The traditional Rite of our Latin Church, contained in the Tridentine Pontificale, for Blessing a Lady Abbess is, not surprisingly, very closely similar to the Consecration of a Bishop or the Ordination of a Presbyter or Deacon.. The Abbess prostrates herself as the Litanies are sung over her; a consecratory 'Preface' is chanted over her; the Bishop lays his hands upon her head and then for the rest of the Prayer holds them extended before his chest; for a porrectio instrumentorum she receives the Rule; if she has not previously been formally veiled, she now receives the veil. Such a rite speaks for itself.
But the words of the prayers are, if anything, even more expressive in what they tell us about the Order of Abbess. The precedent for the Blessing is seen as the appointment by Moses of Leaders set over the People of God (ad gubernandas Ecclesias praepositos), just as the Consecration of a Bishop is described in terms of the Aaronic high priesthood. The Gospel given in the Common of a Confessor Bishop is cited ("Well done, good and faithful servant ..." ). The Abbess, according to the Bishop's prayer, "talis in hoc ministerio perseveret, qualis levita electus ab Apostolis sanctus Stephanus meruit perdurare". She is blessed "ad gubernandam regendamque Ecclesiam tuam fideliter ut speculatrix ...", recalling the traditional image of the Bishop as the Watchman of his Church.
The Episcopate, of course, is part of the divinely instituted Sacrament of Holy Order. The state of Abbess does not possess that quality. But the Blessing of an Abbess is, surely, the very highest form of a Sacramental that the Church knows.
Perhaps readers have already reached out their hands to take up their copies of Bede. In the elegant pages of that great English latinist and historian it is made abundantly clear that S Hilda's religious foundations were 'double monasteries'; that is to say, Mother Foundress created and governed communities both of women and of men. S Bede proudly lists the number of monks trained under S Hilda who were chosen to the Episcopate: S Bosa (York), S Hedda (Dorchester), Oftfor (Worcester), S John (Hexham), and S Wilfrid (York). I suspect S Bede had S Hilda in mind when he observed that in the femineus sexus there are "persons who not only by their lives but also by their preaching (praedicando) inflame the hearts of those around them to the praise of their Creator".
Perhaps all that is something the Church badly needs now: strongly orthodox and liturgically literate women taking a hand in the raising of clergy. Readers who know my background are hardly likely to suspect me of going 'soft' ... The contrary is true. I think calls for the 'ordination of women' are symptoms of disorders arising from a failure to understand the place naturally occupied by women in a sound and traditional and relaxed Catholic society.
My long experience in the Anglican Wars about 'ordaining' women led to my conviction that many of the men supporting such 'advances' were, deep down and in some cases not nearly so deep, misogynists or inadequates with a poorly integrated sexuality resulting in gynaecophobia. I sensed a whiff of the same sort of unhealthy and clericalist attitudes a few years ago when the 'Commissioner' put in to 'reform' the Franciscans of the Immaculate published a list of things that had gone wrong and needed 'reform' ...
... one of which was this: a certain Reverend Mother in the Order had too much influence among the friars!!
You couldn't make that up, could you? Scratch a feminist/liberal/modernist and ... ten to one ... you'll find ... a woman-hater.
What do we want?
When do we want them?