Rome ancient frescoes reignite debate over women priests

Fresco with a figure with outstretched hands
Image caption One of the contested images showing a woman with outstretched hands

The reopening of a labyrinth of catacombs in Rome has reignited a debate over women priests in early Christianity.

Women's groups say frescoes on the walls at the Catacombs of Priscilla are evidence that women occupied the role of priests in ancient times.

A major clean-up operation that took five years has revealed the images in greater clarity.

But the Vatican has dismissed them as pure "fable, a legend".

The catacombs - discovered in the 16th Century - are famous for housing the oldest known image of the Madonna and Child dating from around AD230-240.

They were originally built as Christian burial sites between the Second and Fifth Centuries and stretch 13km (8 miles) over several levels.

But two rooms in particular have been a source of lively debate for years.

In one, known as the Cubiculum of the Veiled Woman, there is an image of a woman with arms outstretched as if saying Mass. She is wearing what some say are garments worn by priests.

In another room, known as the Greek Chapel, a group of women sit at a table with arms outstretched and celebrating a banquet.

Organisations promoting a female priesthood, such as the Women's Ordination Conference and the Association of Roman Catholic Woman Priests, say these scenes are evidence of a female priesthood in the early Church.

Fabrizio Bisconti of the Vatican's archaeology commission said the fresco of the woman was "a depiction of a deceased person now in paradise", and that the women sitting at the table were taking part in a "funeral banquet".

The Vatican has restricted the priesthood for men and teaches that women cannot become priests because Jesus willingly chose only men as his apostles.

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