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The ministry of 'Widows' in the West

Widows are first mentioned in a letter by Pope Cornelius (251 - 253 AD) in which he lists Widows among various kinds of ministers in the diocese of Rome. The tombs of ecclesiastical widows in ancient Rome also clearly demonstrate the fact of their existence and their honourable status in the local Christian community. The Traditio Apostolica which describes the ministeries in 3rd century Rome, mentions ministering widows but consigns them mainly to an apostolate of prayer.

The misogynist Christian writer Tertullian (155 - 245 AD) who lived in Roman North Africa (present-day Tunisia) confirms that widows enjoyed places of honour in the Christian communities over there.

The Statuta Ecclesiae Antiqua which compiled canons from local synods shows that widows were often chosen to instruct women catechumens before baptism. The activities of Widows are also reflected in other contemporary Church documents such as the Didascalia and the Constitutio Apostolorum, even though the authors of these documents seem anxious to curb what they see as excessive interference by Widows. We should not forget that the ancient laws of Rome did not allow women to exercise any authority in public.

Local synods in Gaul, such as the Council of Epaon (517) and the Second Council of Tours (567) confirm the existence of ministering Widows but here too the stress is on reigning in, rather than on encouraging, their range of work.

In general we may conclude that Widows probably gave a valuable contribution to their communities, even though their services were limited. They did not receive a sacramental ordination (Traditio Apostolica, 10, 1-5).

Return to Women's ministries in the West?

Ministries of women in the West

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Wijngaards Institute for Catholic ResearchThis website is maintained by the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research.

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.

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