The ministry of women in the West
In the course of the centuries six types of female
ministers served their communities:
1. Ministering widows
Italy, North Africa, Gaul
ca 100 - 600 AD
Christian Roman communities were served by women who
belonged to the ecclesiastical
order of widows (1 Timothy 5,3-16).
They were carefully selected for a ministry among
women: instructing catechumens, looking after the poor and giving support
In church assemblies they occupied a place of
2. Women Presbyters
South of Italy, Sicily
100 - 900 AD
In areas of Italy and Sicily that had been colonised
by Phoenicians and Hellenists, some Christian communities were perhaps headed
presbyterae, i.e. female priests.
The evidence is found on inscriptions and in literary
These female ministers are said to have exercised all
the functions of their male counterparts.
3. Pastoral Assistants
Britain and Ireland
100 - 400 AD
Pastoral assistants assisted at the baptism of women
and helped distribute communion at the Eucharist.
4. Women Deacons Gaul, Italy, Germanic lands
350 - 1300 AD
The diaconate of women was introduced to the West
from the 4th century onwards. It met opposition both because of Roman prejudice
against giving authority to women and because it was considered alien to
Women deacons were sacramentally ordained for some
centuries. Afterwards, the diaconate was slowly reduced to being no more than a
special kind of religious commitment.
400 - 1400 AD
In the highlands of the Pyrenees women served as Freilas or
Soreras with more or less the same responsibilities as the classic women
They instructed catechumens and cared for the sick. They acted
as sacristans, church wardens and funerary directors.
6. Abbesses who were 'Sacerdos'
900 - 1300 AD
Some Abbesses were given double jurisdiction. They
enjoyed political authority over their territories and ecclesiastical
jurisdiction. They administered parishes and employed ordained male
A number of them bore the title
even Sacerdos Maxima. More
Ministries of women in the West
north africa, gaul, italy
The Institute is known for issuing
academic reports and statements on relevant issues in the Church. These have included scholars' declarations on the need of collegiality in the exercise of church authority, on the ethics of using contraceptives in marriage and the urgency of re-instating the sacramental diaconate of women.
Visit also our websites:
Women Deacons, The Body is Sacred and Mystery and Beyond.
You are welcome to use our material. However: maintaining this site costs money. We are a Charity and work mainly with volunteers, but we find it difficult to pay our overheads.
Visitors to our website since January 2017. Pop-up names are online now.
The number is indicative, but incomplete. For full details click on cross icon at bottom right.
Join our Women Priests' Mailing List
for occasional newsletters:
An email will be immediately sent to you
requesting your confirmation.