Friday, 8 June 2012

                          WOMEN'S ORDINATION

By Dr. Bridget Meehan

1. The fresco on the upper front wall of a small underground chapel in the Catacomb of St. Priscilla in Rome provides evidence of women celebrating eucharist.. The hair styles, dress, breasts indicate that these are women sitting around a table. On the table are a cup and two plates. Scholars agree that the seven bread baskets standing on the sides are an early church symbol for the Eucharist taken from the stories of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes in mark 8:8 and Matthew 15:37. The women at the far left and the woman in the center have both arms outstretched toward the cup and plate in what is still familiar to us as the gesture of consecration during the liturgy of the Eucharist, while two other women have only the right arm outstretched in concelebration. This is not a community Mass, but an overnight Eucharistic vigil held near the tomb on the anniversary of a Christian’s death, her heavenly birthday. 

2. When Priscilla (or Prisca) and her husband Aquila were driven out of Rome in 49, A.D. they moved to Corinth where they joined Paul in his work and ministry. Priscilla risked her life to save Paul, as he reports in Romans 16:3.Their house churches were centers of Christian activity in Rome (Rome 16:3-5), in Corinth and in Ephesus (Acts 18:18; 2 Tim 4:19; 1 Cor 16:19). Priscilla, in addition to being a coworker of Paul and a partner in ministry with Aquila, is a missionary apostle, a teacher of a missionary apostle, (Apollos) and an important leader in the development of house churches. For more information, read Bridget Mary Meehan, Praying with Women of the Bible, pp. 120-124.

3. A fourth century fresco, also in the catacomb of St. Priscilla, shows a bishop ordaining a woman. The plaster on which the fresco is painted covers the tomb of the woman shown in life standing before a bishop. Around his shoulder is a wool garment called a pallium. It is the symbol of the Good Shepherd and is associated with ordination. The woman is wearing an alb, whose white edge is seen beneath her chasuble, a vestment first received by a priest at ordination. At her neck an amice is visible, near the round area of damaged plaster. The bishop is laying his right hand on her shoulder and she is holding an open scroll. Other catacomb figures shown with scrolls are St. Peter and his daughter St. Petronella. Source: See Dorothy Irvin’s video and

4. In the side chapel of the Church of St. Praxedis is a beautiful group portrait in mosaic of four women ministers. In the middle, wearing her familiar blue mantle, is the Virgin Mary. Pudentiana, on Mary’s left, is related to the Roman Pudens, sometimes thought to be the same Pudens named by St. Paul in 2 Timothy 4:21. According to scholars, Pudens owned the properties where the Church of St. Pudentiana and farther on, the Church of St. Praxedis now stand. St. Praxedis, shown here wearing a jewled crown, is on Mary’ right. She has a Greek name rather than a feminine version of Pudens, so she was probably a slave rather than a biological descendent. Her slave status would present no obstacle to her becoming an office hold and leader in the early church. On the far left, wearing a veil, is Theodo(ra). The last two letters are missing but her entire name can be confirmed from another inscription in the same church which mentions her. Above her head is her title “Episcopa” with the feminine ending meaning a bishop who is a woman. Around her head is a square frame, indicating that she was living when this portrait was taken. Bishop Theodora, about 820 AD and Praxedis, about seven hundred years earlier, stand should to should , the living and the departed both wearing their Episcopal crosses. The attest to a conscious succession in church office from Mary, through Praxedis and Pudentiana to Theodora, who at the time of the her portrait was the bishop of the church of St. Praxedis. Source: see video and calendar of Dorothy Irvin at

5. In the Celtic Church, the Irish Life of Brigit describes her ordination as bishop:
“Come, O holy Brigit, that a veil may be placed on your head before the other virgins.” Then, filled with the grace of the Holy Spirit, the bishop read the form of ordaining a bishop over Brigit. While she was being consecrated, a brillant, fiery flame ascended from her head. MacCaille, Bishop Mel’s assistant, complained that a bishop’s rank was bestowed on a woman.Bishop Mel argued: “But I do not have any power in this matter. That dignity has been given by God to Brigit, beyond every other woman. Henceforth, from that time to now the Irish people have given episcopal recognition to Brigit’s successor. For more information, read Praying with Celtic Holy Women, by Meehan and Oliver.

6. St. Brigit was a powerful leader. She appointed her own bishops in Kildare and bishops in adjacent lands. Cogitosus describes a warm, mutual relationship between Brigit and Conleth whom Brigit selected to her adminster Kildare. “They governed their church by means of a mutually happy alliance.”

7. The Book of Lismore describes Brigit as a “prophetess of Christ” and a woman of action.

8. According to tradition Brigit built her monastery in Kildare beside a large oak tree around 480 A.D. In Galeic Cill Dara (Kildare) can be translated “Cell of Church of the Oak”. Some legends theorize that Brigit may have been a priestess in the service to the Goddess Brid (patron of fire and knowledge in the Druidic tradition) before her conversion to Christianity was facilitated by her mother.

9. Still in existence are the foundations of the fire building where Brigit’s sisters tended a perpetual fire kept burning by Brigit from the sixth century until the destruction of the monasteries in the sixteenth century. St. Brigit’s Cathedral, owned by the Church of Ireland was constructed in the 12th century on the site of Brigit’s abbey. Fire is a symbol that reflects back to pre-Christian times but which is also associated with saints like Brigit and with divine power in Christianity.

10. A monastic foundation in the Celtic Church was a Christian village, a rath, or large circular mound of soil enclosing the living area, often topped by a fence of pointed sticks as a protection against wild animals. Within this moderate defense were cottages of wattle and clay or of stone which were igloo like in style. The monastery was inhabited by members of the local clan who had become Christian. As in any village, these monastic foundations, referred to as “conshospitae”, or double –houses, included men and women, some of whom lived a celibate life while others were married couples with children, but all living as a Christian community or village, having dedicated their lives to Christ and his teaching. All were referred to by a term which translates “religious, whether married or single. Both consecrated states were understood as holy and seen as complimentary, since the dualism which plagued the thinking of much of Western Christianity was not a problem in Celtic lands until pressure from Rome following the mandate of 1139 made celibacy a requirement for all clerics. To get a sense of the rich heritage, read Praying with Celtic Holy Womenand one of Peter Treymayne’s mystery books in the Fidelma series such as: Act of Mercy.

11. Some scholars hold that there is evidence of women priests in the Celtic Church and of their presiding at Mass. In the sixth century, three Roman bishops sent a letter to Lovocat and Cathern, two Breton priests, calling for a ban on women celebrating Mass: “You celebrate the divine sacrifice of the Mass with the assistance of women to whom you give the name conhospitae. While you distribute the Eucharist, they take the chalice and administer the blood of Christ to the people. Renounce these abuses!” Historians believe women like Brigit of Kildare and Beverly of York were ordained not simply as priests but as bishops as well. This protest from Rome may be an indicator of the historicity of the practice, Peter Ellis concludes.

12. There is another condemnation of women priests coming from Rome. This time the letter is not directed to the Celtic church but to the Bishops of Lucania in 494 A.D. In a letter, Pope Gelasius writes: “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.”

13. In the Celtic Church and in Medieval monasteries, women prophets, saints, mystics continued to function up to recent times as spiritual leaders in the church. They heard confession, preached sermons often about the corrupt practices of hierarchy, left a rich legacy of writings . Many of you are familiar with Julian of Norwich who called God, our mother and Hildegard of Bingen who preached tirelessly about the need for reform in the church. Neither Hildegard or Catherine of Siena were shy about castigating the hierarchy for their corrupt practices. St. Therese of Lisieux once said: “ I feel in me the vocation of the warrior, the priest, the apostle.” Few know that the “little flower” cut up her mother’s wedding dress after her father’s death, and made it into a chausable. 

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