The role of women deacons in the early church is certainly worth examining and Pope Francis has accepted the invitation to the audience with the 900 representatives of the International Union of Superiors General on May 12. We ought to say that that it is priesthood, which is reserved to men by divine disposition. John Paul II has spoken ex cathedra with irreversible dogmatic definition in the letter “Ordinatio Sacerdotalis” (May 22, 1994) in the specific context of the presbyterate and episcopate (cf CCC 1554). Although the diaconate is the first instance of the apostolic ministry (deaconate, presbyterate, deaconate) – note the broader language than that of the priestly ministry – (CCC 1536) does not belong to the priestly ministry and is it intended as aid and
The problem picked up by Pope Francis consists in finding out whether the deaconesses of the early Church were ordered (in a sacramental or only ecclesiastic way). This clarification would be good for the Church, for a proper revival of women’s role in its bosom. Pope Francis poses the hypothetical condition that the women deacons shall not be “assimilated to clergy”, that they shall live their secular life marked by Christianity; they can be married and free to carry out civilian activities, as well as some ecclesiastical activities in some offices of the Curia (also the Vatican one), with responsibility and appropriate decision-making spaces.
As you can see, the Pope does not have a possible opinion and entrusts the question to a commission. He says that his intention is not promoting feminism, but accepting more in the feminine sensitivity in the Church and you might obtain in it with the institution of deaconesses (leaving aside whether with sacramental or ecclesiastical ordination).
It seems that Pope Francis puts into question what the then prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, posed in a letter (together with the prefects for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments, Medina Estevez, and the Clergy, Castrillon Hoyos) in 2001. The latter stated that “it is not licit to implement actions that aim in any way at preparing women candidates for the diaconal order.” Obviously Card. Ratzinger thought of the diaconal order as a sacrament, not as a mere ecclesial investiture.
Studies have been already conducted on that problem and there is enough data to carry them on.
The first data we have is that Paul’s Epistle to the Romans mentions Phoebe, a deaconess of the church of Cenchreae (Rm 16,1) who “offered help.” Pliny the Younger, in a letter to Trajan says he tortured two deaconesses whom he defines ministrae.
At the present state of research, it results that deaconesses helped women in baptism, during which they had to undress because it took place by immersion. Immersed in water, the priest put his hand on their head and immersed them in water three times without looking at them. Deaconesses presided works of charity for sick and needy women. They went to support women in prison when it was not possible to send a deacon there. They helped priests in their needs and partook in grassroots actions of evangelization.
Some people claim they were ordered to ecclesial service by laying on of hands, whereas other authors disagree. It was not a sacramental ordination, but an ecclesial one. This ordination reached a less solemn level in blessing (Council of Laodicea and the Council of Orange). In Eastern churches there was a service recruitment liturgy for deaconesses that had similarities with the ordination of deacons.
Women had to be of a certain age, if widows they should not remarry and if virgins they should not marry. We look forward to the research results which have been summarily, and certainly incompletely, configured so far.
Father Paolo Berti, Gris member