Letter of Atto, Bishop of Vercelli, to the priest Ambrose
Atto (ca. 924 - 962); Vercelli lies in north Italy
From Acherium, Points of Law, vol. I, p. 431 (Patres
Latini 134. 114).
Translated for www.womenpriests.org by
Mary Ann Rossi
LETTER VIII. Atto to the priest Ambrose
Note: Atto, who was a Frank by birth, became bishop in the North of Italy. In this text Atto presents two alternative interpretations for the terms women priests and women deacons mentioned in the ancient records: (a) these women were real ordained ministers; or (b) they were the wives of priests and deacons. Atto says he believes the former opinion (a) is true.
paragraph numbering by John Wijngaards
1. Atto by the grace of God humble Bishop, to Lord Ambrose, most reverend and holy priest, discourses devoted to Christ in the bond of charity. Since we know how to exhort the Omnipotent through your holiness because of our weakness, we openly ask for immense benefits.
2. Having prostrated ourselves with holy signs, we implore that this be done without delay. Although we are of unequal merit, trusting nevertheless in your virtues, we ought not to neglect doing good for you in any way possible. For when we had heard of your illness repeatedly, it was as if my own limbs were wearing away. But we believe that blessed Paul understood, when he said: For when I am weak, then I am stronger (II Cor. XII, 10).
3. May God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ so sustain and chastise you that adversity may not defeat you, nor prosperity elate you. Finally we give you repeated thanks because in all the topics on which we have questioned you, you have taken care to instruct us abundantly. Moreover, we are utterly amazed that a huge fountain built up through so many streams hardly should require more liquid from sweating veins. For if some humor should be found in it, it will be shown to be distilled from a stronger liquid.
4. Therefore since your discretion has prompted you to ask how we ought to understand in the canons for the terms female priest or female deacon, it seems to me that since in the primitive Church, according to the Dominican word, many are the crops and few the laborers, for the helping of men even religious women were ordained caretakers in the holy Church. This is something that blessed Paul points out in his epistle to the Romans when he says, I commend to you my sister Phoebe, who is in the ministry of the church that is in Cenchrae. One understands this because then not only men, but also women were in charge of the Churches, to be sure for the sake of great efficiency. For women, long accustomed to the rites of pagans, instructed as well in philosophical doctrines, were converted more readily for these reasons, and were more easily instructed thoroughly in the worship of religion.This practice c.11 of the Laodicean Council later prohibits when it says that it is not allowed for those women who are called priests or those presiding to be ordained in the Churches.
5. We believe that women deacons were truly ministers of such duties. For we call a minister a deacon, from which we perceive the term deaconess is derived. Finally we read in c.15 of the Chalcedonian Council, that a deaconess must not be ordained before her fortieth year, and this with the greatest deliberation. We also believe the following: that the office of baptizing was enjoined upon women so that the bodies of other women might be touched by them without any deeply felt sense of shame. For in the Oriental Statutes it has been written (Concil. Carthag. iv, c.12): "Widows or pious women who are chosen for the ministry of baptizing women should be so instructed in their office that they can, with fitting and correct speech, teach unskilled and simple women how to answer questions at the time of their baptism, and how they should live now that they have been baptized." For just as these women who were called priests (presbyterae) had assumed the duty of preaching, ordering, and instructing, in the same way clearly the deaconesses had assumed the duty of ministering and baptizing, a practice which today is not at all in use. For infants are baptized in the religion of their parents at such a young age that there can be no impediment of modesty or shame. Therefore it has now been established that women should not presume to take up the custom of baptizing.
6. There are also those who have asserted that those women called deacons in ancient times we now call abbesses, something which I do not find at all fitting. For an Abbott is called Father; whence according to the rule of nouns derived in the feminine gender, abbess keeps the same meaning. The power of this word, equally of fear and of love, of reverence and affection, explains the quality. We understand the woman deacon as nothing other than the minister. Hence if the name of this office had endured also in some way in those matters which are now seen to be dispensed by women, we would consider those women deacons who, subdued by old age, serving religious life in chastity, prepare the oblations to be offered to the priests, keep watch over the thresholds of the churches, and wash the pavements.
7. We could also consider as priests and deaconesses those women who were joined in marriage to priests and deacons before their ordination. They ought to live chastely with these women afterwards, just as has been promulgated in the canons, under the title of the apostles, ch. 6: Let the Bishop, Priest, and Deacon by no means cast off their own wives under the cover of religion; if he truly refuses, let him be excommunicated; if he perseveres, let him be driven out.
8. Likewise from the decrees of Pope Leo, ch. 17: There is the same law of continence for ministers of the altar as there is for bishops and priests, who when they were laity or lectors, could legally take wives and have children, but who, when they reached the higher grades just mentioned, were no longer allowed to do what was earlier allowed. Hence as marriage was made spiritual from carnal, it was necessary for them not to dismiss their wives, but to hold them as if they did not have them, so that wedlock was safe and sexual intercourse ceased. But more willingly do I accept the terms that have been explicated according to the higher sense, most esteemed teacher, until I deserve to be more clearly informed by you. In all these matters, truly, just as you have mandated, marriages have been negated, so that ecclesiastical honor may be preserved in all matters.
9. Moreover we humbly ask your indulgence concerning a letter found in
the canons, of which chapter 11 is well known, which seems to me to be most
useful, and the beginning of it is the following: First of all, let all
priests and deacons, or subdeacons, hold the Catholic faith firmly in mind, so
that if anyone neglects to do so, let him abstain from wine for forty days; and
later if he should have neglected the abstinence imposed, let the judgment be
doubled for him. Or regarding the ancient statutes of the Orientals, of
which one hundred chapters are numbered. From which, according to our practice,
there is first a questioning in every consecration of bishops, of which the
beginning is this:
It is necessary for one who ought to be a bishop, for him to be questioned beforehand, etc. To the end that, in all these matters, you may deem us worthy to make certain, at what time or place they should be set up, under what prince or what Fathers, how they should be judged either to be received completely, or to be rejected on some account. May the Omnipotent Lord deem your prudence worthy to serve us, so that ruled by it, we may prevail in following the right path.
To consider the importance of Atto's testimony within a wider context, read these two articles by Professor Giorgio Otranto:
- "Notes on the Female Priesthood in Antiquity", Journal of Feminist Studies 7 (1991) no 1, pp. 73 - 94.
- The Problem of the Ordination of Women in the Early Christian Priesthood, paper of USA lecture tour, 1991.
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