St. Brigid was not a bishop, but as an abbess she held similar authority over her monasteries.
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Along with St. Patrick, St. Brigid of Kildare is known as a co-patron of Ireland, having been a close collaborator of the missionary bishop. She was highly influential in the early years of Christianity on the Emerald Isle and established many monasteries of religious women.
What’s interesting is that often in art she is depicted with a crosier, also known as the bishop’s staff.
Why is that?
The shepherd’s staff
First of all, the crosier used by a bishop is meant to symbolize his pastoral leadership of a local area. He is the spiritual shepherd of a particular region, and the staff is meant to recall Jesus, the Good Shepherd, who guides his flock.
The crosier is an ancient custom, dating back centuries in the Church, and continues to be used by bishops around the world.
In a similar way, many nuns who held positions of leadership in their religious orders would be given a staff, representing their pastoral leadership of a group of women. A woman who supervised an abbey of women was known as an abbess, and had much of the same religious symbolism as her counterpart, an abbot, in a men’s religious order.
The Catholic Encyclopedia explains this symbolism.
No mention is made in the Pontificale of a conferring of the staff, customary in many places at the installation of an Abbess, but the rite is prescribed in many monastic rituals, and as a rule the Abbess, like the Abbot, bears the crosier as a symbol of her office and of her rank; she has also a right to the ring.
St. Brigid, Shepherdess of Ireland
St. Brigid held a prominent role in the formation of Christianity in Ireland, and not only directed her religious nuns, but also helped guide local dioceses.
The Catholic Encyclopedia also clarifies her role in Ireland.
St. Mel of Ardagh, who also conferred on her abbatial powers … She founded two monastic institutions, one for men, and the other for women, and appointed St. Conleth as spiritual pastor of them … her biographer tells us distinctly that she chose St. Conleth “to govern the church along with herself.” Thus, for centuries, Kildare was ruled by a double line of abbot-bishops and of abbesses, the Abbess of Kildare being regarded as superioress general of the convents in Ireland.
St. Brigid was instrumental in the establishment of Christianity in Ireland, and her depiction with a crosier highlights this reality.