The openness of Pope Francis to create a committee on deaconesses has been met with another uproar from traditionalists in the Church, many with the eye-rolling Reagan-esque response: “There he goes again.” Meanwhile the theological dissidents in the Church see the commission as another opportunity for women’s ordination. Both the traditionalists and the dissidents seem to agree on one point: Pope Francis is open to women’s ordination.
But is this really the case? Pope Francis continually reminds his questioners when these issues come up that the Marian church precedes the Apostolic (or as Fulton Sheen said, “Our Blessed Lord Himself gave ten times as much of His life to [Mary] as He gave to His Apostles”). Francis knows a commission on deaconesses will not reveal a plot to suppress female leadership, for there was no such plot. On the contrary, a study of the deaconess tradition would reveal the important role that the deaconess played in the development of all-female institutions of women in service as women to the Church. The story of the deaconess explains how she—along with widows and virgins—became a living embodiment of the feminine genius in the Church precisely by maintaining gender distinctions rather than eliminating them.
The story of the deaconess begins with the enigmatic and solitary reference to a “deaconess” in St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. In it he mentions the “deaconess” Phoebe, yet there is nothing conclusive from the text to indicate this is an example of a woman ordained to the diaconate. In other passages, such as 1 Timothy 3:12, St. Paul indicates a masculine character of the diaconate. Rather than attesting to an order of deaconesses, St. Paul speaks of an “enrolled” order of widows (see 1 Timothy 5). These women would be at least sixty years old and married only once. St. Paul recommends that widows under the age of sixty remarry and raise a family. Remember as well that St. Paul is the author of 1 Corinthians 14:34 which states that “women should keep silence in the churches…” It would seem that these and other Pauline statements do not make him the best witness for women’s ordination.
While documents from the first centuries of the Church include countless mentions of deacons, priests, and bishops, references to “deaconesses” do not appear again until the third century. A mid-third century text called the Didascalia speaks of deaconesses but clearly contrasts the deacon and the deaconess. The deaconess was not a “female deacon.” Where the deacons could be found at church entrances and in the sanctuary, the role of the deaconess was “for the service of women.”
We must remember that the early Church was much more attuned to sexual differences than we are today. Although we are used to seeing female readers, altar girls, and women distributing Communion, this simply would not have been the case in the early Church. Like the Temple in Jerusalem, clerical and gender distinctions shaped the spatial organization of those gathered for Mass. Men of all races and classes generally prayed together closest to the sanctuary in an eastward facing where they would see the bishop at the altar surrounded by his priests and deacons. Also present in and around the church would have been lectors, acolytes, porters, and exorcists—all lay males. The women, however, prayed separately and may have had their own entrance to the church. Orders of widows and virgins, under the authority of the deaconess, were entrusted with the mission of prayer.
Deaconesses arose out of this heightened awareness of gender distinction. The role of the deaconess was not to administer sacraments, but to exercise authority over the women gathered together at Mass, helping them to maintain liturgical decorum by redirecting their hearts and tongues towards the worship of God and prayer for the Church. Deaconesses tended to the instruction of females and cared for the sick. Deaconesses also played an important role in women’s baptism. Although they did not baptize—as this was reserved for ordained males—they performed the bodily anointing of the female catechumen’s body in order to protect, in the words of St. Epiphanius of Salamis, “the decency of the feminine sex at the time of baptism.” Anointing the body, like teaching, healing, and praying, was not seen as a liturgical function but rather as an act of service to other women and with other women.
The ministry of the deaconess was not universally practiced throughout the ancient Church. It began in the far reaches of the Christian east and only gradually spread westward in the fourth and fifth centuries. There is certainly no tradition of deaconesses in the Roman church or in any western part of the Church. In 325, the First Council of Nicaea spoke on deaconesses in its nineteenth canon. Nicaea was located in what is today Turkey—in the old Christian east where deaconesses had just started to develop in the decades preceding the council. The Council of Nicaea clearly teaches that deaconesses are not ordained and “are to be numbered only among the laity.”
What happened to the deaconess? Was she suppressed by the Church? No. As adult conversions waned and infant baptisms rose, the need for deaconesses in the baptistery declined. The ministry of the deaconess to women and the need to educate and heal, however, remained. The female orders of deaconess, widows, and virgins gradually developed into a myriad of other forms of women in service as women to the Church. In fact, the tradition of the deaconess survives to the modern day. Do we still see a deaconess with authority over women in prayer, education, and healthcare? We certainly do. We see her in the mother superior of the women’s religious orders. We see her in the consecrated religious sisters at work as women performing the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. We see her in the postulant who is discerning entry into the religious life and its deep roots in the ancient tradition of the deaconess and enrolled orders of widows and virgins.
This fruitful tradition of women in authority over consecrated widows and virgins produced the multifaceted gem that is the consecrated life of women religious. Those concerned with restoring the deaconess of the early Church overlook this organic and fruitful development. In their quest to eliminate gender distinctions within the hierarchy, they fail to take seriously the ancient Church’s deep gender distinctions that brought about the deaconess in the first place. Attuned to Marian femininity and the genius of woman, what would better comply with Pope Francis’ call to “go to the periphery” than the rededication of religious women to caring for the sick, instructing the ignorant, and feeding the hungry?
When Pope Francis told the women religious he was open to a commission to “clarify” deaconesses in the Church, perhaps it was so such a commission could affirm these sisters as the living embodiment of the deaconess tradition. We should all remember and celebrate the tradition of tremendous female service in the Church. In the United States alone, 770 hospitals were run by religious CEO’s in 1968. As of 2013, however, that number stood at four. Rather than campaigning for a liturgical-clerical role women never held, perhaps it’s time for all of us to honor the deaconess tradition by getting off the protest bus, helping our sisters win back their grade schools, hospitals, and all-female universities, and continuing the great tradition of women as women serving the Church through the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. If it takes a commission on deaconesses to accomplish this, let’s get behind the pope and our sisters and begin the conversation.