“Stones will Cry Out”
by Joan Morris
from Against Nature and God, Mowbrays, 1974, Chapter 2, pp 4-8.
- Chapter 1, Women Overseers of Churches
- Chapter3, Canonical Institutes and Religious Orders
- Chapter 4, The Episcopal Jurisdiction of Abbesses
“And some of the pharisees from among the multitude said to him, rebuke thy disciples. To whom he said I say to you that if these shall hold their peace the stones ~will cry out.”
The word episcopa, that is, bishop applied to women, is to be found on stone and mosaic inscriptions. These are stones that today cry out truths that have been hidden away. These inscriptions prove that women once held a place in the hierarchical service of the Church that is now denied to them.
In the Church of Saint Praxedis, Rome, there is a mosaic with the word Episcopa over the head of a veiled woman, and with the name Theodo(ra) down the side. The name has been tampered with and appears as Theodo. But the head is the head of a woman.
The Church of Saint Praxedis was one of the very earliest titulus churches where bishops presided and where baptisms were performed, although in early times baptism was only given in cathedrals. Wherever baptism was performed deaconesses were necessary for woman catechumens.
The mosaic in question is inside the chapel built by Pope Paschal I in the ninth century in honor of Saint Zeno. Other mosaics in the church are known to date from the fifth century. The later mosaics have been well blended with the earlier ones. The mosaic of the episcopa Theodora depicts the busts of the two sisters Saint Praxedis and Saint Pudentiana, the daughters of Pudens. The church was built on the territory inherited by the sisters from their father.
So we see that as in the East so also in the West, church communities were allocated in the homes of women. It is to be expected that Saint Praxedis would be an “elect lady,” like the person addressed by Saint John. The name of overseer, that is, episcopa, may well have been passed down from her time.
The mosaic shows Saint Praxedis and Saint Pudentiana on either side of the Virgin Mary. All three have a round halo. To the left of the group is the bust of Theodora with a square halo, which indicates that she was still alive when the mosaic was made, but shows that she held an honorable position. The word episcopa is written horizontally above and the name Theodora vertically by the side of the veiled woman.
De Rossi made a thorough examination of the mosaic.(1) He did not consider the horizontal position of the word episcopa characteristic of early centuries; he surely was hoping to declare the inscription a late insertion. But he was honest enough to admit that the mosaic cubes were old with a few modern ones put under the name Theodo where the -ra had been eliminated.
The title Theodora episcopa is repeated in an inscription on a marble slab on one of the columns outside the chapel. It is a long inscription giving all the names of saints whose relics had been placed by Pope Paschal I in the church. This took place on July 20, 818 according to the Liber Pontipeale.(2) In this list Theodora episcopa is said to be the mother of Pope Paschal and buried in the church. The mosaic shows Theodora when alive, and she is veiled in white without any jewelry as worn by the senator Puden’s daughters.
The question now can be asked whether the mosaic represents the mother of Paschal or an earlier leader of a women’s community in service of the titulus church. The list of virgins that follows the name of episcopa Theodora among the inscriptions gives one the impression of being ancillae Dei, that is, dedicated virgins. Pope Paschal’s mother might well have retired as a widow to head such a community. This does not eliminate the possibility that the mosaic represents an earlier Theodora because there is a mention of a Theodora (3) who came from Alexandria to Rome and who brought relics of saints with her. These were first placed in via Portuense and later transferred by her to the Church of Saint Passera, that is, a variation of the name Praxedis, to whom she was devoted. This was at the time of Pope Innocent I (402-417). There is an epitaph dated 449 in the crypt of the Church of Saint Praxedis with the words Puella virgo sacra B.M. Alexandria. So it is possible that Theodora of Alexandria brought a community with her of which she was overseer, that is, episcopa.
It is quite well known that the Church of Saint Praxedis was one of the earliest titulus churches in Rome, which may even have dated from apostolic times. If Saint Pudentiana and Saint Praxedis were the daughters of Pudens mentioned by Saint Paul,(4) as is possible, then the church would date from only one generation after Saint Paul.
There are other examples of women bishops. An episcopa Terni is mentioned in canon 20 of the Council of Tours, which is reproduced in the corpus inscriptionis of Le Blant and also referred to by Grossi-Grandi in his book on Christian epigraphs (5) In the same Council of Tours, canons 13 and 14, deaconesses and subdeaconesses are mentioned.
An episcopa is listed in a Vatican Library manuscript taken from an epitaph from the cemetery of the Basilica of Saint Valentiniane.(6) The inscription reads: (Hono)rabilis femina episcopa.
The way in which some consecrated widows are recorded also resembles the formulas used by bishops. They are said “to sit in a basilica.” The following is an example taken from Marini: (7)
RIEXEM PPLI ANNV
BASILICA ASEVISV · RAVIT QUE OBIT EST
There is an interesting epitaph of a widow who is said to be loved by all churches, and it reminds one of the “Elect Lady” of Saint John “whom all who love the truth love.”
QUARTA · HIC VIDVA VIXIT · ANN
LXXX · MARCELLINVS KARISSIMVS
FRATER · KARISSIMAE SORORI
ET · PIENTISSIMAE · MERTAE FECIT
QUEM · OMNIS ECCLESIA · DILIGEBAT.(8)
Not only widows but also deaconesses are said to have served certain basilicas. For example, at Spolari there is mentioned a deaconess of the Holy Church:
DIAC · SCE ECCLESIAE.(9)
There were a great number of women in the Order of Widows and Virgins in Rome in A.D. 260 consecrated to the divine mysteries, vouched for by Tillemont. He cites fifteen hundred widows in a letter of Pope Cornelius and quoted by Thlibomenis.(10) John Chrysostom says widows and virgins in the Church of Antioch amounted to three thousand and more.(11) And we know by the legislation of the Code of Justinian that the number of deaconesses at the Basilica of Hagia Sofia alone was not to exceed forty, as against one hundred deacons.(l2) There were many deaconesses also in the West. However, when deaconesses lived in community they became known as canonesses, that is, they lived under a rule. The title deaconess is therefore less often referred to. The canonesses were divided into secular and regular canonesses. The seculars lived in private apartments; the regulars lived in community. They were both in the service of cathedrals or churches.
It has been shown and proved that women participated in the administration and services of the Church. It cannot be concluded, however, that they consecrated the Eucharist. The reason has already been given as due to the idea of the ritual impurity of women during menstruation, which was an idea held by many nations.(l3)
An exception may have been made for burial services accompanied by the Eucharistic service. Women in pre-Christian times and in the Christian era have always been to the fore in funeral celebrations. It was considered their special duty.(14) The fresco Fractio Panis in the Cappella Greca of the Catacombs of Priscilla in Via Salerio Nova, Rome, shows a group of women conducting a Eucharistic banquet. The figure to the left is evidently the chief celebrant. The head looks as though it had been sandpapered down, so that it is not clear whether the figure represents a man or a woman. However, by the length of the dress it can be taken for a woman, for men’s dresses were shorter. Two of the women in the middle hold their hands outstretched in a meaningful manner and seem to indicate a concelebration.
The catacomb is one of the most ancient cemeteries of Rome. Its primitive subterranean passages contain tombs of early Christians dating back to the first half of the second century. The catacomb bears the name of the foundress Priscilla, a woman of a senatorial family of the Acilii Glabriones, whose Christian members had a burial chamber there. Manlius Acilius Glabrio was consul in A.D. 91. He was put to death by Domitian, probably for his profession of the Christian faith, to which his descendants are known to have adhered. A large property in Via Saleria belonged to the family, and Priscilla arranged for an adjacent area to be used as a burial place for the Christian community at Rome.
The fresco, Fractio Panis undoubtedly depicts a Eucharistic service. It is not just an agape, the meal that followed or preceded the Eucharistic service, for nothing is on the table but the symbols of the Eucharist. There is the basket of loaves recording the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves in the desert, and there are the flasks of water turned into wine recording the miracle at the marriage feast at Cana.
So this fresco may indicate that in special circumstances, such as burial services, women were permitted to consecrate the Eucharist.
Certainly the prayer of ordination of abbesses in the Wisigothic Sacramentary declared that before God there is no discrimination of the sexes and that women, like men, are called to collaborate in the spiritual struggle.(15)
Dalc – Dictionnaire d’archéologie chrétienne et de liturgie, F. Cabrol (ed.) (Paris, 1912-1955).
PG. – Patrologia Graeca, J. P. Migne (ed.), 161 vols. (Paris,1857-1866).
PL. – Patrologia Latina, J.P. Migne (ed.), 221 vols. (Paris, 1879-1890).
1. J. B. de Rossi, Musaici Cristiani delle Chiese di Roma (Rome: Libreria Spithöver di G. Haass, 1899), vol 7, p. 4 of the notes for plate XXVI of the mosaics of the “Oratorio di S. Zenone.”
2. O. Marucchi, Élement d’Archéologie chretienne, III, Basiliques et Églises de Rome (Paris: Desclée, 1902), p. 325.
3. Antonio Bosio, Roma Sotteraneo (Rome: Carlo Aldobrandiso, 1632), chap, XX, p.123 D.ff.
4. 2 Timothy 4:21.
5. F. Grossi-Gondi, Trattato di Epigrafia Cristiana (Rome: Università Gregoriana, 1920), p. 153.
6. G. Marini, Inscriptions Christianes, Ms. Vat. 9072, part II, chap, XXII, no. i, 1608 (1904).
7. Ibid., chap. XXII.
8. Ibid., chap. XXII, p. 427.
9. Ibid., p. 423.
10. Le Nain de Tillemont, Mémoires pour servir à l’Histoire Ecclésiastique (Paris: 1720).
11. St. John Chrysostom, homily 67
12. Justinian, Novellae, chap. XXX, “Diaconissam,” ed. G. Kroll (Berlin: Weidermannde Verlag, 1954), vol. 3.
13. See Appendix I.
14. Benedict Aniani, Concordia Regularum, PL. 103, col. 950.
15. See Appendix V.
Please, credit this document
as published by www.womenpriests.org!
This 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.
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 2014.
Pop-up names are online now.
The number is indicative, but incomplete. For full details click on cross icon at bottom right.