Last Saturday we had the privilege of virtually meeting together, praying and hearing some incredible speakers on the Feast of St Phoebe. You can watch the whole of the Webinar here:
Our group was overwhelmed by the interest in this, our first event. We had well over 400 registrations and of the Zoom attendees, at least one was a room of 14 people.
To begin with, we hear from Dr Phyllis Zagano, an internationally acclaimed Catholic scholar and lecturer from the US. She notes that since she spoke in Australia 10 years ago, “the interest in the diaconate has only grown.” However, on this 3rd of September, which has always been recognised as the day of St Phoebe’s death, only St Gregory the Great is now celebrated in the Roman Catholic Church. Interestingly, Gregory – who died in March – was also a deacon: one of the 36 Bishops of Rome (Popes) throughout history that were never ordained as priests.
So Phyllis argues for the better celebration of St Phoebe as a person of “universal importance”. It appears that Phoebe only featured in the local liturgical calendar of the now-suppressed Archdiocese of Corinth. However, she was most definitely a “woman of stature, a woman of means, she had a prominent role as a follower of Christ”. St Paul held her in high esteem as a sister, a deacon and a benefactor (Romans 16:1-2). In fact, she was entrusted with delivering and interpreting his letter to the young Roman Christian community. Phoebe is the only person in scripture to “positively hold the job title Deacon – not Deaconess – within a church community”.
Phyllis continues to give some global perspectives on the various Commissions on women and the diaconate, and current trends in this discussion. She comments on Pope Francis’s approach to the topic, including his hope of professionalising women drawn out of the community into ministry. Phyllis can imagine the restoration of women deacons occurring, possibly arising from the 2023 Synod on Synodality, but not before.
Then we hear from Rev Assoc Prof Anthony Gooley, Associate Dean (Courses) and Head of Leadership and Theology at Broken Bay Institute. Anthony starts by sharing about the hopes for the permanent diaconate when it was renewed at Vatican II. With the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the restoration of this ministry was the third-most important topic in the lead-up to the Council. Anthony explains that the motivations were: to witness to the Catholic faith in the threefold order of ministry: deacon, presbyter and bishop; for pastoral care and new evangelisation; and to open the grace of the diaconal ministry to the Church. It was not about historical revival, but “to build the Church in holiness and to equip it for mission.”
Anthony walks us through some history, outlining the 7 steps of the cursus honorum (lector to priest) from the 12th Century on. However, since Vatican II, there has been a system of parallel tracks for stepped ordained ministries (deacon, presbyter, bishop) and ministries in their own right – lector, acolyte and permanent deacon. Anthony describes the Church as more of a circle than a triangle – we gather around the Eucharist, with the ordained members in the middle, sharing the diakonia of the Bishop.
Despite the ideal, however, Anthony considers that we have not yet fully received the ministry of the permanent diaconate into the Roman Catholic Church. In Australia, deacons tend to fall into two categories: a parish pastoral worker model or a social worker model. As we speak about “the margins”, he says, most deacons are themselves marginalised today. Anthony sees this as a “lack of theological and spiritual reflection on the nature of holy orders, the diaconate and the sacramental nature of the Church”. Vatican II was attempting to respond to the horrors of World War II with a form of ministry that was completely new, but we have not yet brought about that intention.
Anthony goes on to talk about the potential of ordaining women once more to the permanent diaconate. He suggests that this should not be to increase the power or representation of women, or to relieve the shortage of clerics – just as we do not ordain men for those reasons either. Rather, it should be as a visible witness to the grace of the sacraments, and to be faithful to the Tradition. Just like the restoration of the diaconate for men, the principal not the form of the ministry is important. And there are plenty of sources to support the principle of the Church intending to ordain women as deacons in history. The earliest commentaries on the scriptures, ordination rituals, canons and other documents all point to this fact until the 12-13th Centuries. Therefore, “the Church can and should do it again.” Anthony concludes with a note of hope not just for women but for the entire order of the permanent deacon. “My hope is that if we have women as deacons, we might find the final model that we need… work together to fashion a new wineskin for what is a new wine.”
After our breakout rooms and moderated discussion, we hear an inspiring response from former ABC presenter, Genevieve Jacobs AM. She begins with a story of growing up in a tiny country parish where women were the main faith leaders. And Genevieve wonders about the point of ordination when many people’s experience of Church is women-led. However, she was impacted by “utter despair” when the bishops did not vote for the decree on the equality of women and men at the Australian Plenary Council. She knows that there are many ways for women to serve the Church, but asks, “why is leadership not service?” Surely we can follow and be inspired by St Phoebe, who was an effective religious leader in her community.
In the “cancellation of women” from leadership roles, Genevieve says, we “waste our human capital for the Church in this community.” It is about human dignity and equality and all should be given the opportunity to offer their gifts in service. From her experience in modern governance, Genevieve explains the value of diversity in leadership, which brings multiple backgrounds to bear on discernment. However, without the willingness to investigate women as leaders, it “enfeebles the Church’s decision-making process.” While Genevieve does not consider that restoration of women deacons will solve the Church’s problems, it “opens a door to the solution.”
Thank you very much to everyone who was involved in our Webinar, and stay tuned for further conversation and events.
You may wish to read more from our speakers on this topic. Search for and purchase books by Dr Phyllis Zagano at Paulist Press or purchase Rev Anthony Gooley’s book on the Diaconate at Garratt Publishing.