Articles

There Have Always Been Women Priests

By Bridget Mary Meehan
Global Ministries University

Sarasota, Florida, Jan.12, 2008— On July 31, 2006, the first U.S. ordinations of Roman Catholic women took place in Pittsburgh. I was one of the twelve women who was ordained in this historic ceremony. By this prophetic action on behalf of justice in the church, Roman Catholic Women Priests are reclaiming the ancient heritage of ordained ministry in the Catholic Church.

Jesus offered an example of Gospel equality that led to the practice of ordaining women as deacons, priests and bishops in the early church. Jesus treated women and men as equals and partners. Jesus chose the Samaritan woman to announce the good news to her entire village, and the Samaritans accepted Jesus as Messiah because of her testimony.

Mary of Magdala, the first witness to the resurrection, was commissioned by Jesus to be the apostle to the apostles (John 20:1-18). In the Gnostic writings, Gospel of Mary and Gospel of Philip, Mary of Magdala is portrayed as a threat to Peter because of her authoritative teaching and her close relationship with Christ.

In 1976, the Pontifical Biblical Commission echoed the sentiments of Jesus in concluding there is no biblical reason to prohibit women's ordination. Women and men are created in God's image and both may represent Christ as priests. "In the image of God, God created humankind, male and female God created them" (Genesis 1:26-27).

Although the Roman Catholic leadership has been all-male for the past 900 years, Christianity's first millennium saw numerous women serving with distinction as deacons, priests and bishops.

Phoebe, the deacon, was praised by St. Paul for her leadership of the church of Cenchreae (Romans 16:1-2). St. Paul identifies Junia as a senior in the faith to himself and labels Junia and her husband, Andronicus, as "outstanding apostles" (Romans 16:7).

Mary, the mother of John Mark, led a congregation (Acts 12:12) and Prisca and Aquila, a married couple, were missionary apostles and coworkers with Paul. Romans uses the word eklesia ("church") to describe the group that gathered in their home. "Greet also the church in their house" (Romans 16:3-5).

In the Catacomb of St. Priscilla, is a fresco, dated about 350 A.D. that depicts a woman deacon in the center vested in a dalmatic, her arms raised in the orans position for public worship. On the left side of the scene is a woman being ordained a priest by a bishop seated in a chair. She is vested in an alb, chasuble, and amice, and holding a gospel scroll. The woman on the right end of this fresco is wearing the same robe as the bishop on the left and is sitting in the same type of chair. She is turned toward the figures in the center and left, watching the woman deacon and priest.

"These attributes," comments Roman Catholic archaeologist and theologian Dorothy Irvin, "indicate that she is thought of as a bishop, while the baby she is holding identifies her as Mary...Women's ordination, however, was based on succession from the apostles, including women such as Mary, the mother of Jesus, Mary from Magdala, Phoebe, Petronella, and others about whose status among the founders of the church there could be no doubt."

Dr. Irvin points to further evidence of women serving as priests: * In the Catacombs of Priscilla, Rome, the fresco "Fractio Panis" shows a group of women "conducting a Eucharistic banquet." * A fourth century floor mosaic covering the tomb of Guilia Runa, located in the cathedral at Annaba acknowledges: "Guilia Runa, woman priest." This cathedral was made famous by St. Augustine of Hippo. * In the catacomb of St. Januarus in Naples, Bitalia, a woman priest, is depicted attired in a red chasuble and celebrating the Eucharist. She has two cups on a white cloth in front of her, one is wine one is water to mix with the wine as is still done today. Above her are two open books with markers and on each of the four pages the name of an evangelist is written. * Bishop Theodora, mother of Pope Paschal 1, is depicted in a group portrait standing next to St. Praxedis and the Blessed Virgin Mary in a mosaic in a side chapel of the church of St. Praxedis in Rome (Joan Morris and Ute Eisen). Theodora, about 820 A. D., and St. Praxedis who lived seven hundred years earlier, are depicted as standing together, wearing their episcopal crosses. They witness to a conscious connection between women church office holders and Mary, Mother of Jesus.

"While the preponderance of evidence for female deacons is in the East," scholars Kevin Madigan and Carolyn Osiek, in their scholarly book "Ordained Women in Early Church," conclude that, " the evidence for women presbyters is greater in the west."

Pope Gelasius I (late 5th c). In 494 AD Pope Gelasius wrote a letter to the bishops of three regions of southern Italy complaining about the practice of women presiding at the liturgy: "Nevertheless we have heard to our annoyance that divine affairs have come to such a low state that women are encouraged to officiate at the sacred altars, and to take part in all matters imputed to the offices of the male sex, to which they do not belong."

In "Meehan, Praying with Celtic Holy Women," I wrote that The Irish Life of Brigit describes the episcopal ordination of St. Brigit of Kildare by Bishop Mel of Ardagh in fifth century Ireland.

The evidence in the Celtic Church indicates that women and men were equals in preaching the Gospel, presiding at Mass and at the other sacraments. Historian Peter Ellis wrote that in the sixth century, three Roman bishops at Tours wrote a letter to two Breton priests Lovocat and Cathern, expressing their outrage that women were allowed to preside at Eucharist. "You celebrate the divine sacrifice of the Mass with the assistance of women to whom you give the name conhospitae (monasteries where men and women lived together and raised their children in the service of Chris) ...While you distribute the eucharist, they take the chalice and administer the blood of Christ to the people... Renounce these abuses...!"

In mixed-gender monasteries, men and women worked as equals. However, the overall authority within a double monastery often resided with an abbess. St. Brigit selected Conleth to help her administer Kildare, and they governed "their church by a mutual, happy alliance."

The tradition of a Christian seeking a spiritual guide, mentor or "soul friend" was a prevalent Celtic custom. Women as well as men served as spiritual friends. This custom eventually influenced the entire Church and led to the institutionalizing of private confession. There are stories of spiritual seekers coming to Saint Ita and Saint Samthann to reveal their sins and to receive forgiveness and guidance.

In the tenth century, Bishop Atto of Vercelli wrote that because of the needs of the church, devout women were ordained to lead worship and to preside over the church. Church historian Gary Macy writes, "For over 1200 years the question of the validity of women's ordination remained at least an open question. Some popes, bishops and scholars accepted such ordinations as equal to those of men, others did not.

Thus, we have come full circle. Roman Catholic Women Priests in the 21st century are walking in the footsteps of our sisters in the Gospel and in the early church.

— — —
The research of numerous people was compiled for the writing of this article. For the serious student of the historical role of women in the Roman Catholic Church, I list the works of some scholars and church historians who have shed much light on the topic.

Brock, Ann Graham, Mary Magdalene, the First Apostle The Struggle for Authority, 2003 [quotes Hippolytus (DeCantico 24-26, CSCO 264) pp. 43-49]

Davies, Oliver (ed), Celtic Spirituality, New York: Paulist, 1999.

Eisen, Ute, Women Officeholders in Early Christianity: Epigraphical and Literary Studies. Collegeville, MN, Liturgical Press, 2000. Transl. From German original.

Ellis, Peter. Celtic Women, Grand Rapids, Michigan, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996.

Irvin, Dorothy, Roman Catholic theologian and archaeologist; Dorothy is the creator of a series of annual calendars depicting the archaeology of women's traditional ministries in the Church.

Macy, Gary. Theological Studies, (September. 2000) cited in Church Watch, (January-February 2001) p. 3.

Madigan, Kevin and Osiek, Carolyn. Ordained Women in the Early Church: A Documentary History, John Hopkins University Press, 2005.

Meehan, Bridget Mary. Praying with Celtic Holy Women, Liguori Missouri, Liguori Publications, 2003.

Morris, Joan; The Lady Was A Bishop: The Hidden History of Women with Clerical Ordination and the Jurisdiction of Bishops; New York: The Macmillan Company; London: Collier-Macmillan Limited, 1973.

Otranto, Giorgi, Notes on the Female Priesthood in Antiquity, Section 1.

Raming, Ida; The Priestly Office of Women: God's Gift to a Renewed Church, In the series: A History of Women in Ordination, edited by Bernard Cooke and Gary Macy, The Scarecrow Press, Lanham, MD, Toronto, Oxford, 2004.

— — —
Bridget Mary Meehan, D.Min., a Sister for Christian Community, will be ordained a Roman Catholic priest in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on July 31, 2006 and a bishop on April 18, 2009. Dr. Meehan is currently Dean of the Doctor of Ministry Program for Global Ministries University, and is the author of 20 books, including The Healing Power of Prayer" and “Praying with Women of the Bible” and Living Gospel Equality Now. She is a member of The Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests.