The Ministry of Deaconess?
Jul 17, 2016

The Ministry of Deaconess?

In a May 12 meeting with the International Union of Superiors General, Pope Francis was asked, “What prevents the Church from including women among permanent deacons, as was the case in the primitive Church? Why not constitute an official commission to study the matter?” His response grabbed the attention of many.

St. Paul, here depicted by El Greco (c. 1608-1614), spoke of “our sister Phoebe, servant (he diakonos) of the Church at Cenchreae” (cf. Rom 16:1-4).

He answered: “I remember that it was a theme I was quite interested in when I came to Rome for meetings. There was a good Syrian theologian there and one day I asked him about this, and he explained to me that in the early times of the Church there were some ‘deaconesses.’ But what were these deaconesses? Were they ordained or not? The Council of Chalcedon (451) speaks about this but it is somewhat obscure. What was the role of deaconesses in those times? It seems— I was told by this man, who is now dead but who was a good professor, wise and erudite—it seems that the role of the deaconesses was to help in the baptism of women, their immersion; they baptized them for the sake of decorum, and also to anoint the bodies of women, in baptism. And another curious thing: when there was a judgement on a marriage because a husband hit his wife and she went to the bishop to complain, deaconesses were responsible for inspecting the bruises left on the woman’s body from her husband’s blows, and for informing the bishop. There are various publications on the diaconate in the Church, but it is not clear how it was. I think I will ask the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to refer me to some studies on this theme, because I have answered you only on the basis of what I heard from this priest, who was an erudite and able researcher, on the permanent diaconate. In addition, I would like to constitute an official commission to study the question: I think it will be good for the Church to clarify this point, I agree, and I will speak so as to do something of this type.”

That the Holy Father wishes to “constitute an official commission to study the question” signaled to many his openness to actually ordaining women to a form of diaconate.

But he himself did not mean this.

During his return flight of July 27 from his Apostolic Journey to Armenia, the Holy Father expressed “annoyance” at this interpretation. On his in-flight press-conference, he said “one can study if it is the doctrine of the Church, and if one might create this commission. They [news reports] said: ‘The Church opens the door to deaconesses.’ Really? I was a bit annoyed because this is not telling the truth of things. I spoke with the prefect of the [Congregation for the] Doctrine of the Faith, and he told me, ‘Look, there is a study which the International Theological Commission had made […]. And I asked the [prefect] to please make a list. Give me a list of who I can take to create this commission. He sent me the list to create this commission, but I believe that the theme has been studied a lot, and I don’t think it will be difficult to shed light on this argument.”

The study which Cardinal Gerhard Müller, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, mentions to the Holy Father is the 2002 “From the Diakonia of Christ to the Diakonia of the Apostles,” a section of which is devoted to “The Ministry of Deaconesses,” reprinted below.

The International Theological Commission: From the Diakonia of Christ to the Diakonia of the Apostles

The Ministry of Deaconesses
In the apostolic era different forms of diaconal assistance offered to the Apostles and communities by women seem to have been institutional. Thus Paul recommends to the community at Rome “our sister Phoebe, servant [he diakonos] of the Church at Cenchreae” (cf. Rom 16:1-4). Although the masculine form of diakonos is used here, it cannot therefore be concluded that the word is being used to designate the specific function of a “deacon;” firstly because in this context diakonos still signifies servant in a very general sense, and secondly because the word “servant” is not given a feminine suffix but preceded by a feminine article. What seems clear is that Phoebe exercised a recognized service in the community of Cenchreae, subordinate to the ministry of the Apostle. Elsewhere in Paul’s writings the authorities of the world are themselves called diakonos (Rom 13:4), and in Second Corinthians 11:14-15 he refers to diakonoi of the devil.

Exegetes are divided on the subject of First Timothy 3:11. The mention of “women” following the reference to deacons may suggest women deacons (by parallel reference), or the deacons’ wives who had been mentioned earlier. In this epistle, the functions of the deacon are not described, but only the conditions for admitting them. It is said that women must not teach or rule over men (1 Tim 2:8-15). But the functions of governance and teaching were in any case reserved to the bishop (1 Tim 3:5) and to priests (1 Tim 5:17), and not to deacons. Widows constituted a recognized group in the community, from whom they received assistance in exchange for their commitment to continence and prayer. First Timothy 5:3-16 stresses the conditions under which they may be inscribed on the list of widows receiving relief from the community, and says nothing more about any functions they might have. Later on they were officially “instituted” but “not ordained”;1 they constituted an “order” in the Church,2 and would never have any other mission apart from good example and prayer.

At the beginning of the second century a letter from Pliny the Younger, governor of Bithynia, mentioned two women who were described by the Christians as ministrae, the probable equivalent of the Greek diakonoi (10, 96-97). It was not until the third century that the specific Christian terms diaconissa or diacona appeared.

From the end of the third century onwards, in certain regions of the Church3 (and not all of them), a specific ecclesial ministry is attested to on the part of women called deaconesses.4 This was in Eastern Syria and Constantinople. Towards 240 there appeared a singular canonico-liturgical compilation, the Didascalia Apostolorum (DA), which was not official in character. It attributed to the bishop the features of an omnipotent biblical patriarch (cf. DA 2, 33-35, 3). He was at the head of a little community which he governed mainly with the help of deacons and deaconesses. This was the first time that deaconesses appeared in an ecclesiastical document. In a typology borrowed from Ignatius of Antioch, the bishop held the place of God the Father, the deacon the place of Christ, and the deaconess that of the Holy Spirit (the word for “Spirit” is feminine in Semitic languages), while the priests (who are seldom mentioned) represented the Apostles, and the widows, the altar (DA 2, 26, 4-7). There is no reference to the ordination of these ministers.

The Didascalia laid stress on the charitable role of the deacon and the deaconess. The ministry of the diaconate should appear as “one single soul in two bodies.” Its model is the diakonia of Christ, who washed the feet of his disciples (DA 3, 13, 1-7). However, there was no strict parallelism between the two branches of the diaconate with regard to the functions they exercised. The deacons were chosen by the bishop to “concern themselves about many necessary things,” and the deaconesses only “for the service of women” (DA 3, 12, 1). The hope was expressed that “the number of deacons may be proportionate to that of the assembly of the people of the Church” (DA 3, 13, l).5 The deacons administered the property of the community in the bishop’s name. Like the bishop, they were maintained at its expense. Deacons are called the ear and mouth of the bishop (DA 2, 44, 3-4). Men from among the faithful should go through the deacons to have access to the bishop, as women should go through the deaconesses (DA 3, 12, 1-4). One deacon supervised the entries into the meeting place, while another attended the bishop for the Eucharistic offering (DA 2, 57, 6).

Deaconesses should carry out the anointing of women in the rite of baptism, instruct women neophytes, and visit the women faithful, especially the sick, in their homes. They were forbidden to confer baptism themselves, or to play a part in the Eucharistic offering (DA 3, 12, 1-4). The deaconesses had supplanted the widows. The bishop may still institute widows, but they should not either teach or administer baptism (to women), but only pray (DA 3, 5, 1-3, 6, 2).

The Constitutiones Apostolorum, which appeared in Syria towards 380, used and interpolated the Didascalia, the Didache and the Traditio Apostolica. The Constitutiones were to have a lasting influence on the discipline governing ordinations in the East, even though they were never considered to be an official canonical collection. The compiler envisaged the imposition of hands with the epiklesis of the Holy Spirit not only for bishops, priests and deacons, but also for the deaconesses, sub-deacons and lectors (cf. CA 8, 16- 23).6 The concept of kleros was broadened to all those who exercised a liturgical ministry, who were maintained by the Church, and who benefited from the privileges in civil law allowed by the Empire to clerics, so that the deaconesses were counted as belonging to the clergy while the widows were excluded. Bishop and priests were paralleled with the high priest and the priests respectively of the Old Covenant, while to the Levites corresponded all the other ministries and states of life: “deacons, lectors, cantors, door-keepers, deaconesses, widows, virgins and orphans” (CA 2, 26, 3; CA 8, 1, 21).  The deacon was placed “at the service of the bishop and the priests” and should not impinge on the functions of the latter.7 The deacon could proclaim the Gospel and conduct the prayer of the assembly (CA 2, 57, 18), but only the bishop and the priests exhorted (CA 2, 57, 7). Deaconesses took up their functions through an epithesis cheirôn or imposition of hands that conferred the Holy Spirit,8 as did the lectors (CA 8, 20, 22). The bishop pronounced the following prayer: “Eternal God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, creator of man and woman, who filled Myriam, Deborah, Anne and Hulda with your spirit; who did not deem it unworthy for your Son, the Only-Begotten, to be born of a woman; who in the tent of witness and in the temple did institute women as guardians of your sacred doors, look now upon your servant before you, proposed for the diaconate: grant her the Holy Spirit and purify her of all defilement of flesh and spirit so that she may acquit herself worthily of the office which has been entrusted to her, for your glory and to the praise of your Christ, through whom be glory and adoration to you, in the Holy Spirit, world without end. Amen.”9

The deaconesses were named before the sub-deacon who, in his turn, received a cheirotonia like the deacon (CA 8, 21), while the virgins and widows could not be “ordained” (8, 24- 25). The Constitutiones insist that the deaconesses should have no liturgical function (3, 9, 1-2), but should devote themselves to their function in the community which was “service to the women” (CA 3, 16, 1) and as intermediaries between women and the bishop. It is still stated that they represent the Holy Spirit, but they “do nothing without the deacon” (CA 2, 26, 6). They should stand at the women’s entrances in the assemblies (2, 57, 10). Their functions are summed up as follows:

“The deaconess does not bless, and she does not fulfil any of the things that priests and deacons do, but she looks after the doors and attends the priests during the baptism of women, for the sake of decency” (CA 8, 28, 6).

This is echoed by the almost contemporary observation of Epiphanius of Salamis in his Panarion, in around 375: “There is certainly in the Church the order of deaconesses, but this does not exist to exercise the functions of a priest, nor are they to have any undertaking committed to them, but for the decency of the feminine sex at the time of baptism.”10 A law of Theodosius of 21 June 390, revoked on 23 August of the same year, fixed the age for admission to the ministry of deaconesses at 60. The Council of Chalcedon (can. 15) reduced the age to 40, forbidding them subsequent marriage.11

Even in the fourth century the way of life of deaconesses was very similar to that of nuns. At that time the woman in charge of a monastic community of women was called a deaconess, as is testified by Gregory of Nyssa among others.12 Ordained abbesses of the monasteries of women, the deaconesses wore the maforion, or veil of perfection. Until the sixth century they still attended women in the baptismal pool and for the anointing. Although they did not serve at the altar, they could distribute communion to sick women. When the practice of anointing the whole body at baptism was abandoned, deaconesses were simply consecrated virgins who had taken the vow of chastity. They lived either in monasteries or at home. The condition for admission was virginity or widowhood and their activity consisted of charitable and health-related assistance to women.

At Constantinople the best-known of the fourth-century deaconesses was Olympias, the superior of a monastery of women, who was a protégé of Saint John Chrysostom and had put her property at the service of the Church. She was “ordained” (cheirotonein) deaconess with three of her companions by the patriarch. Canon 15 of the Council of Chalcedon (451) seems to confirm the fact that deaconesses really were “ordained” by the imposition of hands (cheirotonia). Their ministry was called leitourgia and after ordination they were not allowed to marry.

In eighth-century Byzantium, the bishop still imposed his hands on a deaconess, and conferred on her the orarion or stole (both ends of which were worn at the front, one over the other); he gave her the chalice, which she placed on the altar without giving communion to anyone. Deaconesses were ordained in the course of the Eucharistic liturgy, in the sanctuary, like deacons.13 Despite the similarities between the rites of ordination, deaconesses did not have access to the altar or to any liturgical ministry. These ordinations were intended mainly for the superiors of monasteries of women.

It should be pointed out that in the West there is no trace of any deaconesses for the first five centuries. The Statuta Ecclesiae antiqua laid down that the instruction of women catechumens and their preparation for baptism was to be entrusted to the widows and women religious “chosen ad ministerium baptizandarum mulierum”.14 Certain councils of the fourth and fifth centuries reject every ministerium feminae 15 and forbid any ordination of deaconesses.16 According to the Ambrosiaster (composed at Rome at the end of the fourth century), the female diaconate was an adjunct of Montanist (“Cataphrygian”) heretics.17 In the sixth century women admitted into the group of widows were sometimes referred to as deaconesses. To prevent any confusion the Council of Epaone forbade “the consecrations of widows who call themselves deaconesses”.18 The Second Council of Orleans (533) decided to exclude from communion women who had “received the blessing for the diaconate despite the canons forbidding this and who had remarried”.19 Abbesses, or the wives of deacons, were also called diaconissae, by analogy with presbyterissae or even episcopissae.20

The present historical overview shows that a ministry of deaconesses did indeed exist, and that this developed unevenly in the different parts of the Church. It seems clear that this ministry was not perceived as simply the feminine equivalent of the masculine diaconate. At the very least it was an ecclesial function, exercised by women, sometimes mentioned together with that of sub-deacon in the lists of Church ministries.21 Was this ministry conferred by an imposition of hands comparable to that by which the episcopate, the priesthood and the masculine diaconate were conferred? The text of the Constitutiones Apostolorum would seem to suggest this, but it is practically the only witness to this, and its proper interpretation is the subject of much debate.22 Should the imposition of hands on deaconesses be considered the same as that on deacons, or is it rather on the same level as the imposition of hands on sub-deacons and lectors? It is difficult to tackle the question on the basis of historical data alone. In the following chapters some elements will be clarified, and some questions will remain open. In particular, one chapter will be devoted to examining more closely how the Church through her theology and Magisterium has become more conscious of the sacramental reality of Holy Orders and its three grades. But first it is appropriate to examine the causes which led to the disappearance of the permanent diaconate in the life of the Church.

The entire text of “From the Diakonia of Christ to the Diakonia of the Apostles” is available at the Vatican website:

  1. (58) Traditio Apostolica 10; SCh 11(2), 67.
  2. (59) Cf. Tertullian, To his wife 1, 7, 4; SCh 273; Exhortation to chastity 13, 4; SCh 319.
  3. (60) “It is at the Eastern limits of the Roman Empire that deaconesses finally make their appearance. The first document to refer to them, which is in some sort their birth certificate, is the Didascalia Apostolorum … known since the publication in 1854 … of its Syriac text.” A. G. Martimort, Les diaconesses: Essai historique (Rome, 1982), 31.
  4. (61) The most ample collection of all the testimony about this ecclesiastical ministry, accompanied by a theological interpretation, is that of John Pinius, De diaconissamm ordinatione, in Acta Sanctorum, 1 September (Antwerp, 1746), 1-27. Most of the Greek and Latin documents referred to by Pinius are reproduced by J. Mayer, Monumenta de viduis diaconissis virginibusque tractantia (Bonn, 1938). Cf. R. Gryson, Le ministere des femmes dans l’Eglise ancienne, Recherches et syntheses: Section d’histoire 4 (Gembloux, 1972).
  5. (62) This norm is repeated in the Constitutiones Apostolorum 3, 19, 1. On the origins of the professionalisation of the clergy, cf. Schollgen, Die Anfänge der Professionalisierung.
  6. (63) The compiler was attentive to the nuances of vocabulary. At CA 2, 11, 3 he says, “We do not allow the priests to ordain [cheirotonein] deacons, deaconesses, lectors, servants, cantors or door-keepers: that belongs to the bishops alone.” However, he reserves the term cheirotonia to the ordination of bishops, priests, deacons and sub-deacons (8, 4-5; 8, 16-17; 8, 21). He employs the expression epitithenai ten (tas) cheira(s) for deaconesses and lectors (8, 16, 2; 8, 17, 2). He does not seem to wish to give these expressions a different meaning, since all these impositions of hands are accompanied by an epiklesis of the Holy Spirit. For confessors, virgins, widows, and exorcists, he specifies that there is no cheirotonia (8, 23-26). The compiler additionally distinguishes between cheirotonia and cheirothesia, which is simply a gesture of blessing (cf. 8, 16, 3 and 8, 28, 2-3). Cheirothesia may be practiced by priests in the baptismal rite, the reintegration of penitents, or the blessing of catechumens (cf. 2, 32, 3; 2, 18, 7; 7, 39, 4).
  7. (64) Cf. CA 3, 20, 2; 8, 16, 5; 8, 28, 4; 8, 46, 10-11.
  8. (65) Can. 19 of the Council of Nicaea (325) could be interpreted not as refusing the imposition of hands to all deaconesses in general, but as the simple statement that the deaconesses from the party of Paul of Samosata did not receive the imposition of hands, and “were anyway counted among the laity”, and that it was also necessary to re-ordain them, after having re-baptised them, like the other ministers of this dissident group who returned to the Catholic Church. Cf. G. Alberigo, Les conciles oecumeniques, vol. 2 Les decrets, bk. 1 (Paris, 1994), 54.
  9. (66) CA, 8, 20, 1-2; SCh 336; Metzger, 221-23.
  10. (67) Epiphanius of Salamis, Panarion haer. 79, 3, 6, ed. K. Holl, GCS 37 (1933), p. 478.
  11. (68) Cf. Alberigo, Decrets, bk. 1, 214.
  12. (69) Gregory of Nyssa, Life of St. Macrina 29, 1; SCh 178; Maraval, 236-37.
  13. (70) Byzantine Ritual of ordination of deaconesses: Euchologe du manuscrit grec Barberini 336, in Vatican Library, ff. 169R-17/v. Quoted by J.-M. Aubert, Des femmes diacres, Le Point Theologique 47 (Paris, 1987), 118-19.
  14. (71) Cf. can. 100 (Munier, 99). In addition, it is expressly forbidden to women, “even well-instructed and holy” ones, to teach men and to baptize (cf. can. 37, 41; Munier, 86).
  15. (72) Council of Nimes (394-396), can. 2. Cf. J. Gaudemet, Conciles gaulois du IVe siecle, SCh 241 (Paris, 1977), 127-29.
  16. (73) First Council of Orange (441), can. 26.
  17. (74) Cf. ed. H.I. Vogels, CSEL 81/3 (Vienna, 1969), 268.
  18. (75) Council of Epaone (517), can. 21 (C. de Clercq, Concilia Galliae 511-695, 250: 148A [1963], 29). Blessings of women as deaconesses had become widespread because the ritual did not provide a blessing for widows, as was noted in the Second Council of Tours (567), can. 21 (ibid., 187).
  19. (76) Ibid., 101.
  20. (77) Cf. Second Council of Tours, can. 20 (ibid., 184).
  21. (78) Many commentators have followed the model of Ambrosiaster in his Commentary on 1 Tim 3:11 (CSEL 81, 3; G. L. Muller, ed., Der Empfanger des Weihesakraments: Quellen zur Lehre und Praxis der Kirche, nur Mannern das Weihesakrament zu spenden (Wurzburg, 1999), 89): “But the Cataphrygians, seizing this opportunity of falling into error, uphold in their foolish rashness, under the pretext that Paul addressed women after deacons, that it is also necessary to ordain deaconesses. They know however that the Apostles chose seven deacons (cf. Acts 6:1-6); is it to be supposed that no woman was found suitable at that point, when we read that there were holy women grouped around the eleven Apostles (cf. Acts 1:14)? … And Paul orders women to keep silence in church (cf. 1 Cor 14:34-35).” See also John Chrysostom, In 1 Tim horn. 11; PG 62, 555; Epiphanius, Haer. 79, 3 (Muller, Quellen,88); Council of Orange (Muller, Quellen, 98); Council of Dovin (Armenia, 527): “Feminis non licet ministeria diaconissae praestare nisi ministerium baptismi” (Muller, Quellen, 105); Isidore of Seville, De Eccl. Off 2, 18, 11 (Muller, Quellen, 109); Decretum Gratiani, can. 15 (Muller, Quellen, 115); Magister Ruftnus, Summa Decretorum, can. 27, q. 1 (Muller, Quellen,320); Robert of Yorkshire, Liber poenitentialis, q. 6, 42 (Muller, Quellen, 322); Thomas Aquinas, In 1 Tim 3, 11 (Muller, Quellen, 333); etc.
  22. (79) Cf Vanzan, “Le diaconat permanent feminin: Ombres et lumieres”, in Documentation Catholique 2203 (1999): 440-46. The author refers to the discussions which have taken place between R. Gryson, A. G. Martimort, C. Vagaggini and C. Marucci. Cf. L. Scheffczyk, ed., Diakonat und Diakonissen (St. Ottilien, 2002), especially M. Hauke, “Die Geschichte der Diakonissen: Nachwort und Literaturnachtrag zur Neuauflage des Standardwerkes von Martimort über die Diakonissen”, 321-76.