακονους] must, at the time of their ordination [χειροτονιας], both be admonished and be told of the sacred prescriptions in the hearing of all the other venerable women deacons [διακονων] who already exist, so that they preserve the fear of God and resolve to adhere to the sacred rules, so that they also will fear to lose their sacred order [‘ιερας ταξεως], in the knowledge that if they will presume to shame their ordination [χειροτονιαν], or leaving their sacred ordination [χειροτονιαν], choose to marry, or elect an entirely different kind of life, they themselves will be subject to the death penalty and their property will be confiscated and given to the sacred churches or monasteries to which they are attached. ”
Code of Justinian I (Novella 6,6 § 1 & 8). Read the full text here.

gregory2Gregory II (715 – 731)

 ∎ Pope Gregory II had accompanied his predecessor Pope Constantine to Constantinople (see above). He too must have been fully conversant with the minisrty of women deacons in the East.∎ Like his predecessor Pope Gregory II sanctioned the decrees of the Ecumenical Council of Trullo (692). This Council reaffirmed the age limit for women deacons laid down by the Council of Chalcedon in 451.∎ Pope Gregory II greatly stimulated the Christian mission in Germany. Boniface, the aspostle of the Saxons, visited Rome various times. Pope Gregory II appointed him Bishop of Mainz in 722. No doubt the ordination rites used by Boniface derived from a sacramentary he received in Rome. The MAINZ ORIGINAL Pontifical must have been based on this Roman sacramentary.

Background information here.

zacharyZachary (741 – 752)

 ∎ Pope Zachary presided over the Synod of Rome in 743. One of the decrees of this Synod reaffirms the condemnation of marrying a deaconess already found in earlier church documents and in the laws of Justinian. Deaconesses are mentioned next to nuns and female priests. Read more about clergy wives here.

* “That no man presume to join to himself in a criminal marriage a female priest (presbytera), a female deacon (diacona), a religious sister or nun or his own godmother. For the man who commits such a crime should know that he is burdened under the chain of anathema and condemned in God’s judgement and removed from the sacred body and blood of Jesus Christ.”
The Synod of Rome.  Full text here.

∎ During another visit of Boniface to Rome, Pope Zachary confirmed him as Archbishop of Mainz in 745. In 752 he authorised Boniface to crown Pepin the Short as King of the Franks in Soissons.

* As stated before (under Pope Gregory II, see above), Boniface must have used a sacramentary that became the basis of pontifical MAINZ A  which we can reconstruct from 5 dependent pontificals. It contained the ordination of women deacons. Description here.

The five pontificals are:

stalbanl811 AD

hittorplca 850 AD

cassinolca 850 AD

vallicellal1002 AD

salzburglca. 1050 AD

adrian1Adrian I (772 – 795)

 ∎ At the request of Charlemagne, Pope Adrian I sent a model sacramentary with ordinationj rites to Gaul. It is at times called the ‘Gregorian Sacramentary’ since it was based on Gregory the Great’s collection (see above). It is more properly called the HADRIANUM.Information here.

∎ This HADRIANUM SACRAMENTARY contained the old ordination prayer for deaconesses as we can see from 5 ancient sacramentaries that were copied from it.

* The text is as follows: “PRAYER TO MAKE A WOMEN DEACON. Hear, O Lord, our petition and send down on this your maidservant here the Spirit of your ordination so that, once 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 etc. “.

The five sacramentaries are:

cambrais811 AD

notredamesca 850 AD

reginaesca 850 AD

stblasiens1002 AD

exeterlca. 1050 AD

SUMMARY: 800 – 1100 AD
People in the West, including Popes, are not aware of the ministry of women deacons as practised in the Catholic East.
Some Papal Pontificals still contain the ancient Latin rite for ordaining women as deacons.
There are deaconesses, even in Rome, but the diaconate of women in the West becomes little more than a form of religious life.

leo3
Leo III (795 – 816)
 ∎ Pope Leo III lived in exile for some years. When he returned in 799 he was welcomed back by the citizens of Rome, including deaconesses. It shows there were still deaconesses in Rome.

* “And these Roman citizens welcomed their pastor [= Pope Leo III] … both prominent clerics and all other clerics, as well as [lay] officials, members of the senate and the army, et all the people of Rome with the nuns, deaconesses, et most noble matrons and all women …”
Read the full text here.

gregory5Gregory V (996 – 999)

 ∎ Gregory V was a German Pope who crowned Otto III as Emperor of the ‘Holy Roman Empire’ in 996. More information here. The Pontifical containing his crowning rite, also preserved the full German Mass for ordaining women deacons. It has been preserved in two manuscripts.

* Short excerpts from the text: “The rite of ordaining a woman deacon. When the bishop ordains a woman deacon, he imposes a diaconate stole on her neck… Also the mass to consecrate a woman deacon… After this, she prostrates herself in front of the altar and the litany (of invocations) is intoned. When the litany is finished, the bishop says this prayer over her: ‘Hear, O Lord, our petition and send down on (name) 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 …’ “. An ordination preface follows.

 

benedict8Benedict VIII (1012-1024)

 ∎ In 1017 Pope Benedict VIII granted to one of his assistant bishops in Rome the power to perform functions in his name in St. Peter’s Basilica. This included the ordination of priests, male deacons AND deaconesses.

* “In the same way we grant and confirm to you and your successors for all time [the power] to perform every kind of episcopal ordination, that is of priests as well as of deacons or deaconesses, or also of subdeacons, church buildings or altars, whatever might be required…”
The full text is here.

john19John XIX (1024 – 1032)

 ∎ In 1024 Pope John XIX, like his predecessor (see above), granted to one of his assistant bishops in Rome the power to perform functions in his name in St. Peter’s Basilica. This included the ordination of priests, male deacons AND deaconesses.

* “In the same way we grant and confirm to you and your successors for all time [the power] to perform every kind of episcopal ordination, that is of priests as well as of deacons or deaconesses, or also of subdeacons, church buildings or altars, whatever might be required…”
The full text is here.

leo9Leo IX (1049 – 1054)

 ∎ Like some of the other Popes before him (see above) Pope Leo IX granted in 1051 to one of his assistant bishops in Rome the power to perform functions in his name in St. Peter’s Basilica. This included the ordination of priests, male deacons AND deaconesses.

* “In the same way we grant and confirm to you and your successors for all time [the power] to perform every kind of episcopal ordination, that is of priests as well as of deacons or deaconesses, or also of subdeacons, church buildings or altars, whatever might be required…”
Read the full text here.