St. Phoebe, the deaconess in Romans 16

There is a lot of chatter in the bloggosphere about (sacramentally) ordaining women.  Today in the Roman Martyrology we find an entry for St. Phoebe, spoken of in Romans 16:1.  She is often pointed to by the confused as a precedent for deaconesses.

Here is the entry and translation:

2. Commemoratio sanctae Phoebes, ancillae Domini inter fideles Cenchrenses, quae beato Paulo Apostolo multisque astitit, ipso testante in epistula ad Romanos.

The commemoration of Saint Phoebe, handmaid of the Lord among the faithful of Cenchreae, who assisted the Blessed Apostle Paul and many others, as (Paul) himself testifies in the letter to the Romans.

Let’s look at Romans 16:1-2.

(RSV): 1: I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deaconess of the church at Cen’chre-ae, 2: that you may receive her in the Lord as befits the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a helper of many and of myself as well.

RSV calls her a "deaconess".  So what does that mean?  

In the early Church, even the primitive Church, certain trustworthy women were appointed to care for the poor, especially poor women, and for widows and orphans.  They were especially useful when women were to be instructed in the faith so that scandal could be avoided.  They helped with the mechanics of the annointing at the time of baptism as well.  When Paul speaks about Pheobe as a deaconess he is talking about a still very undefined set of ministries, which would much later take on greater definition.  For example, the Council of Nicea that women who were serving in ministries (deaconesses) did not receive ordination and that they were not clerics. 

When in Romans 16:1 we find the Greek word diakonos for Phoebe, this means merely "in the service of the Church", which is precisely how St. Jerome rendered it in the Vulgate: "quae est ministra Ecclesiae".  

Another problem comes from the fact that the later words diaconissae, presbyterae, presbytides, episcopae and episcopissae, were used as honorary titles for the wives of deacons, priests and bishops.  This is certainly the case with the famous mosaic in Rome in the Basilica of St. Praxides.

For many centuries, some women were entrusted with certain concrete ministries, especially focusing on helping other women, and they were even recognized with a ceremony closely resembling ordination.  However, it is clear that those ceremonies, even the one mentioned in the Apostolic Constitutions, did not confer the sacrament of Holy Orders.

Can anyone doubt the essential and indispensible service women give to the Church?  Of course not.  However, in the all the ages of the Church, from its very beginning, this service, without which the Church would never have grown as it did, does not mean that they shared in Holy Orders.

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About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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