Women and the Diaconate: Threading the Historical Needle

Since I am both a deacon and a professional theologian, I get asked to give my opinion on the prospect and possibility of women deacons. I tend to think uninformed opinions asymptotically approach zero in their value, so I thought I’d read up on the question a bit, starting with the recent translation of Cipriano Vagaggini’s lengthy essay “The Ordination of Deaconesses in the Greek and Byzantine Traditions” (in Ordination of Women to the Diaconate in the Eastern Churches, Phyllis Zagano, ed., Liturgical Press 2013). Vagaggini is somewhat cautiously in favor of ordaining women to the diaconate. But he is also a careful historian who does not want to overstate the historical evidence for doing so. His essay prompted me to reflect on the difficulties posed in mounting historical arguments of either side in the debate, and what counts as sufficient historical precedent in changing Church practice.

One thing that Vagaggini’s essay shows is that both those who say “In Romans Paul identifies Phoebe as a deacon, therefore it is clear that the early Church had women deacons” and those who say, “It is clear that deaconesses were not admitted to the sacrament of orders, but were a non-ordained ministry oriented solely to assisting women at baptism” have not really reckoned with what a messy place the past is. Trying to take account of the messiness of the past, I offer the following remarks:

  • The definition of what a sacrament is was extraordinarily slow in developing. As is well know, it is really only with Peter Lombard (d. 1160) that the West identified the seven sacraments as we know them today, and began to define how these differed from other “sacramental” rites and objects (the East was even slower in doing this, and did so largely in order to have some way of talking with folks in the West). Thus, in arguing that the setting apart of deaconess either was or was not the sacrament of holy orders, we are not going to get any direct evidence from our sources. They simply do not use “sacrament” in that way.
  • The record is also remarkably varied geographically. In some places there seems to have been no tradition of deaconesses; in other places they seem to exercise a ministry that is radically different in kind from bishops, presbyters, and (male) deacons; in yet other places, their ministry seems to more closely approach that of (male) deacons. Vagaggini’s essay focuses on a single tradition—the Byzantine—which happens to be one in which the ministry of deaconess in some ways closely approaches that of the deacon (though not as close as one might find in the Armenian Church). One might ask, whatever one decides about what the Byzantines thought they were doing, is this is a broad enough sample of the tradition to count as a precedent?
  • Since our sources do not use the category of “sacrament” in the way that later scholastics would (and that we would today), we must look for other sorts of evidence that would allow us to make the retrospective judgement that the admission of women to the diaconate was admission to the sacrament of Holy Orders. Vagaggini notes that the Byzantine tradition uses two terms to describe the setting apart of ministries: cheirotonia, which we might translate as “ordination,” and cheirothesia, which we might translate as “blessing.” It also sets some ministries apart by the laying on of hands, whereas others do not involve this ritual. While deaconesses (along with bishops, presbyters, and deacons) are set apart by cheirotonia and the laying on of hands, so too are subdeacons and lectors, whom we today do not understand to have received the sacrament of orders. This, therefore, is not in itself clear evidence for the sacramentality of the ordination of deaconesses. However, there is also a clear distinction between those ministries that are set apart by cheirotonia inside the sanctuary, and those that are set apart by cheirotonia outside the sanctuary. The ministry of deaconesses falls into the former category, as do those of bishops, presbyters, and (male) deacons; subdeacons and lectors fall into the latter category, ordained outside the sanctuary. Vagaggini draws upon the writings the Theodore of Mopsuestia (d. 428) as evidence for the Eastern belief that cheirotonia within the sanctuary was reserved for those orders that were of divine institution, with the setting apart of those orders that were of human institution taking place outside of the sanctuary. Vagaggini cites other elements in the ordination of deaconesses that indicate that their order was understood to be more like that of deacons and less like that of subdeacons and lectors, but the heart of his argument rests on the place where the rite takes place.
  • Vagaggini’s argument might seem at first glance to be pretty shaky in some ways, particularly in how it tries to use evidence from the past to answer a question that was not asked at that time (was the ordination of deaconesses sacramental in the same sense that the ordination of male deacons was?), and might not have even made sense at the time. On the other hand, all inquiry into the past is somewhat like this. Historians of philosophy sometimes distinguish between “historical reconstruction” of a philosopher’s views (i.e. determining the actual views held by a philosopher of the past) and “rational reconstruction” of those views (i.e. what would a past philosopher have thought, had he or she known what we now know or been posed a question that we now pose). So, we can ask if Aristotle’s philosophy might be able to accommodate or be adapted to the evolution of species or a heliocentric planetary system. So, mutatis mutandis, we might say that it is not illegitimate to seek to determine, if early Byzantine theologians has been using the developed scholastic notion of sacrament (which is what we today more or less use), whether they would have considered it a sacrament. Vagaggini’s argument, while not a knock-down-argument, does give some basis for answering this question with a “yes,” at least for the Byzantine tradition.
  • Even if one agrees that Vagaggini’s case allows for a “yes,” the historical precedent does not give us all that we may want or need. So, for example, even if the Byzantine tradition treats deaconesses as being within the ambit of Holy Orders, it also pretty clearly treats deaconesses as belonging to a distinct order from deacons, an order that is far more restricted in its powers and duties (e.g. lacking any liturgical role apart from assisting at the baptism of women). If we let ourselves be ruled by the Byzantine historical precedent, would this mean establishing the deaconess as a fourth “grade” of Holy Orders, beneath the deacon? Would it call for a distinct ordination rite? Would it mean giving them a similarly restricted liturgical role? Would such a separate-but-equal solution not be worse than our current situation?
  • Of course, one might also argue that the Byzantine precedent is sufficient simply to establish the possibility of women receiving Holy Orders in some (non-priestly) capacity, and need not be followed in any of its particulars. It would therefore allow for women to enter the diaconate as full and equal members along with men, unrestricted in their fulfillment of any diaconal roles. However, this would have to be done with the frank acknowledgement that something quite new is being done, something that is without past precedent, even if it is a development that might be seen as related in some way to past precedent. Such a threading of the historical needle would call for remarkably steady hands—as well as trust in the Spirit’s guidance of the Church in this historical moment.


  1. Fritz, as always with your contributions here, I marvel at your ability to think through the issues and to respect diverse arguments. As you hint at in your closing comments, there might not be historical precedent for the sacramental ordination of women as deacons and certainly not for an ordination that would enable them to do what male deacons currently are able to do (and what they might be able to do in the future, e.g. anointing of the sick). But of course what historical precedents were there for a multitude of developments that have been enshrined as of “divine origin,” for example, the very existence of “priests” and “bishops” and “deacons” as different classes of the sacrament of orders (which itself had no precedent until it actually happened), universal primacy attached to the bishop of Rome, infallibility attached to the bishop of Rome, the right of the bishop of Rome to appoint bishops throughout the world, and on and on. For the most part these and many more innovations where given historical precedent by a blatant invention of a past that did not exist and/or a re-interpretation of past events and decisions. Finally, the very expectation that there should be an historical precedent is itself an invention. This whole discussion reveals less of the Holy Spirit and more of the insidious desire for human power over others. Some have power and others don’t. And that’s the way those who have power want it and will find whatever justification they need to maintain it. May the Holy Spirit move our hearts to overcome our clinging to power!

  2. This is all fine and dandy for the Eastern Churches, but what happened in the Western Church? That’s clearly what matters here since what is decided is not binding in the Eastern Churches since they are not in communion with Rome. Using an Eastern phronema would be an “Eastnernization” (and clearly discouraged since “Latinization” of the Eastern Churches has been condemned) if used as a basis to make this decision for the Latin Church.

    1. @John Kohanski:
      Your point is an important one, and I tried to hint at it. But I suppose one might argue that, if you think precedent matters, an Eastern precedent is better than no precedent at all.

      On Ronald’s question of whether precedent matters at all, or is not simply a mask for the exercise of power, I guess I think that it is a constitutive feature (though not the constitutive feature) of Catholic Christianity to care about precedent. This obviously doesn’t mean that there never is any innovation. It also doesn’t mean that appeals to precedent are not sometimes merely a means of keeping one’s foot firmly on someone else’s neck. And it doesn’t mean that “precedent” is always a matter of exactly the same thing having been done before. But even in what is arguably the greatest innovation in the history of the Church—the inclusion of Gentiles in God’s covenant through faith in Christ, apart from observance of the Law—Paul felt obliged to point to Abraham, whose faith was counted as righteousness even prior to his circumcision, as a precedent.

  3. Yes, I know that quite well–and uniate is a perjorative term. Let’s not dissemble here, the issue of establishing some type of female diaconate spoken of by the Pope is for the Western Church and not for any of the Eastern Churches, whether in communion with Rome, or not. And BTW, those Eastern Churches in communion with Rome have their own particular law code and would have to change that law code on their own, just as the Latin Church would have to do.

  4. I do agree with Ronald’s assessment. As to John’s question: I think that in the present age we should be growing in awareness of the traditions of both East and West (and the charisms found in Christian communities descended from the Reformation in the West as well), treating them not as hermetically sealed compartments but as the rich patrimony of Christianity as ONE religion. Why can’t we borrow from them, or they from us, should the results be good and desirable for the building up of the Body of Christ?

    1. @Rita Ferrone:

      I agree Rita that the eastern and western Christian traditions should not be sealed off from a discursive standpoint. Maybe it’s better to consider east and west as a liturgical and theological spectrum. Certainly, modern day discussion about women deacons should not be precluded simply because the office or order faded away relatively early in the west.

      Perhaps this is left-field, but I wonder about the role of heterodoxy and “heresy” on the disappearance of women deacons in the west. This is a strange valence to consider perhaps, but necessary since so many liturgical practices in the west and east arose to combat heterodoxy. Consider the prolific use of the trinitarian formula in Byzantine liturgy, or adoration and benediction in the west. Did the practice of women deacons decline (or was ordered to end by some hierarchs) in response to perceived heterodox practices or teachings?

      1. @Jordan Zarembo:
        Jordan, I don’t think your question about heresies is from out in left field at all. Some women did hold leadership positions in heretical sects and movements in the early centuries of the Christian era, and of course the pagan cults included questionable practices involving women. This evangelical publication offers some information alongside other data concerning women in the early church.


        Included in the same issue is a long listing (longer than I expected) of instances where women are active leaders, ordained, and affirmed by their male co-workers in the early Church–Phoebe and Junia, of course, but many more. The church has been selective in memory.

  5. Rita–while we should be growing in awareness of each other’s traditions, these grew up completely independently, under different cultures and circumstances. When as recently as 50 years ago, the Greek Catholic Churches borrowed or were coerced to accept or supplant their legitimate patrimony and traditions with those of the Latin Church, the popes and even Vatican II called on them to reclaim their legitimate traditions. I would assume that the popes would do the same if the Latin Church, for instance, tried to do the same by discarding their traditions for something from an Eastern Church. We have one faith, but that doesn’t mean we are one religion. And we should not be forced to be.

    Is there as much documentation about a post-apostolic female diaconal type office in the West as there seems to be in the East? If not, that should say something too.

    1. @John Kohanski:
      John, don’t you think that the culture of the West today has changed a lot from the days of the early founding of Christian communities? The observation that West and East grew up in different cultural milieux is a fair one, but if you agree that culture shapes church traditions, then it seems to me that you can’t argue for a fixed and “supra-cultural” Western tradition.

      Perhaps we should follow St Augustine of Canterbury who advised that we bind together all the most praiseworthy elements we find, wherever they come from, because “we love good things not because of places, but places because of good things.” The issue of imposing Western customs on Eastern churches was that it was an imposition. If they truly wanted them and freely desired them, I don’t think the problem would have arisen.

  6. Jesus clearly entrusted to his chosen disciples the authority to proclaim the gospel, to forgive sins, to bind and to loose, and to teach, sanctify, and shepherd his flock as servant leaders. This enabled the apostles to provide overseers, elders, and deacons. It made it possible for them to deal with and approve the totally innovative inclusion of gentiles as subjects for salvation. Later the emerging “bishops” thought of themselves as successors of the apostles and when the need arose they appointed elders to share in their ministry as “priests”. I find it incredulous that the Church of Jesus Christ believes it is unable to undertake initiatives that will further the spread of the kingdom of God. Whether this be extending the authority of anointing the sick to deacons, or to empowering Christians–irrespective of gender–to minister to others in the name of Jesus Christ. Am I the only one who suspects that the reluctance to exercise the authority of Christ more fully may have something to do with the fear of affirming initiatives exercised by Christians in those parts of the body that are not in full communion with the Roman Catholic Church? Our claim is that they are not full members of the Church because they don’t have leaders in apostolic succession, no priests, and therefore almost no sacraments. Isn’t one of the reasons that Vatican II has riled so many traditionalists because its teachings threaten to downplay the differences between the Orthodox, the Protestants, and ourselves. We used to say they were hell bound because of heterodoxy and heteropraxy. We used to say that unbaptized babies are going to a place called limbo. I maintain the church has all the authority it needs to welcome women to the diaconate. If the males stop being clericalists, we won’t have to worry about clericalizing women who serve as deacons.

    1. @Fr. Jack Feehily:
      Though this thread is about Deacons, this Presbyter from the Lutheran side of the house thanks you for the reminder of the paradox of the recognition that “something happens” at the Eucharist I celebrate with my people with the official “no priest, no Eucharist”. Perhaps Pope Francis will be the one who will resolve this one, as he has come close to doing in recent conversation in the Lutheran community in Rome…hey, a guy can hope…. While not essential to my ministry in community, having the mutual recognition of ministries would be really nice. The ball, as it were, is in your court now on that one.

  7. I think unprecedented things can be done if they square theologically with the tradition handed to us and are of *genuine* benefit to the faithful (many – perhaps most- innovations fail these tests). If it is found that women can validly be deacons and that their service would build up the body of Christ, then they should be allowed to be deacons.

    The only drawback I see is that it’ll probably become an emotionally charged issue that divides us, since a lot of people will likely see it as a stepping stone towards women being priests or bishops (another question entirely). People will either reject it offhand for that reason, or quickly become disappointed that things don’t progress to where they want them to. I can also see why some would think clericalism will become an issue since it is a hallmark of the post Vatican II Church.

  8. Pope Francis seems to be involved in a new conversation about love in the Amoris Laetitia. Centuries of church development are being critiqued in the light of the mercy of Jesus in the gospel. We have to evaluate the historical layers of church development in the light of the scriptures. So yes you can dismiss Phoebe as coming before the discussed historical development of sacraments etc but what was Phoebe’s role in the Christian Community she was a leader of. Are we saying that because the term sacrament was coined by Peter Lombard in 1100s, what went before was something else? What does leadership of a Christian community mean? Then and now? Surely, a deaconate for women would acknowledge the leadership women such as Phoebe and our modern day leading Catholic women. Let’s recall the words of Sister Irene McCormack rsj martyred by the Shining Path fighters in Peru 20.5.91: ‘ . . . As we in our little communities, high up in the Andes, gather in memory of Jesus, there is no power or authority on earth that can convince me that Jesus is not personally present. I feel grateful that these months on end, without the ‘official mass’, and in a culture where I’m experiencing new symbols, has gifted me with a new appreciation of the Eucharist”.
    I’m sorry but we don’t have time to live in the past for the people of our world now. Church history is an incalculable burden in responding to the needs of the present. Yes doctrine is important but discipline and organisation and roles within the church matter far less than those, who will use any arguments to avoid change, realise.

  9. If I may chime in from the perspective of a millennial, white male.

    First off, thank you all for keeping this conversation/debate civil and charitable; this is the mark of fruitful and Christian scholarship.

    Second, while I agree that the west should look to the east and vice versa, we should be careful about juxtaposing one tradition on another without understanding the historical and cultural contexts. From the Office of Readings last week, Saint Augustine said: “You may think past ages were good, but it is only because you are not living in them.” Slipping into this false idea that the past was better because it was somehow more “equal” is a ‘sin’ against the study of history; history should not be used to justify past practices blindly. [This is my opinion as a professional historian, mind you.]

    Third, to “breath with both lungs,” as St. John Paul II asked us to do, we must also keep in mind the admonition from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians: “Now the body is not a single part, but many (1 Cor. 12:14). Our eastern sisters and brothers have their own role(s) within the Mystical Body, just like we in the west. We have the same Lord, the same baptism, and we all belong to this one Body of Christ. However, we cannot solely look to the east in matters liturgical… per se. At heart, the issue of “ordaining” women to the diaconate is not a liturgical question, but a sacramental question.

    By way of conclusion, I cannot make a definitive decision on the issue of women deacons because I am not qualified (I’m a Virgil Michel/Dorothy Day buff, myself). If, however, Holy Mother Church decides that there is enough evidence and precedent to ordain/bless women as deacons, I don’t see myself objecting. In the mean time, let us keep asking questions and discussing, always being mindful of a false understanding of historical events.

    P.S. This is my first time posting to PrayTell and I thank you again for the fruitful discussion. God bless!

  10. Deacons can preach a homily, which, notably, has never been permitted to women in any of the particular Churches which have deaconesses.

    Orders as the Western Church has understood them and enshrined them in law are that by which the Church exercises governance and the properly clerical roles involved in the three munera. Hence, the teaching office of the Church is always described as reaching its liturgical height in the homily during Mass, and for this reason, it is limited to “the ordained.” This is in the GIRM, but it is also a lively subject in canon law.

    As such, you will find in current Eastern praxis that the East, where it has deaconesses, does not consider their “ordination” to be an act of apostolic succession. They cannot be admitted, for example, to either the sacerdotal or episcopal orders. As such, when the East has deaconesses, their application is not analogous to that of a deacon; they cannot preach a homily.

    Rather, in the West, it would be closer to an abbess, who, on some occasions arising from her office, is even made ordinarily capable of reciting the Gospel to the nuns under her charge – but not at Mass, and they were not to give a homily.

    Additionally, the functional purpose of a non-ordained deaconess does not actually extend beyond that of a lay person. The irony of this situation is that by promoting an office to do what a lay person can already do:

    a) it amounts to tokenism, as it’s just giving someone a ritual office for a job they do not need the office for;

    b) where it does involve vows, it already overlaps with consecrated virgins, who are ignored;

    c) it purchases this at the cost of the laity, because where the laity can already do the job, insisting that it belongs to deacons and deaconesses reinforces clericalism and takes away yet another realm where the laity can assert purpose;

    and d) it seems it will only result in such a “separate-and-unequal” complaint that it will not answer the problems raised by advocates of woman’s ordination.

    1. @Thomas Sundaram:
      But note that in 1973 experimental permission was given to the US for lay preaching at Mass in particular circumstances, with similar permission given to Switzerland, Austria, and East Germany. The 1973 Directory for Masses with Children also allows lay preaching at Mass, eg when the priest is unable to preach well to children.

      The history of lay preaching varies much from era to era and place to place, but does include preaching at Mass by women and by laymen (more of the latter than the former) in some times and places in the Middle Ages. See Lay Preaching: State of the Question, pp. 18-19.


  11. @Chris Welch:
    So yes you can dismiss Phoebe as coming before the discussed historical development of sacraments etc but what was Phoebe’s role in the Christian Community she was a leader of. Are we saying that because the term sacrament was coined by Peter Lombard in 1100s, what went before was something else?

    I can speak only for myself, but I don’t think I was dismissing Pheobe, and I would answer your last question with “not necessarily.” My point was simply that we cannot look to historical sources to answer questions that they were not asking, which makes the issue of taking precedent into account a delicate one.

  12. As a former diocesan director of the diaconate and someone who did doctoral research in the theology of orders, I think we need to remember that the diaconate is the one “order” whose primary ministry is not centered on liturgy or catechesis. (That does not mean they have no liturgical or catechetical ministries, just that those ministries are not primary.) The diaconate is focused primarily on the care of the sick and the poor; think here of St. Lawrence. That presents a real change from how we have traditionally(pre-Vatican II) understood orders — priests say Mass, preach, administer sacraments; bishops are “superpriests, priests with jurisdictional authority added” Vatican II changed our perceptions. The ordination to care of the poor, the sick, the marginalized, etc. adds a whole new dimension to understanding what one can be ordained to do. What I see taking place 20 years after working full-time with diaconal ministry is that deacons are now trained to be “mini-priests,” and that liturgical functions are now taking precedent. At least that is why I see in my own diocese, I hope it is not true everywhere. But reading the latest formation documents tells me I am not. What this may mean for ordaining women as deacons I am not sure, but we need to once again ask, “What is the ministry of deacons?”

    1. @Lee Bacchi:
      Lee, you don’t think much of John Collins’s research then? Not that I want the mini-priest model, but there seems to be more to diaconate than care of the sick and the poor.

      I think you are right about the confusion, however. What I see happening is grasping a straws with the priest shortage — whether admitted or not, a “mini-priest deacon” is seen as another pragmatic stopgap measure.

      On the other hand, I think the whole Christian community ought to be taking care of the sick and the poor, so I’m not sure why we should ordain to this ministry rather than baptizing to it. I’m interested in your thoughts on this.

  13. I was a deacon for nearly three years prior to my ordination to priestly ministry (43 years ago this week) so I have always identified with diaconal ministry. Bishops and priests are also deacons and called to roles of service in the faith community. Seldom do people say that bishops and priests overdo their liturgical roles, but that is often said of deacons BY PRIESTS. Deacons historically have important roles to play in the sacred liturgy as well as to be about the works of “waiting on table” and the distribution of assistance to widows and orphans. I continue to believe that preaching should be reserved to those discerned as having the gift of preaching. I have served alongside deacons with that gift and have always been edified by their homilies. The clerical church’s position on restricting preaching leaves much to be desired and does not meet the needs of the church today. Perhaps it’s time for a new order of preachers open to all who may be discerned as possessing the knowledge, gifts, and skills for this vital ministry…..open of course to all men and women.

  14. “I think we need to remember that the diaconate is the one “order” whose primary ministry is not centered on liturgy or catechesis. (That does not mean they have no liturgical or catechetical ministries, just that those ministries are not primary.) The diaconate is focused primarily on the care of the sick and the poor; think here of St. Lawrence.

    If we were to take a poll of deacons, I believe most deacons would agree with Lee Bacchi on this point: Christian service is primary.

    An alternative view is that it is a three-fold ministry of service, to altar, Word and charity, with no single one being primary over the others. This view of a three-fold ministry provides freedom for deacons, over the course of their lifetime of ministry, to emphasize one or another of these ministries at various times, depending on the deacon’s particular gifts, the particular needs of the people they are serving, and the amount of time the deacon has available to devote to the ministry.

    And I don’t find it far-fetched – in fact, I find it entirely understandable – that more than a few deacons do appear to the community as “mini-priests”. Inasmuch as there are no longer enough priests to do baptisms, weddings, wake services and so on, it’s not surprising that deacons, who are ordinary ministers of these liturgies, would be drafted to step in. The same is true with visiting the sick in hospitals, nursing homes and rehab facilities. If deacons could anoint the sick, they would certainly be thrust into that ministry, too.

    Personally, I think it’s best for deacons to strive to be active in all three ministries, even if one or another is being emphasized at any given time. It would be a shame indeed if the need for a “mini-priest” crowded out the deacon’s availability to help those who are poor or ill, or if a deacon felt he didn’t have the time to proclaim the Good News because he’s too busy running the soup kitchen.

    1. @Jim Pauwels:
      Jim — Maybe running the soup kitchen is HOW that deacon proclaims the Word. Let’s not limit proclaiming the Word to verbal or spoken ministry. Why did St. Francis say — “Preach always, and sometimes use words.” Jesus Christ is the “speech of God,” (logos) but he proclaimed in both word (spoken) and deed.

      1. @Lee Bacchi:
        It seems St Francis didn’t say that (nor did he say the Prayer of St Francis attributed in the 20th century to him). Chapter XII of the Franciscan rule does provide in relevant part: “All the Friars, however, should preach by their deeds.”

        Recall that St Francis was ordained a deacon so that (i) he was a cleric and under the thumb of rules (and privileges) governing clerics, and (ii) his preaching was less anomalous.

  15. The threefold ministry of charity, of the word and at the altar is one that is often not sufficiently visible. Many deacons are nothing more than glorified altar servers. Many are not endowed with the gifts of preaching and breaking open the word. It has been said, frequently, that the primary ministry of the diaconate is the ministry of charity. Rita says she thinks the whole Christian community should be taking care of the sick and the poor, and she is right. But that does not mean that deacons should not be doing it. The role of the deacon, in fact, is to sensitize the faithful to their duty towards the sick and the poor. In this respect, deacons are supposed to act like cattle prods, reminding the faithful that this primary diaconal ministry is also a primary ministry of all the faithful.

  16. Rita — Very quickly — If I remember correctly, JN Collins says that the deacon is not primarily a minister of charity and justice. He uses a word study, but I cannot remember his specific conclusion and I do not have the book any more. I think one of the important things about ordaining is that you have a publicly acknowledged and appointed minister to represent the whole community’s ministry to the poor and sick. The ordained deacon is obviously not the only one to care for the sick and poor and such others, but he is the officially acknowledged and upheld minister whose ministry embodies in an official way what the entire church does. The return to the emphasis on deacons as ministers of charity and justice would be a way to state very plainly that service to the poor, needy, etc., is warp and woof of the Gospel and the whole Church’s ministry.

  17. Collins chief conclusion, based on his word study, is that the essence of diakonia is not humble service but acting at the behest of another (presbyters, by contrast, share in the bishops ministry is a more “collegial” way). In some ways, as Collins understands it, “deacon” simply means “minister.” So while some deacons have, historically speaking, engaged in service to the poor, this is not the only way to minister.

    I would also contest Paul’s statement that “Many deacons are nothing more than glorified altar servers.” Perhaps things are different in other places, but here in Baltimore most deacons are engaged in catechetical ministry, hospital ministry, prison ministry, etc.

    1. @Fritz Bauerschmidt:
      So the deacon as emissary or representative, is Christ and the Church’s ordained emissary to the poor, the sick, etc. Isn’t humble service required of all the Church’s ministers, ordained, religious and lay?

  18. “I would also contest Paul’s statement that “Many deacons are nothing more than glorified altar servers.” ”

    I have to say, my reaction was similar to Fritz’s. As Fritz notes, the situation may vary from one diocese to another, but in our case (Chicago), it’s more as Fritz described. And to his point about hospital ministry, prison ministry and so on: deacons may be doing work that it not nearly as visible to the community at large as the service at the altar.

  19. I should have noted above that priests and Europeans are wont to mis-state the liturgical role of deacons. It’s Sunday and the community of believers is gathered for worship each member participating appropriately. Where should the deacons be? Getting coffee and donuts read for after Mass? Making a run to a hospital or nursing home? No, one or more is vested and ministers near the presiding priest. He leads the penitential act, processes with the book of the gospels and proclaims from the Ambo. He preaches if so assigned. Leads the prayers of intercession. Receives the gifts of the people and prepares the altar. He distributes communion. These duties do not make him a glorified altar server but a deacon of the Holy Church! The assumption that deacons are only ministering at the altar is not warranted in my parish or my diocese.

  20. Paul said:
    “The role of the deacon, in fact, is to sensitize the faithful to their duty towards the sick and the poor. In this respect, deacons are supposed to act like cattle prods, reminding the faithful that this primary diaconal ministry is also a primary ministry of all the faithful.”

    I’m afraid I don’t see any evidence of this whatsoever (sensitizing the laity, prodding whole communities to greater acts of charity and service). Plus, it seems more than passing strange that deacons might be thought needed to inspire service, when it’s the laity — and especially the women, and especially the women religious — who have done all these things in exemplary fashion through the centuries: founding hospitals, caring for the poor, taking care of orphans and widows, performing the works of mercy, etc.

    There is still a lot of talk about “powers” given in Holy Orders, but if orders imparts a spiritual power for service, it certainly isn’t evident. I don’t see even an iota more “power” for service among deacons than among lay people. I see commitment to service, and the desire to serve, but I also find that commitment and desire in spades in the active religious orders, in St Vincent de Paul societies, in Catholic Worker hospitality houses, etc.

    1. @Rita Ferrone:
      Rita– agreed, women in relgious orders should have been ordained deacons centuries ago!

      I think another consideration that makes it difficult for us to understand diaconate properly is that for many recent centuries, diaconate was simply a stepping stone to priesthood ordination; so most of the deacon’s ministry was liturgical and catechetical. It was the “mini-priest” model alluded to earlier. My own diaconate year was basically that, although I tried to incorporate other elements into it.

      I do not think that the “powers” approach is a fruitful one. We have to find a new focus for our theology of orders — episcopal, presbyteral, and diaconal.

    2. @Rita Ferrone:

      “Plus, it seems more than passing strange that deacons might be thought needed to inspire service, when it’s the laity — and especially the women, and especially the women religious — who have done all these things in exemplary fashion through the centuries: founding hospitals, caring for the poor, taking care of orphans and widows, performing the works of mercy, etc.”

      This news story, of two religious sisters recently murdered in rural Mississippi, is a national news story in the US. This Washington Post story of a person being charged with the murders also recounts some of the ways the sisters served the community. Surely their lives were diaconal.


  21. Thank you all. It has been good to read the comments here! I am late to respond to some parts of this discussion, but I hope my comments will help clarify some thing.

    The argument against ordaining women has usually come down to “it has never been done.” A precedent is not simply a precedent, but an affirmation that people believed that women could be ordained, whatever they meant by that. After discovering that wherever, we can move to the question of whether it is appropriate in the Latin Rite. The superior generals recognized the need for women as deacons in the Latin Rite, so they asked that question leading to the current study.

    In Acts 6, a story that has shaped the diaconate and our understanding of it, the rationale is “it is not right for us to neglect the word of God to wait on table.” After the Seven are chosen Stephen is shown preaching and then Philip baptizing. Serving the poor is not very visible even in this early story, maybe it is proper that it is not visible in the lives of deacons.

    It’s worth noting that the rationale in Acts 6 echoes the story of Mary and Martha in Luke.

    1. @Jim McKay:
      Re: Stephen and Philip. They are only 2 out of the 7. What about the other 5?

      I am not sure understand the linking of Acts 6 with the Martha and Mary story.

      1. Lee Bacchi :

        Yes, what of the other 5? I am sure all Seven served the poor, perhaps that was the purpose for which they are chosen. But we don’t see any doing that, we only see 2 of them as they preach and baptize. What we see, what is described, is only a fraction of what deacons do all the way back to Steven Philip and the other 5. We shouldn’t limit there witness to only the obvious public things that we do.

        Chrysostom somewhere draws a connection between Martha waiting on table and Mary hearing the Word and Peters declaration “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God to wait on table” That could as easily been used as “she has chosen the better part.” It is not right that Mary should leave “hearing the word” to help her sister “wait on table.” I’ll see if I can find the quote.

  22. “There is still a lot of talk about “powers” given in Holy Orders, but if orders imparts a spiritual power for service, it certainly isn’t evident. I don’t see even an iota more “power” for service among deacons than among lay people. I see commitment to service, and the desire to serve, but I also find that commitment and desire in spades in the active religious orders, in St Vincent de Paul societies, in Catholic Worker hospitality houses, etc.”

    Hi Rita,

    I have no idea whether I’m inspiring anyone – and cattle-prodding is not really my style – but I can say with certainty that the parishioners I collaborate with in ministries of service inspire me, virtually every day.

    I also think there is something about the sacramental sign of a deacon who is serving that seems to resonate with people. Let me hasten to add that there is also something to the sign-value of religious sisters or brothers serving others, and the same can be said about lay parishioners. They’re all sort of different signs, but I don’t know of a reason there can’t be more than one. I don’t think sacramental sign is the same as power. It’s not what a deacon is able to do, so much as what the deacon represents or makes manifest. Not sure if that makes any sense.

  23. Just a few thoughts… as a member of the Dominican family, i am called to live the charism, i.e. preach. Having been taught well how to do so by a nationally renowned homiletics professor during my M.Div. program, why deny me a pulpit to serve God’s people with my gift?

    As a NACC Board Certified Chaplain, once again, why deny me the office i perform for God’s people? And since some Catholic hospitals from main systems tell patients they have no priest available for AOS, why not permiss the BCC bedside to offer AOS; I am already there?

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