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Intro, Part 4: What About the Mothers?

Here’s another sidebar to my recent “introduction to the Fathers” article published in Our Sunday Visitor newspaper. I’ve posted the main body of the article in halves, Part 1 and Part 2, plus the first sidebar. I have more to say about the “Mothers of the Church” in the expanded edition of my book The Fathers of the Church.

Were there “Mothers of the Church”? Well, yes and no.

We possess very few writings by women from the ancient world. Christian women are probably slightly better represented than their pagan counterparts. The many collections of Sayings of the Desert Fathers actually include proverbs by women ascetics, who are called “Amma,” or “Mother.”

St. John Chrysostom (fifth century) carried on extensive correspondence with an abbess named Olympias, but her letters have not survived. His contemporary St. Jerome corresponded with many holy and scholarly women; but, again, we have mostly Jerome’s end of the conversation. Tertullian has preserved the words of the martyrs Perpetua and Felicity. In the late fourth century, St. Gregory of Nyssa wrote a profoundly moving biography of his sister St. Macrina. Around the same time, Egeria, a nun from Gaul, took a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and wrote it up for her convent back home.

Their contemporaries honored these women as maternal figures. The Church has always honored them as saints. There is no custom of calling them “Mothers of the Church,” but there is no reason why individual Christians might not revere them as such.

4 thoughts on “Intro, Part 4: What About the Mothers?

  1. Two remarks :
    1. St. John Chrysostom died in 407 and was born in 347, so it would be more accurate to say “fourth-fifth century” instead of “fifth century”.

    2. Olympias was not an “abbess” but a ”deaconess”

    in Constantinople. This is how St. John Chrysostom starts his first Letter to Olympias: “To my Lady, Deaconess Olympias, most venerable and beloved of God, from John, bishop, greetings in the Lord” (my translation of Lettres à Olympias, Sources Chrétiennes 13, p. 6).

    John’s correspondence with Olympias (born in 368) started when he became “archbishop” of Constantinople in 398 and lasted till John’s death. (The title “patriarch” is anachronistic and was only conferred to the “pentarchy” in the 6th century in Constantinople II during the reign of Justinian.)

    It is archbishop Nectarius who ordained this wonderful widow of 30 to the (permanent) diaconate because of her reputation of holiness and her love of the poor. The canons of the Church stipulated that only widows of 60 could be ordained to the diaconate. But her great virtues overrode this problem. Her marriage had been blessed by Gregory of Nazianzus and Gregory of Nyssa dedicated his Homilies on the Song of Songs to her. Indeed, she was very well known and admired not only by the Constantinopolitan jetset but also loved by the poor. When she became a widow, Emperor Theodosius asked her in marriage and she refused, provoking the ire of the monarch who confiscated all her possessions and forbad her any correspondence with high-ranking hierarchs.

    So this is our “Church mother” Olympias.

    But the one who is the most entitled to be considered “mother of the Church” is Macrina, sister of Basil the Great and Gregory of Nyssa and who took care of the “paideia” (the all-encompassing education) of her brothers. Gregory of Nyssa calls her “ho didascalos” (using the masculine The Master or Teacher).

    Once again, Mike, thank you so much for that love of the Fathers that overflows in you to the thousands (hopefully) who go to your blogspot.

  2. Thank you for the comments, Fr. Gabriel. You’re right, of course, on both points. “Fourth-fifth century” more precisely dates John’s life, though fifth century pretty much covers his correspondence with Olympias. And indeed she was a deaconess of the Church of Constantinople, but she was also abbess of a cloistered convent there.

  3. It is archbishop Nectarius who ordained this wonderful widow of 30 to the (permanent) diaconate because of her reputation of holiness and her love of the poor.

    I hope you don’t mean sacramental ordination.

  4. My dear “PerpetualMalcontent”,

    I wish you the “Kapayapa-an” of Christ! (Peace, in Tagalog.)

    Indeed, I do mean “sacramental ordination”. Let me give you a summary of this question in Church history:

    There are two mentions of deaconesses in the New Testament. The first is in the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans, where he entrusts to them the deaconess Phoebe — Rom. 16:1 with the use of “diakonos” in Greek and not “diakonissa”. (Early church documents use the same Greek word, diakonos, for both male and female deacons, differentiating between them only by the use of the masculine or feminine definite article.) The second is in the third chapter of I Timothy. In the section dealing with the qualifications of deacons, Paul inserts that “[the] women likewise must be serious, not slanderers, but temperate, faithful in all things (I Tim. 3:11).

    As the Church developed in the second and third centuries, so too did the institution of the female diaconate, but its specific duties and ranking vary geographically. From the Middle East, we have two Syrian documents which elaborate on both the ordination of deaconesses and their pastoral and liturgical duties. These are the Teaching of the Apostles (Didascalia Apostolorum), which dates to the early third century, and the Apostolic Constitutions, a late fourth-century church order which is heavily dependent on the earlier Didascalia. In the Apostolic Constitutions, the ordinations for upper and lower clergy are given; that of the deaconess is virtually identical to that of the deacons and presbyters. As for priests and deacons, the bishop is to lay hands on the woman (in Greek “cheirotonia”) to be ordained deaconess “in the presence of the presbytery and of the deacons and deaconesses”, and to ordain her with a prayer corresponding to her female ministry (it mentions women of the Old Testament who were filled with the Spirit and served the Temple, and alludes to the Theotokos, the Mother of God).

    Because of its reference to her being “in the presence of the presbytery and of the deacons and deaconesses” the Apostolic Constitutions implies that the deaconess’s ordination occurred within the altar area, which normally is reserved only for ordination to the higher clergy (priesthood and diaconate).
    Both the Teaching of the Apostles and the Apostolic Constitutions set out the pastoral and liturgical duties of the deaconess. The deaconesses had a ministry which corresponded in some ways to those of the deacons, but specifically for women.

    Deaconesses in the Byzantine Church

    In the Byzantine Church, the structure of the ordination of the deaconess is virtually identical to that of the deacon; the only differences are that she does not kneel, she is not given a fan to fan the Holy Gifts, and that the way she wears the orarion (the deacon’s stole) is different from the deacon’s.

    What is noteworthy, however, is that she is ordained during the liturgy after the completion of the anaphora (which is when the deacon is also ordained) and, significantly, she is ordained in the altar area. She receives communion in the altar at the end of the line of clergy, after which the bishop gives her the chalice, which she then returns to the altar. It is clear that the ordination of the deaconess is modeled on that of the deacon. This is important because several modern scholars, both Orthodox and Catholic, are attempting to assert – despite this evidence – that women were never ordained into, the clergy, and especially not into the higher clergy.

    The most known deaconess of the Byzantine Church in Constantinople was St. Olympias (361-408), a great friend of St. John Chrysostom. This is what the Catholic Encyclopaedia says about her:

    “Born 360-5; died 25 July, 408, probably at Nicomedia. This pious, charitable, and wealthy disciple of St. John Chrysostom came from an illustrious family in Constantinople. Her father (called by the sources Secundus or Selencus) was a “Count” of the empire; one of her ancestors, Ablabius, filled in 331 the consular office, and was also praetorian prefect of the East. As Olympias was not thirty years of age in 390, she cannot have been born before 361. Her parents died when she was quite young, and left her an immense fortune. In 384 or 385 she married Nebridius, Prefect of Constantinople. St. Gregory of Nazianzus, who had left Constantinople in 381, was invited to the wedding, but wrote a letter excusing his absence (Ep. cxciii, in P.G., XXXVI, 315), and sent the bride a poem (P.G., loc. cit., 1542 sqq.). Within a short time Nebridius died, and Olympias was left a childless widow. She steadfastly rejected all new proposals of marriage, determining to devote herself to the service of God and to works of charity. Nectarius, Archbishop of Constantinople (381-97), consecrated her deaconess. On the death of her husband the emperor had appointed the urban prefect administrator of her property, but in 391 (after the war against Maximus) restored her the administration of her large fortune. She built beside the principal church of Constantinople a convent, into which three relatives and a large number of maidens withdrew with her to consecrate themselves to the service of God. When St. John Chrysostom became Archbishop of Constantinople (398), he acted as spiritual guide of Olympias and her companions, and, as many undeserving approached the kind-hearted deaconess for support, he advised her as to the proper manner of utilizing her vast fortune in the service of the poor (Sozomen, “Hist. eccl.”, VIII, ix; P.G., LXVII, 1540). Olympias resigned herself wholly to Chrysostom’s direction, and placed at his disposal ample sums for religious and charitable objects. Even to the most distant regions of the empire extended her benefactions to churches and the poor.

    “When Chrysostom was exiled, Olympias supported him in every possible way, and remained a faithful disciple, refusing to enter into communion with his unlawfully appointed successor. Chrysostom encouraged and guided her through his letters, of which seventeen are extant (P.G., LII, 549 sqq.); these are a beautiful memorial of the noble-hearted, spiritual daughter of the great bishop. Olympias was also exiled, and died a few months after Chrysostom. After her death she was venerated as a saint. A biography dating from the second half of the fifth century, which gives particulars concerning her from the “Historia Lausiaca” of Palladius and from the “Dialogus de vita Joh. Chrysostomi”, proves the great veneration she enjoyed. During he riot of Constantinople in 532 the convent of St. Olympias and the adjacent church were destroyed. Emperor Justinian had it rebuilt, and the prioress, Sergia, transferred thither the remains of the foundress from the ruined church of St. Thomas in Brokhthes, where she had been buried. We possess an account of this translation by Sergia herself. The feast of St. Olympias is celebrated in the Greek Church on 24 July, and in the Roman Church on 17 December.”

    In all of this, we are talking of permanent deacons or deaconesses. In all the Churches (Catholic, Orthodox and Oriental), throughout the history of the Church, only transitional male deacons became priests and bishops. Never in the Catholic and Orthodox Churches has there been or will be women priests or bishops. In Church history, only in heretical and marginal communities (Gnostic or Montanist, 2nd-3rd centuries), do we see women prophets becoming priests and even bishops.

    In the Western Church, there is no trace of women being ordained to the diaconate. Recently, an ad hoc Commission of theologians and scripture scholars was asked by the Holy See to study the question of deaconesses and the possibility of opening up the (permanent) diaconate to women in the Latin Chrurch. It came up with a negative recommendation.

    The Orthodox and the Oriental Churches (Coptic, Syriac, Armenian) are presently debating the restoration of the ministry of women deacons or deaconesses. Again we are talking here about the permanent diaconate.

    If you are interested, dear PerpetualMalcontent in deepening your knowledge of this question of deaconesses, I suggest these studies:

    Jean Danielou, The Ministry of Women in the Early Church, trans. Glyn Simon (London: The Faith Press, 1961) (French original appeared in La maison-Dieu 61:1 (1960), 70-96);

    – J. G. Davies, “Deacons, Deaconesses, and the Minor Orders in the Patristic Period,” Journal of Ecclesiastical History 14 (1963), 1-15;
    – C. R Meyer, “Ordained Women in the early Church,” Chicago Studies 4:3 (1965), 285-308;

    – Aime Georges Martimort, Deaconesses: An Historical Study, trans. K D. Whitehead (San Francisco: lgnatius Press, 1986);

    – Evangelos Theodorou, “The Institution of the Deaconesses in the Orthodox Church and the Possibility of Its Restoration,” in Gennadios Limouris, ed., The Place of the Woman in the Orthodox Church and the Question of the Ordination of Women (Katerini, Greece: Tertios Publications, 1992), pp. 207-238;

    – J. Viteau, “L’institution des diacres et des Veuves,” Revue d’Histoire Ecclesiastique 22 (1929), 513-537.

    God bless you!
    Father Gabriel OP

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