Today there is fervent celebration of the great St. Phoebe, of Romans 16. She was apparently a wealthy woman of Cenchreae (near Corinth), a friend and supporter (prostatis) of Paul (he had several female patronesses), a “servant” (diakonos – note that the word in masculine form can apply to either sex), and probably Paul’s FedEx guy to Rome with his Letter.
The fervent supporters of the ordination of women – and let’s never pretend that they don’t want ordination to the priesthood no matter how they protest that it’s just about diaconate – claim that this wonderful woman was a sacramentally ordained deacon because Paul uses the word diakonos for her. They make the entirely unsubstantiated claim that she didn’t just “serve” the Church around Corinth, but she also “preached”, thus making her the equivalent of a real deacon, such as Stephen or Philip. There isn’t any good reason to connect to Phoebe of Cenchreae to what Paul wrote to Timothy about women (gunaikas) having to be “likewise” worthy as the men should be for diaconal ministry. All that means is that they shouldn’t be intemperate and or “malicious talkers”, etc. So, too, Paul would say of everyone.
St. Phoebe is one of those shadowy figures in the New Testament about whom we know far too little. She is still properly to be venerated as a saint, according to our Catholic tradition. Our Catholic tradition is to be respected and, we find, our traditions get it right. Concerning Phoebe, there is nothing in our Catholic tradition to give us serious ideas about her being a sacramentally ordained deacon, like Stephen or Philip. For Phoebe, the word diakonos meant that Paul honored her as a true servant of the needs of the Church near Corinth at Cenchreae. An analogy today might be a wealthy woman, very active in the parish, maybe even diocesan committees and projects, whom Father trusts enough even to be an emissary in important matters.
The idea that Paul would get confused about his own teaching that women shouldn’t speak in the assembly and imagine that Phoebe was that sort of deacon is plainly absurd.
Back in 2009 the annual international meeting of scholars of the Early Church and Late Antiquity met, as always, at my school, the Augustinianum in Rome. The topic that year was “Diakonia, Diaconiae, Diaconato. Semantica e storia nei Padri della Chiesa.”
One of the most important offerings at the conference – I was there – was a paper by a left-leaning Jesuit prof at the Biblicum, Corrado Marucci, “Il ‘diaconato’ di Febe (Rom. 16, 1-2) secondo l’esegsi moderna” in the Acts of that conference published by the Augustinianum in Studia Ephemeridis Augustinianum 117 of 2010, pp. 685-695.
If you look around at Marucci’s previous writings about female diaconate, you might find him supporting a notion that an ordination received by women, called deacons, was “analogous” to male ordination, perhaps sacramental. That was his position in 1997 in his work “Storia e valore del diaconato femminile nella Chiesa antica” in Rassegna di Teologia 38 (1997), pp. 771-795. However, by 2009, and the conference at the Augustinianum – I was there – he had changed his tune, backed off that claim rather sharply.
In his 2009 paper, Marucci, summing up the evidence from the Fathers and Church writers up to modern times, notes three possible ways that Phoebe might have been considered to be a deacon. First, that she had a significant ministerial role which women, especially, were able to carry out. Second, that there was a more specific ministry for women delineated as deacons. Third, that Rom 16 is, in fact, a testimony that there was a female diaconate like that of men but in a rudimentary form.
That said, Marucci observes that, between these three alternatives, there is no unified position among the exegetes of that passage, about the word diakonos in Rom 16, but he, Marucci, said that the substantive diakonos was a title, for a stable function, a ministry that was not just secular or civic (insofar as she was an important person in the community) but also ecclesial, without being able to be more precise about a stable, sacramental function (p. 694).
Marucci said that no scholar of the question had to that time convincingly demonstrated a growth in an ecclesial structure in the period before Romans, and that the attempt to port over the development of various ministries of a much later date (from Protestant origins) gave proof to the scriptural and historical challenges. He said that there wasn’t a good connection between Phoebe as “deacon” and also the “true widows” of Timothy. Finally, he said that hardly any of the ecclesiastical authors, Greek or Latin, venture into the “ministry” of Phoebe. He brought up late Medieval writers, who thought there might have been ordained deaconesses in the early Church, though rare and then vanished. That’s quickly dismissed. Marucci probably included that for the sake of being thorough.
In short, we should celebrate the Feast of St. Phoebe, whom we might designate as the patron saint of FedEx guys, for probably being the one who carried Paul’s letter to Rome. She wasn’t a deacon in a sacramental sense, but she did carry out diakonia, true and valuable service to the Church at Cenchreae, just as so many faithful women do now, either women religious or involved lay women, who give so much to the Church of their time, treasure and talent.
What would we do without them?
St. Phoebe, pray for us.