This is the title of a very eye-opening book I finished reading a few weeks ago. It is written by Dr. Phyllis Zagano who is an internationally known Catholic scholar and was appointed by Pope Francis to be on the 2016 Papal Commission for the study of the diaconate of women. She has studied and written about Women in the Diaconate for many years. I read her book Holy Saturday: An Argument for the Restoration of the Female Diaconate in the Catholic Church many years ago, but I found this current book a much better read that pointed out many new things I was not aware of in making an argument for the ordination of women to the Diaconate. For me, reading Pope Francis’s comment that since the Apostles created the diaconate it is then a human-created office that is open to modification and change.
The fact that the diaconate was a creation of the Church cannot be forgotten. When speaking in Philadelphia to bishops on his 2015 trip to the United States, Pope Francis made this very point: In the early days of the Church, the Hellenists complained that their widows and orphans were not being well cared for. The apostles, of course, weren’t able to handle this themselves, so they got together and came up with deacons. The Holy Spirit inspired them to create deacons and when Peter announced the decision, he explained: “We are going to choose seven men to take care of this; for our part, we have two responsibilities: prayer and preaching.”
The apostles essentially “invented” the diaconate. That is, the diaconate is connected to the ministry of the apostles but disconnected from Jesus’s choice of apostles and clearly open to modification and change.
The book has many scriptural and historical references to women as Deacons in the early Church. This is a fact that nobody seems to dispute. She also presents historical writings that show women Deacons performed the same roles as male Deacons. Most of this evidence is from writings that complain and object to women performing these roles.
Archeological evidence from the East and from the West calls them deacons—or deaconesses—or by the abbreviations “diac” or “diak.” The epigraphical evidence, existing tombstone inscriptions, clearly place women deacons in Palestine, in Jerusalem, at the Mount of Olives from the fourth to the seventh centuries.
We know that women served as deacons at the altar in the early Church mainly because there were significant complaints against the practice. As early as the fifth century, Pope Gelasius I railed against women “doing what men do” at the altar, no doubt performing the diaconal tasks of preparing the water and wine at the altar for the sacrifice, distributing the precious blood, and otherwise touching sacred cloths and vessels. While Gelasius’s objections might appear strange to many people in today’s world, they are deadly serious and they perdure.
With the evidence of the fifth-century Council of Chalcedon, Daniélou submits their ordinations are real: “It is not just a question of any sort of laying-on-of-the-hands, or of a blessing.” Chalcedon’s canon 15 states clearly that a woman may not be ordained under forty years of age, and the term used is the technical term for ordination: cheirotonia (χειροτονία),
What I was not aware of is how late in the Church’s history it appears that women were functioning in Deacon like roles.
The 829 Council of Paris shored up restrictions against women; its documents complain that some bishops were allowing women’s participation in the Mass and thereby blaming them for “illegal feminine access” to the altar. … In some provinces, in contradiction to the divine law and to canonical instruction, women betake themselves into the altar area and impudently take hold of the sacred vessels, hold out the priestly garments to the priest, and what is still worse, more indecent and unfitting than all this—they give the people the body and blood of the Lord and do other things which in themselves are indecent.
In the thirteenth century, Innocent IV admonished what appears to be the practice in Greek Churches regarding women, perhaps women deacons. In a letter to his legate, Odo of Tusculum, he said, “Women should not dare to serve at the altar; they should be altogether refused this ministry.”
The evidence provided by Dr. Zagano leads her to a very simple conclusion.
The question of women deacons is a legal, not a doctrinal, issue, and the modification of the appropriate canons will allow the Church to provide for its pastoral needs.
I would highly recommend this book if you are interested in finding out more about the evidence for the ordination of women to the Diaconate. Here is a link to the book on Amazon:
As I said in my homily on September 30, 2018 I do pray that I will live to see a woman dressed as I am on the altar dressing in an alb and Deacon’s stole/dalmatic proclaiming the Gospel of Christ and preaching a homily.
Peace, blessings, and prayers