Ministries of women in the West

Deaconesses – see below
gaul, italy, germany
north africa, gaul, italy 
england, wales, ireland
southern italy, sicily
basque area, gaul, spain
england, germany

Women deacons in the West

In Western Europe, women deacons became more generally known from the 3rd century onwards when the Didascalia – with its explicit recommendation to bishops: ‘choose women as deacons!’ – gave women’s diaconate a wider publicity.

We know that women deacons ministered in the West until about the 12th century. The evidence is contained in decisions by local church councils, in the ordination rite preserved in 6 sacramentaries & 9 pontificals (all of which published on our website), in historical documents and the life stories of 15 women deacons we know by name. For details, see below!

  1. The difference between East and West
  2. Ordained women deacons in Gaul
  3. Ordained women deacons in Italy, especially in Rome
  4. The rite for the ordination of women deacons in the West
  5. Other ministries of women in the West

1. The difference between East and West

Three factors militated against a sizeable increase in women deacons: prejudice against women in traditional Roman law, the lack of the strong pastoral demands for women deacons found in the East and a cascading of liturgical prejudice against women.

In contrast, in the East women deacons flourished. Practically every parish church had its own local female deacon, more than a hundred of whom we know by name. The ordination rite for women deacons was certainly sacramental and virtually identical to that of male deacons. The rite as been preserved in eight ancient manuscripts all of which are published on our website. Women deacons in the Eastplayed a key role in preparing women catechumens for baptism, assisting at their baptism and ministering to them in church and in their homes.

The weakened status of women deacons in the West is also apparent from two other features:

  1. Since the expectation grew that male deacons, like priests, should abstain from sex, their wives became ‘deaconesses’ – after having given their consent and after their being ordained deaconess in their own right. More information here.
  2. In many places the true function of deaconesses was not known. So it soon became identified with a form of monastic dedication. This kind of deaconess was a ‘glorified nun’. This is clear from, for example, the life of Sigolena and from glosses to ancient texts. Theologians in the Middle Ages reveal an appalling lack of understanding of what the ancient women deacons stood for – apart from some exceptions.

However, women deacons did function in the West.

2. Ordained women deacons in Gaul

There is good evidence to show that ordained women deacons existed in Gaul from the fourth century onwards.

(1) We know 6 women deacons in Gaul of this period by name: Geneviève of Paris, Radegund of Poitiers, Theodora of Ticini,Sigolena of Arles, Hilaria of Reims and Ida of Remiremont.

(2) Eight local Councils mention the presence of women deacons: Nîmes, Orange, Vannes,Epaon, Orléans, Tours, Macon and Reims. Most of these belong to the Province of Lyons. Usually the response to women deacons is negative: they should no longer be ordained; their diaconate should be abrogated ‘from our region’; etc. This reveals both the prejudice of the original Roman colonisers, but also, perhaps, macho opposition from the new masters, the Franks. But the repeated rejection of women’s diaconate proves its persistent presence.

The following map of France depicts the situation ca 300 – 800 AD

Council of Nîmes
394 AD
“some women have been admitted to the livitical ministry”

Council of Orange
441 AD
“no women deacons to be ordained”

Council of Vannes
465 AD
“women who obtained ordination by the laying on of hands”

Council of Epaon
517 AD
“we abrogate the consecration of widows whom they call female deacons”

Second Council of Orléans
533 AD
“From now on the diaconal ordination should not be imparted to any woman.”

Second Council of Tours
567 AD
We abrogate the consecration of widows whom they call women deacons.”

Council of Macon

581 AD
“… if a woman has obtained ordination …”

Council of Reims
630 AD
“women who have been consecrated to the Lord…”


3. Ordained women deacons in Italy, especially in Rome

Women deacons are found throughout Italy and Rome in smaller numbers. Historical records show that from the 5th to the 11th centuries, the ordination of women deacons was an ecclesiastical fact in Rome itself, with women being ordained deacons by the Popes themselves, usually in St. Peter’s Basilica. For the evidence,click on the thumb nails of the Popes.

We can reconstruct the rites of women’s diaconate ordination from Roman sacramentaries and pontificals. We possess two manuscripts – Cassino 451 & Vallicella 5 – that derive from an exemplar used in Rome for the coronation of Otto III as Emperor of the (German) Roman Empire in 996. This we know because these pontificals contain the rite used for that coronation. A reconstruction of that exemplar can be found here.

The Popes and women deacons

Pope Leo I convoked Council of Chalcedon which fixed age for deaconesses

Pope Constantine ordained deacons and deaconesses on the same day
Pope Zachary condemned men who marry deaconesses Pope Adrian I sent to France sacramentary with rite to ordain deaconesses

Deaconesses joined Pope Leo XIII’s triumphal entry in Rome

Both deacons and deaconesses ordained in St. Peter’s at Rome under Pope Benedict VIII

Both deacons and deaconesses ordained in St. Peter’s at Rome under Pope John XIX

Both deacons and deaconesses ordained in St. Peter’s at Rome under Pope Leo IX

Women deacons in Italy

1st cent

3rd cent

4th cent

5th cent

6th cent

8th cent

Capua deacon
11th cent

4. The western ordination rite for women deacons

The fluctuating status of women’s diaconate in the West is reflected in the history of their ordination rite.

The rite has been preserved in ancient sacramentaries [= collections of liturgical prayers for bishops] and pontificals [= collections of fully worked-out eucharists. On our website we publish the text found in six such sacramentaries and nine pontificals [click on the icons to see those texts].

We are able to reconstruct the development of the key ordination prayer through stages such as:

We can also follow the stages in the ordination mass for women deacons:

Read the full story here.

Sacramentaries – online texts

Pontificals – online texts

John Wijngaards