My childhood dream was to be an acolyte.
This may seem odd because my family attended a United Church of Christ congregation just outside of Cleveland. The UCC was formed from the union of the General Council of Congregational Churches and the Evangelical and Reformed Church in 1957, about the same time the Roman Catholics liberalized, the Unitarians and the Universalists merged, and formerly French/Italian/Ukrainian/what have you congregations of the teeming cities either followed their members into the new suburbs or welcomed newly arrived Puerto Rican/Korean/Cuban/Third World immigrants. Religion was changing in America under pressure from the educated middle class that was the fruit of the GI Bill, and that meant less liturgy, more relevance, and clergy of all types striving to embody the fresh new take on faith that was sweeping the country.
Our congregation in Middleburg Heights was no exception. Our minister, Mr. Beck, was warm and friendly, the Sunday School classes focused on Love and Joy rather than the Wrath of God, and the building itself was one of the modernist triangles influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright instead of a traditional white clapboard church. The sanctuary was carpeted, the pews were simple polished wood, and the building itself was always open so that spiritual seekers could pray whenever they wished.
In short, it wasn't one of the old school smells-and-bells churches where one would except to find an acolyte...but there they were, solemn young boys and girls who would help prepare the altar for services, light and douse the candles, and assist Mr. Beck during the service. They wore plain dark robes with shiny pointed collars, carried polish brass candlelighters/snuffers, and stood, quiet and still, off the sides of the choir while Mr. Beck preached.
I wanted to be one so badly I could taste it.
I'm not sure why – lighting candles, helping with Communion, and standing still is not precisely glamorous – but something in me was drawn to this almost from the first time I attended an adult service. I told my parents I wanted to be an acolyte, I told Mr. Beck and my Sunday School teachers I wanted to be an acolyte, and I counted the days until I started the fifth grade and could finally become an acolyte.
First grade, second grade, third grade and the first part of fourth grade passed, and still I wanted to be an acolyte. The spring of 1970 came, and by fall I at long last be old enough....
Except that my father, unhappy at his job, found another one, and barely a week into the fifth grade we left Cleveland and moved to Virginia.
I was a child, and a reasonably naive one who assumed that our life in Blacksburg would be similar to our live in Middleburg Heights. The churches, schools, grocery stores – it would all be the same, only in a small, quiet, clean town instead of a busy suburb just outside a city so filthy the river had caught on fire. It never once occurred to me that different parts of the country had different foods, slang, ways of teaching and thinking, that the libraries, the classes, the other students, the very way of looking at the world would not be what I was used to.
Nor did I ever imagine that we would not go to church.
I'm not sure how this happened, since we had been faithful churchgoers in Cleveland for four years. My parents had been semi-regulars at a small Methodist church for several years before that, and I'm sure they expected that after a few weeks they'd find a spiritual home to replace what they'd left behind, where they could hear a good sermon and I could go to Sunday School, learn about God, and eventually become an acolyte or altar girl or whatever our new congregation called it. I know they church-shopped for several weeks after we arrived in Blacksburg, one going to services while the other stayed home to watch me and the dog. I kept expecting that someday soon we'd all get up, have an early breakfast, put on our best clothes, and then head off to church, just the way we had for so many years.
It never happened. I'm not sure why since there were plenty of churches in Blacksburg, but my parents never found a congregation where they fit in. Mum once said something about “they're all Holy Rollers,” which almost certainly wasn't true – Blacksburg was a college town, after all, with a small hippy community and several non-American faculty members – but she never felt comfortable at any of the local mainline churches. She'd disliked That Old Time Religion since childhood, though, so it shouldn't have been a surprise that she wasn't comfortable with the emotionalism of Southern churches, let alone the fervor and Biblical literalism that was starting to infect even the stodgiest mainline congregation.
Worse was the way that women were treated in Blacksburg, at least by far too many of the people we had to interact with every day. My fifth grade teacher hated me for not being “a good little Southern girl” who said “yes ma'am/no ma'am” and sat quietly while the boys recited their lessons, construction workers at the house we'd had built refused to follow my mother's instructions, and there were few female faculty or working women of any kind. The sexism was so pervasive, and the hostility to Northerners so great, that within two years my parents gave up, sold their new house, and moved us back to Pittsburgh for good.
By then we'd given up on Sunday services, and when Dad died of a heart attack early in 1975, Mum turned in desperation to our old minister in Cleveland to conduct the funeral...and good man that he was, Mr. Beck drove out to Pittsburgh, spent hours comforting us, and then went home afterwards without accepting even a penny for his gas money. Mum tried one last time to find a spiritual home when time had taken the edge off her grief, but after the local Lutheran church called a Missouri Synod pastor with an oily smile and a fundamentalist's heart, she gave up completely.
So we stopped going to church, and I never became an acolyte.
The sting faded, as all hurts eventually do, and by the time I started going to church again I was a junior in college, and my spiritual home was the local Unitarian Univeralist church. I later studied religion at Hartford Seminary, and though I've never been ordained by one of our congregations I've functioned as a lay minister off and on for years. I've performed weddings, conducted funerals, and though I've never dedicated a child, I've been present at enough ceremonies that I could if need arose. I'm attending services now via Zoom, and this week I've sketched out designs for a new stole for my minister that will use scraps of fine silk so he'll have something for formal services when they begin again.
So maybe I've never become an acolyte, but I've achieved my childhood dream nonetheless. I have a church, it suits me well, and I'm doing good work in my own way. It's enough, and more than enough, and I am content.
Alert readers may have noticed that I was never directly told that “you can't do that, you're a girl” when it came to being an acolyte. Not once. If anything, my parents actively avoided churches where women were not regarded as equal to men. Their own relationship was surprising egalitarian, especially for its time; they'd met as equals, married as equals, and even after my mother had to stop teaching to raise me, they regarded each other as equals in almost all respects, including household responsibilities, childrearing, and major purchases. The mere idea that Mum should submit to Dad’s sovereign headship would have enraged him and amused her, let alone been acceptable on any level.
This may be why I've never, not even for a moment, considered belonging to a religious group that regarded women as inferior. Gorgeous music, stunning art, meaty theological discussions, heartfelt preaching...they all have their place, but if the ultimate result is that women are regarded as unclean, the gateway to temptation, childlike, untrustworthy, or anything less than fully equal to men in church hierarchy, theology, or leadership roles, include me out. Religious sexism was one of the many reasons my mother stopped going to the local Lutheran church after they called Rev. Missouri Synod, and it shouldn't be a surprise that I eventually ended up in a denomination that was one of the first to ordain women, has a majority female clergy, and is currently headed by a woman.
It also should not be a surprise that I've always regarded the Roman Catholic Church's position on women with great suspicion. The emphasis on chastity above all, the exclusion of women from virtually every position of power, the near-worship of the Blessed Virgin while actual women are reduced to stereotypes...the rot runs deep.
Worse? There's a great deal in the New Testament and the early Church to suggest that it didn't have to be this way. There are multiple references to female apostles, one of whom (Prisca) no less than St. Paul claimed was brighter and a better missionary than he himself. Jesus praised the contemplative Mary, sister of Lazarus, over her industrious sister Martha, while one of the early financers of the entire movement was a wealthy, powerful woman named Lydia whose money came from her skill at buying and selling the precious purple dye that was worth more than its weight in gold. There's even a reference to a female diakonos, or congregational head, named Phoebe, whom Paul trusted enough that he told the Romans to ask her for clarification of his epistle rather than bothering Paul himself with silly questions.
Saints, apostles, deacons...women had all these roles in the early Church, and in many of what later theologians (all male) denounced as heretical or gnostic sects. There's even a 9th century mosaic near Verona that shows a woman labeled as “Episcopa Theodora,” and though she's traditionally been seen as merely the mother of a Pope rather than someone who might have been eligible to be elected Pope, modern scholars have pointed out that a) her husband was not a bishop so this is probably not a courtesy title, b) she's wearing a headcovering often associated with a deaconess, and c) the mothers of Popes were not usually called “Bishop,” even as a courtesy.
As to whether a woman might actually have been a Pope at some point...well. That's complicated. For it seems that despite the Church's official position on women (not flattering), nuns (acceptable as long as they knew their place), and female priests (not a chance), rumors that women had managed to work their way into positions of great power arose early and persisted despite repeated debunkings. Most seem to have begun with Marozia of the House of Theophylact, a promiscuous, power-hungry Roman noblewoman who managed to get multiple relatives elected Pope but never actually claimed the See of Rome for herself. The most famous, though, may well have begun as a simple misunderstanding:
Chronicon Pontificum et Imperatorum, by Martin Polanus (Martin of Opava) – the first actual account of a female Pope or Pope-equivalent dates from the late 10th century, and it's a doozy. That's when the author of the Chronicle Salernitanum wrote that over a century earlier, during the time of Charlemagne, the Patriarch of Constantinople so loved his favorite niece that he disguised her as a eunuch and gave her an official place at his court. Since the Orthodox church allowed eunuchs to be ordained as long as they hadn't castrated themselves, a beardless priest would not be questioned, so no one was particularly upset when the Patriarch died and his old protege was elected to replace him. “He” then reigned as Patriarch until an Italian princeling who rejoiced in the name “Arichis of Benevento” claimed that the Devil had warned him against this great evil, sent a mission to Constantinople to expose “him,” and the female Pope-equivalent was promptly deposed before she could do something horrible, like disrupt the Apostolic Succession or menstruate in the vicinity of an altar cloth.
Now. There was indeed a beardless Patriarch during the reign of Charlemagne. His name was Nicetas, and he was an actual, genuine, for-real eunuch, not a woman in disguise. It's all but certain that whomever wrote the Chronicle Salternitanum simply assumed that Nicetas was a woman because Orthodox clergy were forbidden to shave, unlike their Western counterparts, so one without the requisite facial hair would have looked suspicious. Throw in that Benevento was part of the Eastern Empire in the 8th century despite being in Italy, and a story about a woman not knowing her place suddenly looks much more like a politically-motivated smear designed to make the Emperor look like a heretic who was dumb enough to allow an icky nasty girl to assume the most important position in the Orthodox Church.
Unfortunately for Church history, the political motivations soon were forgotten but the juicy story most certainly was not. Pope Leo IX, the Roman pontiff who presided over the theological/political spat known as the Great Schism, weaponized the old story in a letter to Patriarch Michael I Cerularius:
“God forbid that we wish to believe, what public opinion does not hesitate to proclaim, has happened for the Church of Constantinople: namely that in promoting eunuchs indiscriminately against the First Law of the Council of Nicaea, it once raised a woman to the seat of its pontiff.”
He then went on to accuse the Eastern Church of not merely being rumored to have had a female Patriarch, but of being so badly behaved, managed, and ruled that it likely had once elevated a female Patriarch.
Whether this was the straw that broke the Mystical Body of Christ's back or not, Patriarch Michael was not pleased. Soon the Eastern and Western Churches were irrevocably severed, with the former allowing the ordination of married men as parish priests while celibate monks served in higher positions, and the latter insisting upon clerical celibacy at all levels.
There the matter might have rested...except that heretical sects allowing women to be priests kept springing up despite the Latin Church's best efforts to play Whack-A-Priest(ess). The best known are the Cathars, the Gnostic sect that was suppressed by the Albigensian Crusade, but there were others. And though women could not be ordained, there were areas, particularly in Germany, where wealthy monasteries headed by abbesses such as composer/scientist/naturalist/theologian/visionary St. Hildegarde von Bingen wielded enormous temporal and spiritual power.
Whether these mighty abbesses were conjoined with the old myth about a female Patrich or the reality of female priests among the Cathars isn't completely certain. What is certain is that by the mid-13th century not one, but two respected chroniclers wrote of a female Pope not as a rumor, or an example of Byzantines behaving badly, but as established fact.
The first to assert that yes, Holy Virgins, there had been a female Pope was Jean de Mailly, a Dominican monk who included this curious bit of trivia in the grandly titled Chronica Universalis Mettensis (Universal Chronicle of Metz) sometime around 1250. He claimed that in 1099 – only 150 years ago! - a woman who'd disguised herself as a man infiltrated the Curia, or administrative arm of the Vatican. Despite being an evil wicked Jezebel who emphatically did not know her place, she rose through the ranks to become a secretary, then a cardinal, and finally (oh horrors!) the Pope. And even though the Pope, as Head of the Church Temporal and Spiritual, was supposed to set an example of chaste behavior and celibacy, this awful woman had sex (ew! ew! ew!), became pregnant, and then gave birth to the fruit of her evilness.
The Romans, outraged, promptly executed her, buried her unshriven remains, and put up a sign that beseeched St. Peter to use her an example of what happens when the Pope pups. “At the same time, the four-day fast called 'the fast of the female Pope' was first established,” de Mailly concluded, and lo, it was good, at least in Metz. Unfortunately for the faithful Dominican, he seems to have forgotten that not only was there no such thing as the four-day fast of the female Pope, the Pope in 1099 was Paschal II, who reigned for nineteen years and was most emphatically not female.
One would think that someone, either another chronicler, the local bishop, or a brother Dominican would have gently pointed out to de Mailly that His Holiness Paschal II was a man, not a disgraced unwed mother. Unfortunately for the intellectual reputation of the Dominicans, this does not seem to have been the case. Within a few years fellow monk Stephen of Bourbon repeated the same story in The Seven Gifts of the Holy Ghost, which presumably did not describe a baby shower for Her Holiness. A few other chroniclers followed suit, even though it should have been an obvious mistake.
Then came Martin Polanus, and the mistake wasn't nearly so obvious.
Born Martin von Trappau in Moravia, Polanus was yet another Dominican, and what this curious coincidence says about that particular order is you to speculate, not me. Regardless, Polanus eventually made his way to Rome, where he became the papal chaplain. Being a curious sort, he began exploring the Vatican archives with an eye to writing (you guessed it) a chronicle of his very own, this one specially for use in church schools. It would not merely describe past history, either. Martin decided to concentrate not on mere kings and dukes and battles, but on the real movers and shakers of medieval Europe: the Popes and the Emperors.
Thus it was thatin the mid-13th century he wrote the first version of his magnum opus, Chronicon Pontificum et Imperatorum (Chronicle of the Popes and Emperors). He might have wished to revise the work at some point, which was not uncommon, but he had the ill luck to die within a few months on his way home to Poland to become a bishop. So it's not clear who was responsible for this remarkable paragraph that was crammed into the margins of the third version of the Chronicon:
John Anglicus, born at Mainz, was Pope for two years, seven months and four days, and died in Rome, after which there was a vacancy in the Papacy of one month. It is claimed that this John was a woman, who as a girl had been led to Athens dressed in the clothes of a man by a certain lover of hers. There she became proficient in a diversity of branches of knowledge, until she had no equal, and, afterward in Rome, she taught the liberal arts and had great masters among her students and audience. A high opinion of her life and learning arose in the city; and she was chosen for Pope. While Pope, however, she became pregnant by her companion. Through ignorance of the exact time when the birth was expected, she was delivered of a child while in procession from St. Peter’s to the Lateran, in a lane once named Via Sacra (the sacred way) but now known as the "shunned street" between the Colosseum and St. Clement’s Church. After her death, it is said she was buried in that same place. The Lord Pope always turns aside from the street, and it is believed by many that this is done because of abhorrence of the event. Nor is she placed on the list of the Holy Pontiffs, both because of her female sex and on account of the foulness of the matter.
That this version was somewhat confusing is an understatement. Mainz does not have particularly close ties to England, so why would the female Pope be called “Johannes Anglicus” and not “Johannes Mogontiacum”? How did she avoid getting pregnant during her student days in Athens, her preaching days in Rome, and the majority of her pontificate? Why did her lover(s) not expose her when she wickedly rejected Scripture to have dominion over men in the most direct and powerful way? Most important, how could she not know the approximate date her baby was due and make arrangements to be anywhere but Rome when she delivered?
I mean, seriously – if there is one group that's expert in sending a woman pregnant out of season off to “visit a sick relative” long enough for her to give birth without anyone knowing, it's the Catholic Church. Unless this was an early example of the basic material of cheesy reality shows like I Didn't Know I was Pregnant!, there is something very strange going on.
Even stranger was this famous passage was not the only description of the life, times, and illicit loves of John Anglicus aka John VIII aka Pope Joan found in Martin Polanus's magnum opus. Yet another version of the Chronicon has Joan arrested, not executed, and imprisoned so she can do appropriate penance, while her son grows up, becomes Bishop of Ostia, and has his beloved mother buried in his own cathedral when she finally dies.
Pregnant Popes, non-existent fasts, avoided streets...it's so confusing that it's a wonder anyone believed the story of Pope Joan for more than about five minutes. The 9th century was confusing, absolutely no question, but the Chronicon's claim that Joan succeeded Leo IV in 855 could not possibly be true since his successor, Benedict III, was installed about two and a half months after Leo's death, not the requisite two and a half years. There'd been a very brief period when a renegade cardinal named Anastasius attempted to usurp the Papacy, but other than that there was nothing that even remotely resembled the story of Pope Joan.
So that should have been the end of it, especially since the Vatican Archives were still there, complete with records of just who was Pope between 855 and 858...but thanks to the turbulent politics of the age, no one bothered to look. Worse, by 1303 the Pope himself had been whisked away by the French army to exile in Avignon until 1377, a period that's become known as the Babylon Captivity. During this time, which included delights like the Hundred Years' War, the Black Death, and a dispute over papal succession that culminated in no fewer than three Popes (one Italian, one French, and one stubborn Spanish prelate who insisted that he was the true Pope despite almost no support except for a small band of increasingly miserable cardinals). By the time Europe calmed down enough for scholars to take a good, hard look at the Chronicon, the story of Pope Joan was universally accepted.
Her story also proved an excellent tourist attraction. Peace and a single Pope meant that pilgrims, merchants, and just plain tourists felt safe to return to the Holy City, which in turn led to the publication of a tourist guide, Mirabilia Urbia Romae (The Marvels of Rome), that was just as replete with dubiously accurate anecdotes as a 1920's guidebook tracing just where George Washington slept and when. A statue was erected along the supposedly cursed papal route to commemorate the very spot where the Pope had fallen off her steed and given birth to the future Bishop of Ostia, while an ancient Roman “throne” with a hole in the seat was claimed to be part of a ritual where one of the cardinals would reach down and give the new Pontiff a squeeze in his holy testicles to be extra-sure that he was a real live boy, or had been at one point.
That the “cursed route” had been abandoned because it was narrow, crowded, and difficult to navigate...well, that wasn't important. Neither was the “throne's” origins in the ancient Roman baths, where it was probably used as a toilet, nor the utter lack of a plumbing check in the official instructions for consecrating a Pope. Pope Joan was in the chronicles, which meant she was real despite all the evidence that she wasn't.
She also had become a legend. Boccaccio wrote about her in De Mulieribus Claris (Concerning Famous Women), Adam of Usk's Chronicon of 1404 claimed her real name was Agnes, not Joan, and proto-Protestant Jan Hus claimed that her reign proved that there really wasn't a need for a Pope since the Church and the world got along just fine during her illicit pontificate. Her image was even included in the famous series of papal busts in Siena Cathedral, with the caption “Johannes VIII, Foemina de Anglia.”
This did not prevent the Bishop of Siena from privately questioning the story in 1451, even though he left the bust of the Foemina de Anglia in place between Leo IV and Benedict III. It wasn't until 1587 that anyone did a truly critical analysis of the legend of Pope Joan, and it was another fourteen years before Pope Clement VIII finally declared that no, ye Blessed Virgins, “John Anglicus” aka Pope Joan was a myth, not a real woman. The bust in Siena was recarved and renamed for Pope Zachary, the street where Joan allegedly went into labor was rebuilt to eliminate the site of her shame, and the Catholic Church did its level best to ignore the whole mess.
Unfortunately for the Church, Protestant writers gleefully seized upon the legend and beat it like a drum. The most notable debunking/critique of Pope Joan, if only for the name, is probably 1675's A present for a papist, or, The life and death of Pope Joan plainly proving out of the printed copies and manuscripts of popish writers and others, that a woman called Joan was really Pope of Rome, and was there deliver'd of a bastard son in the open street, as she went in solemn procession / by a lover of truth, denying human infallibility, which not only mocked the Catholic Church by quoting its own chronicles, but included a graphic account of Joan's labor and delivery AND an engraving of her newborn peering out from underneath her robes in what has to be one of the least tasteful depictions of a Pope in history. And though later writers eschewed the grandiloquence of the 17th century, Pope Joan was accepted as fact by some Protestant writers as late as the 19th century.
The last few decades have seen a revival of interest in Pope Joan/John Anglicus/Agnes/whatever, almost certainly thanks to the push for female ordination that began in the 1970's and continues to this day. Novels, popular histories, and at least one attempt at a scholarly account have appeared, while earlier works that mentioned Pope Joan have been reprinted. Two films have appeared (1972's The Devil's Imposter, later recut as She...who would be Pope and 2009's Pope Joan), while writers from Bertold Brecht to Caryl Churchill to the team behind video game Persona 5 have used her as a character. There was even a play about her in 2019, which premiered in, of all places, Mdina ditch on the island of Malta.
It’s entirely possible that there really was a female Pope at some point — there were so many antipopes in the late 11th century that at least one researcher thinks that one might have been a woman — but by now that’s not really the point. So many Christian denominations have ordained women over the last fifty years that a female Pope is no longer the salacious offense it used to be, but a future possibilty that has to be taken seriously. Pope Francis came within a hair’s breadth of restoring the female diaconate and allowing married priests early this year, and it’s all but inevitable that one of his successors will eventually admit women to the full priesthood.
When that occurs, Joan may well be seen as a pioneer, not a case of mistaken identity or a cautionary tale. Only time will tell.
Have you ever heard of Pope Joan? Been in a congregation headed by a woman? Longed to be an acolyte, altar boy, or minister? It’s a chilly Saturday night, so put on your mask, sanitize your hands, and share….