Printer Friendly

Scholar unearths history of Celtic women: women played roles that today belong to male priesthood.

Women played roles that today belong to male priesthood

ST. PAUL, Minn. - Women exercised strong leadership in the early Celtic church, and one of them - St Brigit - may have been ordained a bishop. So reports scholar Edward C. Sellner, who for years has been teaching and researching Celtic spirituality.

During his 1988 sabbatical, when he conducted research in Oxford, England, and taught in Maynooth, Ireland, Sellner visited Armagh. Kneeling in the Catholic cathedral before a giant mosaic depicting Brigit's life, he noticed a scene of her "kneeling before a bishop who has both of his hands on her head. I realized this was a traditional symbol of ordination."

Sellner learned that, according to legend, Brigit was to receive her nun's veil when Bishop Mel was "transported by the Holy Spirit" and read over her the words of episcopal ordination. When fellow bishops asked Mel what had gotten into him, Sellner said, Mel "in effect says, "The Holy Spirit made me do it.'"

Whether or not the legend is factual, Sellner told NCR, it "was a real sign to me that women did have a tremendous role in those early Celtic churches, which developed somewhat outside of the influence of Rome." Now Sellner, who directs the master's program in theology at the College of St. Catherine, has compiled the story and others into Wisdom of the Celtic Saints, published by Ave Maria Press.

Many of the book's accounts of saints have never before been translated into English. Most are based on early hagiographies, which Sellner describes as "not biographies in the way we understand the term today, but stories with a theological message."

He found, for instance, that Ita and Samthann were confessors, practitioners of anamchara, the "soul-friend tradition" - a one-to-one form of confession he said originated in the early Celtic church, primarily in Ireland. That form of confession later became normative in the Latin church, but he said communal penance was more common on the European continent at that time, the fifth and sixth centuries.

St. Ita, an abbess, heard the confessions of nuns, "which may have been quite traditional" for abbesses, Sellner said. "But you also have at least one story, possibly more, of laypeople coming to her for confession, and she gives them penance. Now I think that's a real sign of women acting in roles that came to be traditionally understood as being the realm of the ordained."

He tells also about St. Samthann, who had "a marvelous crosier that works miracles" and who was confessor to Maelruain, a founder of the Celi De church reform movement in Ireland and the British Isles. "Again, women, at least in these earlier stages of development, exercised roles I think were quite significant in terms of guidance and counseling and confession itself," Sellner said.

He contends that "you have much more powerful women in powerful positions of the early church in the Celtic lands" than on the Continent and other parts of the Roman Empire, which were "much more patriarchal."

Asked why such information is only now being brought to light, Sellner suggested that "first of all, most of the stories of women we find that survived are found in the lives of the male saints" and many, including the lives of Ita and Samthann, have never before been translated into English.

Perhaps more significant, he said, many scholars could read the lives, even translate them, but because of their "theological or cultural blinders" might never realize the significance of the stories for today or even, perhaps, "value them for what they were telling us about the early church and women's leadership then."

Sellner, in contrast, is surrounded by women of accomplishment. He is married to an attorney and for 11 years has taught at the College of St. Catherine where, he said, the atmosphere "supports women, spirituality and leadership. That's where I think some themes that have arisen in my own scholarship have been certainly affirmed."

Besides directing St. Catherine's theology master's program, Sellner is an associate professor of pastoral theology and spirituality. His two previous books were Mentoring: The Ministry of Spiritual Kinship (Ave Maria Press) and Soul-Making: The Telling of a Spiritual Journey (Twenty-Third Publications).

His interest in Celtic spirituality also arises from the Irish part of his Irish-German heritage, he said.

The women in his life and work confirm his "conviction that we need greater equality in the churches, that we're missing out a great deal when half of the population is excluded in many ministries precisely because they're female." He appreciates clerics such as Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert Weakland, New Ulm Bishop Raymond Lucker and St. Paul-Minneapolis Archbishop John Roach, he said, because they encourage research on women in ministry.

He said he has "great difficulty in light of my research and in light of working with laypeople, especially women in ministry," with the exclusion of dialogue about ordination of women and other roles for women in the church.

"I continue to believe that revelation is an ongoing phenomenon" and that sacraments, ministry and other facets of church life have evolved in response to pastoral needs of the time, he said.

As a pastoral theologian, he said, he learned during doctoral studies at the University of Notre Dame "that you mine your contemporary experience, but sometimes you come to understand it better by looking at the past. There's an interplay, a dialogue, between past and present that drives me in my scholarship."

Then he added, "It also makes me somewhat neurotic because I'm trying to keep abreast of the contemporary while I'm also studying the past."

There he met not only Brigit and Ita and Samthann but other Celtic women such as Hild of Whitby, a "powerful administrator and spiritual guide," and St. Canair of Bantry Bay, who confronted the monk St. Senan and through her persistence obtained from him the Eucharist and a place to live on Scattery Island.

Sellner teaches such stories, then writes them. He wants those who would exclude women from leadership or say women never possessed power in the church to know that long ago, holy women exercised leadership and power in ways that only later became equated with a male, celibate priesthood.
COPYRIGHT 1993 National Catholic Reporter
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Edward C. Sellner; includes related article on womens' ordination history
Author:Gibeau, Dawn
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Biography
Date:Feb 19, 1993
Previous Article:If Joint Chiefs have problem, let them disobey like men.
Next Article:Wisdom of the Celtic Saints.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters