From the earliest times, women have taken an active part in the ministry of the Church. The precise extent and nature of this ministry is not easy to unravel, partly because of the scarcity of historical records, partly because of divergent ministries and a variety of names given to such ministries. During the first two centuries the order of widows seems to have absorbed most of the female involvement in the apostolate. The rise and decline of women's diaconate is a complex story.
For the sake of our main argument, we will here concentrate on the undeniable fact that from the third to at least the ninth century the Church has had validly ordained and active women deacons.
- The diaconate ordination imparted to women was a true sacramental ordination, parallel in all essentials to that of the diaconate for men.
- The ordination of women deacons was sanctioned by Church councils.
- The tasks of women deacons ran parallel to those expected from male deacons, with some specific duties inherent in the position and the need of women at the time. These tasks corresponded to a complete diaconate ministry.
- Historical records confirm that the diaconate of women flourished for many centuries, especially in Greece, Syria and throughout Byzantium.
Since the diaconate is part of sacramental holy orders, it follows that, if women could be validly ordained deacons, they can be validly ordained priests.
The Council of Trent defined:
If anyone says that in the Catholic Church there does not exist a hierarchy, established through divine ordination, which consists of bishops, priests and deacons, let him be anathema. (Denzinger no 966).
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