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>Women Priests in ancient times by M<SUP>a</SUP> Jose Arana

Women Priests in ancient times

by Ma José Arana

translation from the Spanish Mujeres Sacerdotes ¿Por qué No...?

Original text: Publicaciones Claretianas, Madrid 1994; ISBN: 84-7966-078-3;
republished with the permission of the author.

1. Guide to the Problem

It is commonly accepted that there have never been any women ordained in the Catholic Church, and that this has been, and continues to be one of the most powerful arguments for refusing women access to the sacred Orders.

The Declaration of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Inter Insignoresreads “The Catholic Church has never allowed women to receive priestly or episcopal ordination. Some heretic sects in the first few centuries, especially Gnostics, wanted women to be able act as ministers of the priesthood. This innovation.....” (I.I.1).

But we should also accept the fact that for a long time women deacons or deaconesses have been ignored and/or the scope of their ordination has been minimised. Normally they were granted the possibility of having received “a blessing” and it was a question of avoiding, in that, any reference to a true ordination (1). Because people even saw these ladies simply as “the wife of the deacon or/and also an “old lady” or “widow”, but of course stripped of any reference which could connect them to a truly “ordained” position. However, subsequent investigation is bringing people not only to no longer doubt the sacramental character and clerical status enjoyed by deaconesses, but to consider them enormously significant and important for the Church in the first few centuries. The documentation about them, especially in the Oriental Churches, is enormously extensive (2). We are already convinced of what some medieval authors stated: “we really believe that the deaconesses were female ministers. After all, we call “deacon” the minister, from whom we can clearly see that the name deaconess” is derived” (Atto). Or, as Abelard says, using almost the same words: “who are also evidently united by the name, it being clear that we use the name deaconess as well as deacon” (Ep. VIII). However, we have already seen that contemporaries of these authors, like for example Gratian, also refused to grant women this possibility: “However, not only could women not be guided towards the priesthood but not towards the diaconate either” (3). And this opinion has dominated the practice and the reasoning in our Church, however much this was not the case at the beginning of Christianity.

Someone who has been no less ignored, in her clerical facet is the “widow ”, “ordained after being chosen” as the Testament of Our Lord Jesus Christ reads. The duties of the widows, in some places, especially in the East, were very similar to those of the deaconesses; in all cases, the widows were also ordained, chosen, and possessed a status in the ecclesiastical hierarchy. But history has taken it upon itself to forget and minimise the scope and importance of both.

In my opinion, something very similar could occur with the term “presbitera” (and even with “episcopa (female Bishop?)” generally translated as “wife of the priest”, “old lady” and also “deaconess”. We can find a clear example of this usage in Saint Thomas: “Presbitera autem dicitur vidua, quia presbitero idem est quod senior” (4); for this author “priestesses” and “widow” are synonyms. Also, who doesn’t know, for example, about the difficulties that translators had when identifying the famous Phoebe? What real meaning did the term “presbyter/a” have? Could this bring us any surprises in this sense?

I think so, and Giorgio de Otranto, who is absolutely original in this way (5), shows this to be the case. He uses documents that, although they have not been disregarded by many scholars, they have, however, been read using very unclear codes, due to the burden of a type of ancestral blindness, and, above all, the difficult task of getting rid of interpretations which corresponded to the ideological consensus and an inherited understanding. In addition, ancient texts referring to women in the Church have usually been read from controversial perspectives contrary to the everyday Montanists and Gnostics who granted women a greater significance and protagonism, than the official church accepted. So, the ecclesiastical prohibitions are usually interpreted as being in direct confrontation with these “heterodoxical” movements, and people are not able to see the possibility that they could also refer to situations occurring within the Church itself.

Nevertheless, in Otranto, a type of change of horizon is taking place, which allows these documents to be read in a more direct code and, through these, we are approaching a very interesting reality with regard to women in the ancient church.

So let us read these texts directly, but without straying too far from the author of the quoted article.

2. Some texts of particular relevance

2.1 Atto de Vercelli

At the end of the 10th century, a priest called Ambrosius asked the Bishop of Vercelli, Atto, about the significance of the words “priestesses” and “deaconess” in the ancient canons, and the Bishop responded to him, revealing in an interesting and clear way, the understanding, and ancient practice of these terms.

From the words of Jesus “the harvest is great and the workers few”, he says, we can understand that “to help males, religious women were also ordainedinto the Church, tonsured” (6). In this practice, Atto would not see any novelty, as, according to him, Paul already indicated this when he spoke of Phoebe “who ministers in the Church” (Romans 16,1), “from where it is understood that at that time, not only males but also women presided (were at the head of) Churches, and of great benefit”. This practice could also be related to the fact that, often, women who came from paganism “had been trained” in the practice of the ministry of pagan worship. Atto sees the decline of these authentic ordinations in the Council of Laodicea, which in Chapter 11 clearly prohibited the ordination of the “presbyteras” or “female presidents” (7). He also alludes to the Council of Chalcedon.

In the following pages, he refers to the significance of the word “deaconess”: “we really believe that the deaconesses were ministers. So, we call “deacon” the minister, from whom we can clearly see that the name deaconess” is derived...”, and he lists her duties and characteristics: No more than 40 years old; suitably trained to baptise and teach women and children “with apt and appropriate words”; with a chaste life style ... etc. And an important distinction is established here: “So, in the same way that those who were called priestesses had received the duty of preaching, of administering sacraments or teaching, in the same way, no doubt, that deaconesses had received the duty of serving or baptising....”; “which is now only carried out as infrequently as possible”. Curiously, he alludes to duties: “baptising, administering sacraments, teaching....”, which, as we know, were forbidden for women by the canons in these times and subsequent eras.

He also adds that is true that this ministry of baptism could be extended to widows or nuns, something, according to Atto, “which is hardly appropriate”, or, put another way, it is not appropriate that it is carried out in that way, but, in any case, he suggests they “be trained in their duty”. He anticipates possible inaccuracy in confusing the terms “Abbess” and “deaconess” and clarifies: “but, by deaconess, we do not understand anything else but female minister”. That is to say, the presbytera and the deaconess are very close, like the deacon and the presbyter also were in the practice of the primitive Church.

Finally, he alludes to the fact that “we can also consider presbyteras or deaconesses to be those who have been united in a conjugal union with priests or deacons before their ordination”, and it is here where the Bishop of Vercelli, a fervent instigator for reforming the life and customs of clerics, discusses, at length, the integrity of life, celibacy etc., which should be demanded of males in the Church – a question which is also of great interest but which is not so directly related to our study. That is to say, he alludes to the significance of the wives of the “presbyters”, but in no way is he precise about it.

This is the fundamental content of the 8th Epistle of Atto in which he refers to “presbyteras” and “deaconesses”.

2.2 The Decree of Pope Gelasius

But the text to which Otranto refers as fundamental in confirming the existence of women “presbyteras” is the well-known Decree of Pope Gelasius. In 494 this Pope sent a very interesting document “to all the bishops established in Lucania, Bruttium (Calabria) and Sicily about matters of particular importance for the Church, in general, and these regions in particular”.

Amongst the decrees, there are four referring to women in the Church; one with regard to the “consecration of virgins”, two about “the prohibition of widows keeping vigil” and another, the one which is of the greatest interest for our topic, on problems relating to the ordination of women (8). In it, he strongly denounces the existence of “presbyteras”, in active practice, in these regions of Southern Italy.

He says, literally: “We have been exasperated by the disdain with which divine matters have come to be regarded, that it is even being claimed that women can minister at holy altars, and practise all the things that were once the responsibility of males, and which are not appropriate to their sex. We have shown that the punishment for all these crimes, which we have mentioned one by one, has to be imposed on those priests who do similar things, or make it known that they favour those who allow these crimes, without making them public..” (9).

After a detailed analysis of the expressions “sacris altarbus ministrare” and “ut feminae sacris altaribus minstrare firmentur”, George de Otranto arrives at the conclusion that one has to see in them a clear reference to liturgical and priestly service, and in the expression “ecclesiastical service”, a synonym of the “clerical ministry”. He dismisses the weaker and more indecisive interpretations of other authors (10) and concludes by saying: “So, I maintain that Gelasius, in this definition, has the intention of stigmatising and condemning not only feminine liturgical practice but also the abuse, which seemed much more serious to him, – ie. that true and capable presbyteras were carrying out all the tasks exclusively reserved for males” (11).

The seriousness of the matter was, above all, according to Gelasius, the fact that the same Bishops were involved in this question, either by the real ordinations they carried out, or by their silence and “turning a blind eye” with respect to the matter. In the eyes of the Pope this not only discredited the Church, but was also “a great disaster”, “they mortally injured all Churches” and “those who have dared to do this, and likewise those who, knowing about it, have kept quiet, will lose their own honour, if they do not hurry as much as possible to heal the mortal wounds with the appropriate medicine” (12).

We should note that this Pope, in condemning such practices, is not relying on scriptural or theological arguments, but only on the “Christian norms”, and the “ecclesiastical rules.....”, and the “canons” and because, in addition “it is not appropriate to their sex”. He makes assertions but does not argue or prove his claims.

Again, I rely on the words of Otranto: “ We can infer from the analysis of this epistle of Gelasius that, at the end of the 5th century, some women had been ordained by Bishops and were practising a true, priestly ministry in a vast area of Southern Italy, and perhaps in other unmentioned regions of Italy.” (13).

3. Only in Southern Italy?

This author thinks that ministries of women priests evolved precisely in this zone of Italy because of the contact which existed between this region and the Greek and Byzantine regions, in which it seems that women deacons had taken on great importance and had teamed up with male clerics.In addition, these places were influenced by the Gnostic and Montanist environments of the East and Asia Minor, where women were ordained for priestly and even episcopal duties during the 2nd century – practices which were condemned by the Church on many occasions (14).

In my opinion, without excluding the previous arguments, I would not find it strange if the practice of these women’s ordinations in the zones mentioned, were also simply the belated and almost anachronistic “remnants” of a much more generalised practice in previous times, which would have been maintained in these regions for various reasons, for example, because of a certain tendency to preserve traditions or an inequitable way of evolving the legislation and practice in different Christian communities. Why do I interpret it like this? In the first place, because I believe that this was not the only case in history where real practices relating to ecclesiastical women and other matters, were carried out inequitably, in terms of space and time.

A clear example of this could be seen in the Basque Country, where, well into the 16th century, the seroras, sisters or female friars carried out some duties and reflected a socio-religious status which truly seemed like the remains of the ancient deaconesses (15); that is to say, you would see these ecclesiastical women as direct successors of the deaconesses who, although they had mostly “died out”, nevertheless they possessed some characteristics which are difficult to find anywhere else at this time. These women were starting to form part of a type of ecclesiastical ministry which committed to them in a stable way; “to become a serora is like taking holy orders” and they did this “to live and die in the same hermitage (hospital or church)”. There was a civil title corroborated by the ecclesiastical one. They paid an entrance dowry.... According to J. A. Lizarralde, “although they were never priestesses, they enjoyed, in a way, an ecclesiastical authority” (16).

They had age restrictions (40 years) and had to be of unblemished character, like the ancient deaconesses. They were given keys which, together with the pealing of a bell and the public lighting of a lamp, formed part of their initiation ceremony. They took an active leading role in funerals, baptisms, the maintenance of the Church. They handled liturgical vessels and ornaments, they got as far as ministering at the altar, looked after children, the sick, etc. They were responsible for the whole group of women and led the funeral corteges, sang “laments” and played a very key role in many aspects of funeral rites and many other liturgical and even social aspects, because in addition they enjoyed such a reputation and social prestige that they were allowed to get involved in public and private matters in a way which was unusual for laywomen (17). Already, by the end of the 16th century, Bishop Manso ordered the Council of Justice to throw the female friars out of the hermitages (18), as well as any other visitors and bishops. We cannot delve in greater depth into the carrying out of this sad process of wiping out the seroras. We will simply note that, in one form or another, the legislation was implemented in this way: “The seroras may not touch holy objects nor be placed at the altar. In addition, I am drawing attention to the fact that through the Sacred Canons, women are banned from touching people, altar stones and liturgical vessels, and although they are not allowed to stand at the altars, (the arrangement and adornment of the which is their responsibility), we found that they do should not even dare to touch the abovementioned things, and can only wash linen as and when they are allowed to sweep the Church; and preparing the lamps and the altars is the verger’s responsibility...” (19).

Despite the complaints and resistance on the part of the civil authorities and the people, the seroras or freiras were either removed or set up as “sweepers or servants”; so, the secular institution of the seroras or freiras in these centuries ended up profoundly affected. That is to say, in this country, for reasons that would take us a long time to explain here, ecclesiastical women evolved more slowly and had kept powers, roles and conventions that tell us about the “remnants” of previous realities. Even the documents, canons and legislation which are trying to eliminate them at that time, make a great number of references to those who ran the Church about their female ancestors at the time of their disappearance in the centuries we are currently looking at (20).

So then, it does not seem at all strange that in the case of “women priests” and other ecclesiastical women, the ecclesiastical norms were not all in tune, nor were they imposed with the same efficiency in all corners of the Church; neither would it have been difficult for zones to exist which, either because they stuck to ancient customs, or because of a certain socio-economic and cultural backwardness, (or other reasons), they evolved and applied the legislation in a different way.

4. Other traces of women priests

But, in addition, this is also supported by other factors and evidence. In the first place, the documents that we have read are not the only ones that reveal the presence of these women. Otranto, who we have already mentioned, contributes other written texts and lapidaries, in which “he shows the existence of Christian women priests” (21). He names two female “presbyteras”, also based in Brutium and Salona of Dalmacia during the 5th and 6th centuries, on whose tombs, erected by their husbands (who were not priests), it reads that they were true “presbyteras”. For example: “the presbytera, Leta, who lived in the years of.....”, and whose husband was the person who asked for her tomb to be built; another funereal monument is that of the “presbytera and holy Matron Flavia Vitela” who carried out, according to the inscription on her tomb, work which was, strictly speaking, reserved only for priests such as the stamp (?) of liquid gold; and also the inscription found in Poitiers about “Martha, presbytera...” (22).

The figure of Bitalia, who was recently acknowledged and played by the women of the WOC (23), is very expressive. She is a woman who appears painted in a niche “arch” of the Catacomb of Saint Januarius of Naples. She is wearing a red dress, maintains the Word of God and is in a celebratory posture in front of a type of altar. The painting could be dated back to the 5th century; it must have been one of those that Pope Gelasius did not like either. A funereal inscription identifies it: “Bitilia rests in peace”. It is a graphic document, which very much signifies the presence of women priests in Southern Italy. In the same catacomb there is another interesting painting: three women with an allegorical look are symbolically building the church with bricks and mortar. In the Vatican Library itself, images have been found which also show women who appear to be priests and bishops, dating from the first few centuries (24).

All these lapidary and iconographic documents are speaking to us with tremendous eloquence and are highlighting the idea of the presence of true women priests in primitive Christianity.

We can also think about other arguments based on negation, like, for example, the frequent protests of Tertulian and other authors like Cyprian of Carthage, Irenaeus etc. against women who carried out liturgical activities (25); texts which relate to contemporary and subsequent eras, and of course also to pre-Gelasius’s time. These repeated warnings are also very expressive; otherwise why are there so many prohibitions, condemnations, legislations and protests?

But it is Atto de Vercelli himself who leads us towards a trail which is also very clear. If the Council of Laodicea, in the second half of the 4th century, thought they had seen the end of these “presbyteras”, at least in terms of legislation, evidently, this means that they had existed, previously. So, during the time of Gelasius, one century later, one would have thought that the problem was solved, and yet, in the South of Italy, some women continued to carry out ecclesiastical duties; and even later we will see how the problem re-appears. The translators of the Councils seemed to suffer a type of confusion in the face of the laodician canon and they filled it with lots of interpretations and marginal clarifications. The text says: “Those who call themselves “presbutides” or “presidentas” should not be ordained in the Church” (in 11); or, according to the text incorrectly attributed to Saint Isidore: “Women whom the Greeks call presbyteras and we call widows, old ladies, virgins and servants, should not set themselves up as ordained in the Church”; and in the 44th Canon it is insisted “It is not appropriate for women to enter the areas of the altar” (26).

These expressions are the clearest, although, undoubtedly there are many more warnings, prohibitions and specifications on this and similar ministries in the acts of other subsequent Councils; prohibitions, the existence of which would not be justified if they were not being put into practice. Women working close to the altar, in whatever service or rank, concerned the Conciliar Fathers in these centuries and continued to concern them in the centuries that followed (27).

There is another text, distant in space and above all from the time of the Council of Laodiciea, but which reflects this whole problem with almost the same clarity and in some aspects it appears almost identical, in its concerns, to Pope Gelasius’s document. Also in it, bishops appear to be responsible for absolutely condemnable actions.We are referring to the Acts of the Council of Paris of 829 which reads: “We have found out, in some cases through the testimony of truthful males, and in others through our own eyes, that women, contrary to Divine Law and the Law of the Canonic Institution, have, on their own initiative, become involved with matters related to the holy altars, have shamefully touched liturgical vessels and have handed out priestly vestments to priests. What is even worse than this, more indecent and more inappropriate: they have distributed the Body and Blood of the Lord to people and carried out lots of other practices and dishonourable things. What would be truly admirable would be to know where this illegal use of the Catholic Religion, furtively, came from ie. to know how something which to secular males is illegal, has managed to be made illegal, against the Divine Law, for women whose sex is not even relevant in any way; because, there is no doubt that it has come from the carelessness and negligence of some bishops. So then, such an illegal action has to be curbed and completely distanced from the Christian religion, so that it does not happen again in the future” (28). Here, the formula “sacris altaribus ministrare” is not mentioned; instead it mentions another much vaguer one without the liturgical meaning of that one: “sacris altaribus se ultro ingere”, but otherwise it shows a “lack of discipline” and a very similar punishment.

In the 6th century, we find ourselves with the institution of the “conhospita” (female co-host). In Brittany, this came to attention in this way: the Bishop of Tours wrote a severe letter to the Priests Lavocat and Cathihern, saying: “you never stop bringing to your compatriots, from house to house certain tables, on which you celebrate the service of the mass, with the assistance (help) of women, to whom you give the name of conhospitas. While you distribute the Eucharist, they take the chalice and administer the Blood of Christ to the people. This is a novelty, an incredible superstition. We are profoundly sad to see the re-appearance, in our time, of an abominable sect, which had never been introduced in Gaul. The Fathers of the East call them “pepodistas” from the name Pepundius, author of this schism who dares to associate women in the ministry of the altar” (29). Here, we cannot deduce, from the text, that they managed to preside at holy mysteries, but that they were certainly involved in them.

What is true is that this type of “scandals” re-appeared in different times and places. In Germany, and already in the 8th century, according to Eckenstein, a certain Berthod preached against women who dared to approach the altar to officiate in divine ministries (30). There is no doubt that we can at least notice a strong resistance, not only on the part of women, but even on the part of bishops to abandon such practices. Will such a severe and tenacious struggle not have other causes and different origins from those of a simple, accidental deviation? Because, to tell the truth, this has not been a theme which has interested historians and when they did come across it, they have done so with a mentalities and prejudices we already know about.


1. Por ejemplo TEJADA, R. J., o.c.; se puede confrontar esto en las notas y explicaciones que añade a los textos referentes a este tema, vrg. t. 1, pp. 383-84. E incluso el mismo MARTIMORT, en su valiosa obra, no les concede toda la categoría debida.

2. GRYSON, R. Le Ministère des femmes dans l’Eglise ancienne, Gemloux, Duculot, 1972, p. 9. TUNC, S., y otras muchas obras.

3. Caus. XV, quaest. 3.

4. IV sent, dist, 25. quaest. 2, art, 1, sol. 1 corp.

5. OTRANTO, G., Note sul Sacerdozio femminile nell’antichitá in margine a una testimonianza di Gelasio I, Vetera Chritianorum, 19, (1982), 341-360. ROSSI, M. A. priesthood, precedent and prejudice. On Recovering the Women Priest of Early Christianity, Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, 7 (1991) 73-93. Traduce y da a conocer el artículo del autor anterior.

6. ATTO DE VERCELLI, P. L., 134, pp. 113-115.

7. Ibidem., y hasta el final del apartado se cita directamente del texto de Atto.

8. Para el texto original y traducido de Gelasio ver en TEJADA RAMIRO, J. o.c. t. II, pp. 971 y ss. Pero no corresponden exactamente los números de los cánones con la edición que aporta Otranto.

9. Ibidem.

l0. OTRANTO, G. o.c. Se refiere a los autores de VAN DE MEER, GRYSON, y GALOT, oo.cc. y Bibliografía.

11. Ibidem, p. 82.

12. TEJADA, R. J. 1.c.

13. OTRANTO, G. o.c. p. 84

14. Ibidem, p. 84.

15. Sobre este asunto trato con bastante amplitud en el libro citado, ARANA, M. J., c. II. Cfr. LARRAMENDI, M., HENAO, G., Ambos autores son clásicos en la investigación vasca, s. XVIII, s. XVII, el segundo.

16. J. A. LIZARRALDE, Historia del Convento de la Purísima Concepción de Azpeitia, Santiago, 1921, p. 8.

17. Ver M. J. ARANA, La Clausura... o.c., p. 98 y ss., con bibliografía y documentación de archivos abundante.

18. Parroquia de Lequeitio. Libro de cuentas, n. 5, fol. 136. Archivo del obispado de Bilbao.

19. Libro de quentas de la Yglesia parroquial de N. Señora Sancta Maria de Albistur. Sig f. 122, n. 2, año 1610. Archivo Diocesano de Guipúzcoa.

20. Como ejemplo pueden servir los dos fragmentos citados en la pág. 1 de este libro.

21. G. OTRANTO, o.c. pp. 85-88.

22. Ibidem, pp. 87-89.

23. Los datos de esta catacumba están recogidos por las mujeres del movimiento Women’s Ordination Conference. Publicado en el periódico New Women, New Church, WOC. vol. 15-16, IX, 1992-1993.

24. New Women, New Church, octubre 1990, y también en el de 1993, p. 5.

25. Por ejemplo, ver los textos citados por R. GRYSON, o.c. pp. 47-48. AYNARD, L. La Bible au féminin, París 1990, pp. 270 y ss.

26. J. TEJADA RAMIRO, o.c. t. II. C. J. HEFELE, Histoire des conciles aprés les documents originaux, París 1907. T. 1, pp. 1003 y ss.

27. Es muy interesante ir confrontando estas dos obras y también los textos de MANSY, en relación con las mujeres en los concilios.

28. MANSY o.c. X1V, col. 565, can. 45.

29. L GOUGAUD, Les chréttentés celtiques, París 1911, pp. 95-96.

30. S. GINER SEMPERE, Potestad y orden, o.c. p. 851.

Translated by Lisa Mullins

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