Women Priests in the Ancient Church
1. Properly ordained women priests (presbyterae?)
In the Early Church it has never been a general practice to ordain women as priests for reasons explained elsewhere. Moreover, the term ‘presbytera’ could have a variety of meanings. It usually meant being a ‘priest’s wife’.
However, there may have been exceptions to this general rule. It is possible that in the South of Italy some women were ordained priests.
Some evidence can, peerhaps, be found both in archeological inscriptions and historical records. Read these documents:
- “Notes on the Female Priesthood in Antiquity”, by Prof. George Otranto in Journal of Feminist Studies 7 (1991) no 1, pp. 73 – 94.
- ‘The Problem of the Ordination of Women in the Early Christian Priesthood’, by Prof. George Otranto, paper of USA lecture tour, 1991.
- Letter of Atto, Bishop of Vercelli, to the priest Ambrose.
For more ancient times read:
- ‘The Fractio Panis and the Eucharist as Eschatological banquet’, by Damien Casey in the Mcauley Electronic Journal 2 (2002).
Here is a tombstone for the Catholic woman priest Leta in South Italy, 4th cent. AD.
- The ordination of St. Brigit of Kildare as a bishop (6th cent. Ireland; ascribed in a legend to an ‘accident’ inspired by the Holy Spirit)
2. Women in pastoral leadership roles
There are also examples of women involved in a variety of pastoral ministries.
- In the second-century ‘New Prophecy’ movement, which was originally not a heresy, Prisca and Maximilla were leading prophets. See the article by Anne Jensen.
- Both in East and West sacramentally ordained women deacons served the parishes.
- An overview of women in the West serving in ministries can be found here.
- In the early sixth century, three bishops from the region of Lugdunensis (present-day Lyon ) in France: Licinius of Tours, Melanius of Rennes, and Eustochius of Angers, attempted to restrain two Celtic priests who encouraged the participation of women in the liturgy.
- Until the 16th century, in the Basque regions of France and Spain, socalled soreras or freilas exercised a female ministry that is probably a remnant of the early women’s diaconate.
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