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Letter to Women

Chapter 17.

The Ordination of Women in the Catholic Church,

Unmasking a Cuckoo's Egg Tradition.

By John Wijngaards

Published by Darton Longman and Todd, London 2001.

© John Wijngaards. Republished on our website with the necessary permissions

Nine centuries of women deacons

            The Congregation for Doctrine bases its opposition to women priests also on what it believes to be an indisputable fact. The Church has never ordained women as priests. This has been the unchanging and constant practice throughout the past 2000 years.

“The Catholic Church has never felt that priestly or episcopal ordination can be validly conferred on women . . .  Since that period [of the Middle Ages] and up to our own time, it can be said that the question has not been raised again, for the practice has enjoyed peaceful and universal acceptance  .  .  . The Church’s tradition in the matter has thus been so firm in the course of the centuries that the magisterium has not felt the need to intervene in order to formulate a principle which was not attacked, or to defend a law which was not challenged.”[314] 

The Congregation thus claims that the practice of not ordaining women proves by its own fact that it is part of sacred Tradition. But does it? It would not be difficult to expose the fallacy of such a claim. A practice by itself, however long, proves nothing. For nineteen centuries the Church practiced slavery. Did that prove it belonged to Tradition? But with regard to ordaining women, the Congregation even got its facts wrong. For women did receive the sacrament of ordination during the first millennium of the Church. Tens of thousands were ordained as deacons and thus participated in the first level of the sacramental ministry of the priesthood.


In the early Church a plethora of ministries had arisen that all seemed more or less related to the priesthood. They included acolytes, readers, catechists, doorkeepers and subdeacons. When during the time of the Reformation many of the sacraments came under attack including that of the priesthood, the Council of Trent declared in 1563 that three ministries had from the earliest times formed part of the sacrament of holy orders: the episcopate, the priesthood and the diaconate.

“Whereas the ministry of so holy a priesthood is a divine thing; to the end that it might be exercised in a more worthy manner, and with greater veneration, it was suitable that, in the most well-ordered settlement of the Church, there should be several and diverse orders of ministers, to minister in the [one] priesthood, by virtue of their office; orders so distributed as that those already marked with the clerical tonsure should ascend through the lesser to the greater orders. For the sacred Scriptures make open mention not only of priests, but also of deacons; and teach, in most weighty words, what things are especially to be attended to in their ordination .  .  . If anyone says, that, in the Catholic Church there is not a hierarchy by divine ordination instituted, consisting of bishops, priests and deacons; let him be anathema.”[315]

The Congregation for Doctrine acknowledges that there were women deacons in the early Church, but it denies that they received a sacramental ordination. The diaconate for women was only a minor ministry, it says, a blessing, a commission to perform some practical tasks, not a sacrament. But are they right?

We know that women deacons were ordained in the early Church through precisely the same ordination rite as male deacons. This fact is so crucial that I will move step by step through the ancient rite, proving that the diaconate given to women was as much a sacrament as the diaconate given to men. In this chapter I will base myself on the rituals in an ancient Greek manuscript discovered in the library of Cardinal Francis Barberini. It had come from the monastery of St.Mark in Florence, which in turn had received it from the inheritance of Nicolai de Nicolis. That is why I call the manuscript the Nicolai manuscript. An analysis of the uncial script used by the copyist would indicate that the copy was transcribed between the 9th and the 12th centuries at the latest. The contents are much older and reflect Byzantine practice  in the 6th to 8th centuries AD. Remember that at that time East and West had not yet split in the Church.[316]       


The manuscript is a rituale,[317] i.e. it contains detailed instructions on the ceremonies and prayers to be used  at the ordination of bishops, priests, deacons, subdeacons, readers, acolytes and doorkeepers. It has separate ordination rites for male deacons and female deacons. For easy comparison I will print these rites side by side in this chapter. I reproduce the complete text interrupted only by an unavoidable  word of comment.

Opening ceremony

“The Ordination of Deacons”

    “Ordination prayer for Deaconesses”

“After the sacred offertory, the doors [of the sanctuary] are opened and before the Deacon starts the litany ‘All Saints’, the man who is to be ordained Deacon is brought before the Archbishop. And when the ‘Divine Grace’ statement has been said, the ordinand kneels down.”

“After the sacred offertory, the doors [of the sanctuary] are opened and, before the Deacon starts the litany ‘All Saints’, the woman who is to be ordained Deacon is brought before the Bishop.[318] And after the Bishop has said the ‘Divine Grace’ with a loud voice, the woman to be ordained bows her head.”


As the Orthodox theologian Evangelos Theodorou points out, the setting for both ordinations indicate that we are dealing with a major order. To begin with, the ordination is called  cheirotonia i.e. Greek for the ‘imposition of hands’. Then, the ordination takes place in the sanctuary before the altar. Remember how even today in the oriental rites the sanctuary that encloses the altar is hidden from the people through a sacred screen. Now the doors of the screen are opened to admit the candidates into the sanctuary itself. Moreover, the ordination of both male and female deacon takes place during the liturgy of the Eucharist and at a very solemn moment, namely after the sacred Anaphora [= offertory]. So-called minor orders, such as the lectorate and subdiaconate, are imparted by a simple imposition of hands [cheirothesia] outside the sanctuary and not during the Eucharist.


When the candidate stands before him, the bishop makes a public proclamation designating the candidate by name for the diaconate. The text read as follows: “Divine Grace, which always heals what is infirm and makes up for what is lacking, promotes so-and-so to be a Deacon. Let us therefore pray that the grace of the Holy Spirit may descend on him/her.”[319]


The time, the place, the solemn declaration in the presence of the people and the clergy, all of it imparts a public character to the ordination. The intention is obviously for all to know that so-and-so will from now on be a deacon.[320]

First laying on of hands

Male ordinand

Female ordinand

The Archbishop puts the sign of the cross on his forehead three times, imposes his hand and prays:

“Lord our God, in your providence you send the working and abundance of your Holy Spirit on those who through your inscrutable power are constituted liturgical ministers to serve your immaculate mysteries, please, preserve, Lord, this man whom you want me to promote to the ministry [leitourgia] of the diaconate in all seriousness and strictness of good behaviour, that he may guard the mystery of faith with a pure conscience. And give him the grace, which you have given to Stephen your first martyr.

And after having called him to the work of your ministry, in your good pleasure make him worthy to perform the degree [of responsibility] you entrust to him. For those who perform it well, will acquire for themselves a high degree [of reward]. Make your servant perfect, for yours are the kingdom and the power.”

The Bishop imposes his hand on her forehead, makes the sign of the cross on it three times, and prays:

“Holy and Omnipotent Lord, through the birth of your Only Son our God from a Virgin according to the flesh, you have sanctified the female sex. You grant not only to men, but also to women the grace and blessing of the Holy Spirit.

Please, Lord, look on this your maidservant and dedicate her to the ministry [leitourgia] of your diaconate, and pour out into her the rich and abundant giving of your Holy Spirit.

Preserve her so that she may always perform her ministry [leitourgia] with orthodox faith and irreproachable conduct, according to what is pleasing to you. For to you is due all glory and honour.”


To appreciate the importance of this section, we need to go back to basics. Sacraments are, by definition, sacred signs. In its long history the Church has come to accept two aspects of the  ‘sign’ in each sacrament: the matter (an object or an action) and the form (the words that are spoken). In baptism, the washing with water is the matter, the words “I baptise you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit” are the form. These two elements make up the substance of the sacramental sign. Where we find them present, we know that the sacrament has been validly administered. And being precise in details here is no luxury, as the Catholic Church has always insisted.


In the case of Holy Orders, from time immemorial the imposition of hands has been considered as the matter of the sacrament, the invoking of the Spirit on the ordinand as the form. These constitute the essence of the sacramental sign, by which everyone knows that this person has been truly ordained. By laying his hands on the head of the ordinand and by invocatory prayer the bishop imparts the sacrament.


In the ceremony we are studying here we find that the Holy Spirit is called down on both the man and the woman for the ministry of the diaconate. Both are therefore sacramentally ordained. Note also that the prayer is said aloud for the whole congregation to hear.

The Intercessions

Male Ordinand

Female Ordinand

“One of the other Deacons now starts a litany of intercessions: for the salvation of our souls, for peace in the world, for our Archbishop, for our Emperor, etc. etc.”

“One of the other Deacons now starts a litany of intercessions: ‘for the salvation of our souls, for peace in the world, for our Archbishop, for our Emperor, etc.etc.”


We know from parallel rituals in other manuscripts that special prayer for the ordinands were included. One of the prayers we find was: “For so-and-so the Deaconess, who has just been ordained, and for her salvation, let us pray the Lord. That the most merciful Lord may give her a sincere and faultless diaconate, let us pray the Lord.”[321]


Second imposition of hands

Male ordinand

Female ordinand

While the officiating Deacon makes these intercessions, the Archbishop, still imposing his hand on the head of the ordinand,  prays as follows:

“God, our Saviour, with incorruptible voice you have foretold it, you announced that he would be first who would perform the ministry of the diaconate, as it written in your holy Gospel: ‘Whoever want to be first among you, must be your servant [diakonos]’, please, Lord of all, fill this servant of yours whom you have made worthy to enter the ministry [leitourgia] of the diaconate, through the life-giving coming of your Holy Spirit, with all faith, charity, power and holiness.

For grace is given to those you deem worthy, not by the imposition of my hands, but by the visitation of your rich mercy, so that, purified from sin, he may on that fearful day of your judgement be presented to you without guilt, and receive the reward of your unfailing promise. For you are our God, God of mercy and salvation, etc. etc. [sic!]”

While the Deacon makes these intercessions, the Archbishop, still imposing his hand on the head of the ordinand, prays as follows:

“Lord, Master, you do not reject women who dedicate themselves to you and who are willing, in a becoming way, to serve your Holy House, but admit them to the order of your ministers [leitourgôn]. Grant the gift of your Holy Spirit also to this your maidservant who wants to dedicate herself to you, and fulfil in her the grace of the ministry of the diaconate, as you have granted to Phoebe the grace of your diaconate, Phoebe whom you had called to the work of the ministry [leitourgia]. Give her, Lord, that she may persevere without guilt in your Holy Temple, that she may carefully guard  her behaviour, especially her modesty and temperance.

Moreover, make your maidservant perfect, so that, when she will stand before the judgement seat of your Christ, she may obtain the worthy fruit of her excellent conduct, through the mercy and humanity of your Only Son.”


Again the bishop performs the laying on of hands and invokes the Holy Spirit. Just like the first imposition, this action by itself would suffice to impart the sacrament. Only candidates for the three major orders: bishops, priests and deacons  receive a double imposition of hands. Perhaps the second imposition arose from a felt need to make absolutely sure that the candidate was validly ordained. Notice also that this second invocation of the Holy Spirit is spoken softly by the bishop. It seems to reinforce the intercessions spoken aloud by the officiating deacon.



Male ordinand

Female ordinand

“The Archbishop takes away the [man’s] scarf from the ordinand and lays a stole [on his shoulders]. He kisses him and hands him the holy thurible and makes him incense the holy gifts when they are exposed on the [altar] table.”

“The Archbishop puts the stole of the diaconate round her neck, under her [woman’s] scarf, arranging the two extremities of the stole towards the front.”


Both the male and the female deacon receive the stole as their official vestment. The male deacon, one of  whose future tasks it will be to assist at the altar during the eucharist, is handed the thurible and made to incense the gifts for the first time.

Distributing Communion

Male ordinand

Female ordinand

“When [at the time of communion] the newly ordained has taken part of the sacred body and precious blood, the Archbishop hands him the chalice. He in turn makes all those who approach him take part in the sacred blood.”

“When [at the time of communion] the newly ordained has taken part of the sacred body and precious blood, the Archbishop hands her the chalice. She accepts it and puts it on the holy table [= the altar]. ”


Both the male and the female deacon are handed the chalice by the bishop. According to Byzantine practice, this chalice contains parts of the consecrated bread immersed in the consecrated blood. By holding the chalice in their hands both the male and female deacon accept the task of distributing communion. Since male deacons assisted at the eucharist in church, the male deacon starts to distribute at his ordination. Female deacons took communion to the sick. We will return to the tasks allocated to male and female deacons in the next chapter. Suffice it here to note that there is no difference in the ministry to which both were ordained. Also women deacons were ordained “to serve your Holy House”, “to the work of the ministry [leitourgia] …in your Holy Temple”.


Each sacrament is by definition a visible  sign, something people can see and distinguish from something else. Male and female deacons were ordained to the same diaconate, through identical rituals, under parallel invocations of the Holy Spirit. If a man was sacramentally ordained and a woman not, how were people to know? The truth is simple. Women deacons were admitted to Holy Orders. Otherwise we make a mockery of the intention of the ordaining bishops and the rite of ordination itself.


“If anyone says that, through sacred ordination, the Holy Spirit is not given, and that therefore the Bishop says in vain: “Receive the Holy Spirit, or that through this ordination the character [of holy orders] is not imprinted  .  .  .  , Let him be anathema.”[322]

The sacramental character, which the Council of Trent described as ‘a spiritual and indelible seal’ is also received by deacons. Theologians do not agree on how the ‘character’ imprinted through the diaconate relates to the ‘character’ of the priesthood and the ‘character’ of the episcopacy. Many think the diaconate ‘character’ predisposes to the reception of the other ‘characters’. In this context many point to the old rule which prescribed that no one should be ordained a priest without first being ordained a deacon.[323]  The women who received the ‘character’ of the diaconate truly shared in the sacrament of ordination and could have been ordained priests.

Readings from Women Priests web site


Texts of ordination rites from:

* the Apostolic Constitutions

* the Nicolai manuscript

* the George Varus manuscript

* Vatican manuscript no 1872

* reconstructed from 7 manuscripts

* Syriac manuscript
















[314]  Inter Insigniores, § 5-8.

[315]  Council of Trent, On the Sacrament of Ordination, ch.2 & can. 6; Latin text in Enchiridion Symbolorum, Denzinger-Schönmetzer, Herder 1976, no 1763-1778.

[316] The manuscript was translated into Latin  and published by John Morinus,  Antwerp 1695; pp.55-57.

[317]  The Greek term is euchologion.

[318]  In this rite the copyist sometimes speaks of the ‘bishop’, some times the ‘archbishop’.  The original text carried ‘bishop’ as we know from other manuscripts, but because this euchologion was transcribed for an archbishop, the scribe wrote ‘archbishop’ whenever he remembered to do so.

[319]  See Vatican Manuscript 1872; John Morinus, in Commentarius [sic!] de Sacris Ecclesiae Ordinationibus, publ. Kalverstraat, Antwerp 1695; pp. 78-81.

[320] Evangelos Theodorou, ‘Die Weihe, Die Segnung der Diakoninnen’ (in modern Greek), Theologia 25 (1954) pp. 430 - 469; ‘Das Ambt der Diakoninnen in der kirchlichen Tradition. Ein orthodoxer Beitrag zum Problem der Frauenordination’, Una Sancta 33 (1978) pp. 162-172.


[321] Jacob Goar, in Euchologion sive Rituale Graecorum, Paris 1647, pp. 262-264; with notes on pp. 264-267.


[322] The Council of Trent, On the Sacrament of Ordination, Canon 4, Denzinger no 964.

[323]  Pope Innocentius III, Letter to the Bishop of Brixen; F. Solá, ‘De Sacramento Ordinis’, in Sacrae Theologiae Summa, ed. J.A. de Aldama et al., vol. IV, Madrid 1956, pp. 710-713.

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