The Tablet Blog
We’re centuries overdue a return to ordaining women as deacons
Michael Phelan, guest contributor
16 August 2013, 9:00
When I was a young pre-Vatican II Catholic, we used to pray at the end of Mass for the conversion of England and the following phrase from that prayer remains in my mind: ‘Augustine, Columba, and Aidan, who delivered to us inviolate the faith of the Holy Roman Church.’
St Augustine arrived in England in 597, on the instructions of Pope Gregory the Great. It is almost certain that Augustine brought with him the ordination rites for both women and men deacons that derived from the sacramentary that he had brought from Rome. Local church councils, such as Whitby and Cloveshoe, stated explicitly that their purpose was to ensure that church practice was faithful to what Augustine had brought from Pope Gregory the Great. We can deduce this from ancient ordination books, such as the Sacramentary of Egbert of York (732) and the Leofric Missal of Exeter (920).
There were of course many ordained women deacons in the early Church, including fourth century St Olympia, who I included in the litany of saints for my own diaconal ordination. Olympia (or Olympias) was a wealthy woman who gave away most of her inherited fortune to the poor and needy and for the building of churches. She served the Church as a deacon and was close to many Fathers of the Church including St John Chrysostom, who was Archbishop of Constantinople and a Doctor of the Church and who had ordained her.
In the early church, women deacons had a similar ministry and ordination rite, but in baptisms ministered to women (and men to men) only because the sacred oils were used to cover the whole of the naked body.
Present-day male permanent deacons have a threefold ministry of the Word, Altar, and Charity: they proclaim and preach on the Gospel at Mass; assist the priest on the altar; officiate at baptisms, weddings and funerals; lead RCIA programmes; and are involved in ministries of charity, such as visiting the sick and various forms of chaplaincy. Retired German Cardinal Walter Kasper proposed a similar ministry for women earlier this year, as did Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, president of the German bishops’ conference. And I agree: while Pope Francis has ruled out looking at the question of women’s ordination as priests, I see no reason why women could not be ordained to the office of deacon, performing all roles male deacons fulfil just as well as men.
For more historical and comprehensive evidence on ordained men and women deacons in over ten centuries of the early church please refer towww.womendeacons.org
Michael Phelan is a permanent deacon in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire
Surely, what was good enough for St. John Chrysostom (liturgical expert) ought to be good enough for today’s Roman Catholic Church. The writer of this article, a permanent deacon (male), Michael Phelan , recalls the ancient custom of ordaining women as deacons in the Church. If the Vatican is still opposed to women priests, there would seem to be no reason why the early tradition of ordaining women as deacons could not be revived. Especially in view of the scarcity of men coming forward for ordained ministry in the Roman Catholic Church. This could be one step towards providing a source of sacerdotal ministry hitherto unexplored by our Roman brethren.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand