Paul Collins. ‘Theodora the Bishop’: Pope Francis and Women Deacons
Santa Prassede is famous for its stunning mosaics over the high altar and in the small, extraordinary Chapel of Zeno. In the north lunette of the chapel there are four women who, in the Byzantine way gaze directly at you. The slightly taller one is Mary with her blue veil. She is surrounded by the sisters Praxedes (after whom the church is named) and Prudentiana. But it’s the first woman who stands out. She has an unusual rectangular nimbus (halo) around her head which means she was still alive when the mosaic was created. An inscription in gold lettering identifies her as ‘Theodo[ra] Episcopa’, ‘Theodora the bishop’. She was Paschal I’s mother, but that isn’t why she was called episcopa.
Episcopa means woman ‘bishop’, ‘presbyter’, or ‘elder’. This suggests that she exercised authority in the church equivalent to men who had the same title. The problem is tying down exactly what these titles meant at the time and what function Theodora fulfilled.