“I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well” (Rom 16:1-2).
As you may know, a new commission was established last year by Pope Francis to study the question of women serving as deacons in the Church. Due to the Covid pandemic, this commission has not yet met, but they will begin meeting in Rome on September 13 according to Christopher Lamb of The Tablet.
This will be the third Vatican commission on the topic in recent decades, the most recent one convened in 2016 and after two years was unable to reach a conclusion. Pope Francis gave his thoughts about the outcome of that commission during a May 2019 in-flight press conference: “The commission was created and worked together for almost two years. They were all different, all ‘frogs from different ponds,’ all thinking differently, but they collaborated and were in agreement up to a certain point. But each of them then had their own view that didn’t agree with those of the others. And there they stopped as a commission.”
This issue continues to be raised, especially as the Church looks for new opportunities for women to serve in leadership roles. There are a number of questions that have not yet been resolved, including the question of the Sacrament of Holy Orders. The Church believes this sacrament has three parts: the diaconate, the priesthood, and the episcopate. Unlike the question of ordaining women to the priesthood, which has no known historical precedent in the Church and was formally ruled out by St. John Paul II, in his Apostolic Letter Ordinatio sacerdotalis, there is a history of women serving as deacons or deaconesses and even—at least in some Eastern Churches at various points in history—undergoing rites similar or identical to those of male deacons. Interestingly, it appears that the sacramental ordination of women to the diaconate has not been explicitly rejected by Catholic doctrine. If you read the decrees of Sts. John Paul II and Paul VI, they very clearly and repeatedly speak about priestly ordination.
Setting the question of sacramental ordination aside, there is no doctrinal difficulty with women serving in diaconal ministry. The deacon’s is a ministry of service: proclaiming and preaching the Word, witnessing marriages, serving as the minister of Baptism, catechizing and teaching, offering spiritual direction, visiting the sick, serving as ministers of Holy Communion. In some places, such as the Amazon, women serve as the leaders of faith communities and are already doing all these things.
One thing that has impressed me about the women who are asking to open up this discussion is that they are truly doing this within the context of fidelity to the Church. They are aware that the Church may not change on this issue—or at least as quickly as they desire, but they are setting that aside in order to work within the Church. And even as they hope for change on this issue, they continue to serve the Church faithfully in their ministerial capacities.
On that note, the Discerning Deacons project, which launched in April, invites Catholics to gather virtually on Zoom on Friday, September 3, from 7:00-8:30 p.m. U.S. eastern time, to pray together for the Church’s discernment of this question and to listen to powerful testimonies from Catholic women who are already engaged in diaconal ministry. RSVP here.
This day marks the Feast of St. Phoebe. In the Letter to the Romans, St. Paul commends Phoebe to the Church in Rome and calls her the diakonos (deacon) of the church at Cenchreae, near Corinth (Romans 16:1-2). For centuries, women served as deacons in the ministries of liturgy, word, and charity. In recent years, several bishops and many other Catholics have expressed public support for the Church to restore women to the ordained ministry of deacons.
“We want to bring a holy urgency to the Church’s discernment,” says Casey Stanton, a co-director of Discerning Deacons. “The topic has been discussed for decades, and our effort is aimed at lifting up the stories and lives of women who are ready to serve, and the many faithful Catholics who are praying for women to be ‘received in the Lord’ just as St. Paul asked the Church of Rome to receive Phoebe the deacon.”
This fall, as Catholics are consulted in a global synod process on communion, participation and mission in the Church, there is an opportunity to bear witness to the difference it would make in evangelization and addressing pastoral needs, if women are ordained as deacons.
“Throughout the centuries women have engaged in diaconal ministry in myriad, competent and often heroic ways,” says Bishop Emeritus Randolph Calvo of Reno, an advisor to Discerning Deacons. “Recently women have asked the Church to explore the restoration of women in the diaconate in service of the Church’s mission. Discerning Deacons is a timely forum for listening to voices in the Church and advancing this discussion.”
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Featured image: Coronation of the Virgin (detail) By Fra Angelico – The Yorck Project (2002) 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei (DVD-ROM), distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. ISBN: 3936122202., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=147556
St. Phoebe Icon: By Larry Kamphausen – https://pl.pinterest.com/pin/374150681544940200/, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=103407401