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Woman have received Holy Orders


St. John Chrysostom, archbishop of Constantinople, enjoyed the ministry of 40 women deacons in his cathedral parish alone. One of them, Olympias, pleaded his case at court during his exile. Another, called Salvina, corresponded with St. Jerome. Also, St. Basil the Great’s sister, Macrina, was a deaconess. The burning question about these women is not whether they were saintly and powerful personalities - which no one doubts - but whether they were real deacons. Had they been validly ordained?

The continuing impasse in the church regarding the ordination of women to the priesthood has entered a new phase. Ancient rituals preserved on precious parchment disclose that women deacons were ordained with exactly the same sacramental rite that raised men to the diaconate. The implications of this from a theological point of view are far-reaching.

If women could validly receive the first level of the sacrament of holy orders by becoming deacons, there is no intrinsic reason why they should be excluded from the priesthood or, for that matter, from the episcopacy.

Historians have never doubted the fact that the institution of deaconesses flourished, especially in the Eastern half of the Catholic church, from at least the third to the ninth centuries. Basing themselves on medieval Western sources they assumed, however, that a woman’s diaconate was just a minor order, a mere “blessing” such as was given to readers, acolytes or doorkeepers.

New evidence tells a different story.

Just like male candidates for the diaconate, female candidates received the imposition of hands by the bishop in the sanctuary during a eucharistic celebration. The bishop called down the Holy Spirit over men and women alike saying identical ordination prayers over them. Both the male and the female deacon received the same insignia of their ministry: They were vested in a stole and were handed the chalice of consecrated wine.

The invocation of the Holy Spirit on the female ordinand mirrors that spoken over men, with minor alterations to do justice to gender. “Lord, you do not reject women who dedicate themselves to you and who are willing to serve your Holy Temple but admit them to the order of your ministers. Grant the gift of your Holy Spirit also to this your maidservant who wants to dedicate herself to you, and fulfill in her the grace of the ministry of your diaconate, as you have granted to Phoebe the grace of your diaconate, whom you called to the work of the ministry.”

All this proves conclusively that women as much as men were admitted to the sacrament of holy orders. The Council of Trent defined that holy orders are imparted through the imposition of hands with the invocation of the Holy Spirit, and that the diaconate is the first level of the sacrament. But how can we be sure that men and women were ordained in the same way?

Manuscripts that were known only to a few liturgical specialists have now been rediscovered by theologians. In the Orthodox church much credit goes to Evangelos Theodorou who proclaimed from the 1930s that, without any shade of doubt, women deacons had been sacramentally ordained. His work culminated in an international convention of Orthodox theologians on the island of Rhodes in 1988 solemnly endorsing his conclusions and calling for a full restoration of the diaconate for women in the Orthodox church. The Catholic church has taken longer to listen to its own prophets.

In 1695 a Belgian liturgist, Jean Morin, published two ancient Greek ordination rituals that, he claimed, proved the sacramentality of the women’s diaconate. The oldest is the Nicolai manuscript, which he discovered in the library of Cardinal Francis Barberini in Rome. Before that it had been held by the monastery of St. Mark in Florence, which in turn had received it from the family of Nicolai de Nicolis. Both the condition of the parchment and the Greek uncial characters used, showed that the manuscript was written in the 9th century. The contents of the text: detailed ordination rites for bishops, priests, deacons and deaconesses, were obviously copied from older standard rituals, as was the custom at the time.

Another treasure of almost equal antiquity is the George Varus manuscript, which Morin located in the Greek monastery of Grotta Ferrata. George Varus, a priest from Crete, had donated the manuscript to Cardinal Julian of St. Sabina during the Council of Florence (1445). The manuscript was written in the 10th century, but again its contents are much older.

These manuscripts, which have now been supplemented with others, are so conclusive because they describe the ordinations in great detail and report the exact ordination prayers. The ordination of women deacons can thus be seen to follow the church’s established practice for holy orders. Moreover, the ordination of male deacons was an exact parallel and no one has ever disputed a male deacon’s sacramental status.

Jean Morin’s claim fell on deaf ears with theologians. They preferred to stick to their cherished belief that women are “incapable” of holy orders. It reminds me of the cardinals in Rome during the trial of Galileo Galilei refusing to look through the telescope the astronomer had erected on the roof of the Holy Office!

To make such selective blindness more difficult in our own time, I have published the full translations of the ancient ordination rituals on the Internet (www.womenpriests.org), displaying the rites for men and women deacons side by side so that people can see at a glance how identical they are. The Web site also provides much more information on the colorful life of the women who served in the diaconate.

In the Greek and Syriac parts of the Catholic church, before its split from Rome, women deacons were an integral part of the church’s ministry. They prepared women catechumens for baptism and performed the anointing during baptism itself. They carried pastoral responsibility for women during the liturgy, but also at home. Often they took Communion to the sick. The only restrictions often, but not always, imposed on a woman deacon were the fact that the male had overall charge of the ministry and that the man served at the altar. The reason for the latter restriction was the fear that menstruation might pollute the sanctuary.

Many snapshots of the life and ministry of women deacons have been preserved in literary sources and on tombstones.

In Jerusalem the deaconess Eneon ran a hospital for the sick. Her companion, Sophia, is hailed as the “minister and servant of Christ, the second Phoebe.” The deaconess St. Genevieve of Paris is credited with having courageously fended off a marauding band of ferocious Vikings. In Antioch, a woman deacon known to us as Anonyma to protect her name converted, instructed and baptized the pagan governor’s son, all during a time of bloody persecution. But the crown, in my eyes, goes to the deaconess Theosebia who shared in the life and ministry of Bishop St. Gregory of Nyssa— as his wife!

John Wijngaards runs Housetop, a catechetical resources center, in London.

National Catholic Reporter, September 3, 1999