The media have recently had a feeding frenzy over Pope Francis’ off-the-cuff remarks about a commission to give clarity to the question of the possible ordination of women deacons, supposedly because there were women deacons in the early Church. But before jumping to conclusions about what might happen it is important to know what really went on in the early Church.
Yes, there were women deacons, or – more properly – deaconesses, in the early Church but they were not deacons in the modern sense of having the power of Holy Orders. They remained lay people. We should remember that the Greek word diakonos was a generic term meaning helper or servant, and it did not necessarily imply the reception of Holy Orders.
St Paul mentions a deaconess in his letter to the Romans: “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deaconess of the church at Cenchreae … for she has been a helper of many and of myself as well” (Rom 16:1-2). The word “deaconess” at that time meant simply a woman helper in the broad sense.
From the third century on, in various parts of the East, deaconesses were officially instituted or commissioned to assist in such roles as instructing and baptising women, visiting sick women who needed bathing and taking Holy Communion to them. Thus they came to form a structured group in the Church much like the order of widows. In some places at least they entered that order by a ceremony involving the laying on of hands.
That deaconesses did not receive Holy Orders and were clearly differentiated frompriests and deacons in the strict sense was made clear in the Apostolic Constitutions, written around 400 AD: “A deaconess does not bless, nor perform anything belonging to the office of presbyters or deacons, but is only to keep the doors, and to minister to the presbyters in the baptising of women, for the sake of decency” (Apost Const VIII, 28). In the baptism of women, the priest anointed the head or forehead of a woman while, for the sake of modesty, the deaconess performed the additional anointings that followed.
The office, roles and meaning of deaconess varied greatly from one region to another, and deaconesses were unknown to the church in Egypt, and to the Maronites and Slavs. There were no deaconesses in the Latin Church for the first five centuries. These differences in the very existence of deaconesses in different parts of the Church and in their meaning and roles show clearly that there was no sacrament involved, since the theology and essential discipline of the sacraments are universal throughout the Church.
This is seen, too, in Canon 15 of the Council of Chalcedon, celebrated in the year 451: “No woman under 40 years of age is to be ordained a deaconess, and then only after close scrutiny. If after receiving ordination and spending some time in the ministry she despises God’s grace and gets married, such a person is to be anathematised along with her spouse.” It is clear from the minimum age of 40, which was different from that for male deacons, and the requirement of celibacy, that deaconesses were not in Holy Orders but rather in an order of mature women who assisted the Church in various ways.
Deaconesses gradually declined in numbers in both East and West until they finally disappeared altogether, probably in the 11th century. Because of present-day confusion on the matter, the Holy See issued a Notification on 17 September, 2001, which stated in part: “Our Dicasteries have heard reports from some countries of programs and developments under way, aimed directly or indirectly at the diaconal ordination of women. Thus, certain expectations are being established, which are lacking in solid doctrinal foundation and which, consequently, can generate pastoral confusion. Since ecclesial authority does not foresee the possibility of such an ordination, it is not licit to implement initiatives that, in some way, look to preparing female candidates for the diaconal Order.”
So it is clear that whatever Pope Francis may have said, the Church is not about to ordain women to the diaconate.