A few days ago, the Vatican nuncio in Paris held a meeting with seven women who aspire to occupy positions in the Catholic Church that have so far been reserved exclusively to men. Many churches are certainly the last redoubt of institutionalised discrimination against women, something particularly shocking if we consider the power that women had in the early Christian Church, starting with Thecla, the lifelong companion and follower of apostle Paul.
If one visits the beautiful city of Whitby, in North Yorkshire, the impressive ruins of its abbey attest to the stature of its founding abbess: St. Hilda (614-680). Hilda of Whitby lived for 66 years and divided her life equally between court and nunnery, as she only professed at the age of 33, after a childhood and youth full of deaths (her father was killed when she was eleven) and exiles. At some point, she must have considered that following on the steps of her elder sister Hereswith and joining a convent was not such a bad idea.
St. Hilda founded a double monastery that soon became a centre for the education of the elites of the kingdom of Northumbria, to whose royal household she was related: five bishops and the first English poet, Caedmon, had studied in Whitby. The venerable Bede in his chronicle described her as a woman of great energy and a skilled administrator. Under her leadership, the Synod of Whitby was held in 664. Today, a college in Oxford, initially founded in 1893 for the education of women, was named after her.
She was one of the very many powerful women linked to the Church from the dawn of Christianity. Together with Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), abbess, writer, composer, philosopher and the founder of scientific natural history, and Radegund (c.520-587), a Thuringian princess who was ordained deaconess and founded, following the rule of Caesarius of Arles, the monastery of Sainte-Croix in Poitiers around 560. Under this rule, nuns were required to read and write, study the scriptures and copy manuscripts, equating them intellectually to their male counterparts. St. Hilda in her double monastery in North Yorkshire was one of the great promoters of women education in a time when the only space to achieve knowledge was within the walls of an abbey, which was also true for men.