Female Deacons: Now or Never?

St. Francis of Assisi

St. Francis of Assisi

Were you aware that St. Francis of Assisi was a deacon? He had never wanted to be ordained to the priesthood, and when he explained to those in charge exactly what he wanted to do, which was simply to serve the poor, he was advised that he should be ordained a deacon.

Born in Italy in 1181, Francis was referenced by former Anglican Bishop of Birmingham, Mark Santer, in a 1978 essay, Diaconate and Discipleship:

Of all the saints, the one whom most people find most Christlike is St. Francis. And I think it is significant that he was never a priest. He was ordained deacon, a servant, to the end of his life.

According to Dr. Phyllis Zagano, “The diaconate is a ministry of service.” Her book (which I will admit, I haven’t read), Holy Saturday: An Argument for the Restoration of the Female Diaconate in the Catholic Churchpresents evidence from scripture, tradition, history and theology to back up her claim that women deacons existed in the early church, citing Phoebe, a female deacon mentioned in scripture as “an emissary” for Paul, who delivered his Letter to the Romans.

Zagano, who holds five degrees including one in theology and one in communications and who retired from the US Navy with the rank of Commander, says Pope Francis told his bishops their job “was to preach and to pray,” as was the case with the Apostles. The pope further stated that the diaconate was “invented by the Apostles” who were so busy they required help, especially when it came to ministering to the poor, to widows and to orphans — work which also involved looking after the “purse,” the money to assist those in need. Zagano also points out that the priest was the last to be paid, adding, “and they didn’t like that nohow.”


In a June 2017 interview with Fr. Thomas Roscia on the Salt and Light network, Zagano explained that when the faithful of the early church arrived for Eucharist, they brought something: a chicken, bread, butter, wine, an egg, perhaps a blanket, which they presented to the deacons who, in the procession of the deacons, carried the items to the altar to be part and parcel of the Sacrifice to be offered. Afterwards, if someone needed any of the items, they went to the deacons who supplied whatever they could from said offerings. Deacons also looked after the finances by which they were able to provide services not included in the weekly offerings. In fact, according to Zagano, when the time came to find a new bishop for the community, very often they went “next door and took the deacon” to serve in that capacity since “he had been pretty much running things all along.”

Rosica, the CEO of The Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation, recalled his own ordination to the “transitional” diaconate (an order of deacons who will go on to the priesthood), when he was handed the Book of Gospels and told to “receive the Gospel of Christ whose herald you are. Believe what you read, preach what you believe and practice what you preach.” Zagano was able to repeat the words with him given her years of study of the diaconate, studies that have convinced her that women had been and should again be eligible for ordination to the permanent diaconate to which men only are ordained today.

Women deacons in the early church ministered to anyone, but especially to women, since in these ancient cultures, men would not be permitted to approach women. Certainly in this day and age, women deacons would find many ways to minister to other women. When asked what qualities she would look for in women (or men) wishing to take on this ministry, Zagano made it quite clear that while being a good preacher, or liturgist would be fine, the main qualities would involve their personal relationship with Christ, their open and caring attitude and their desire to assist people. The female diaconate had faded by the end of the 12th century and even the permanent diaconate for men was abandoned after the Council of Trent, (Zagano says clerics weren’t pleased to have another ordained group existing on an almost equal footing with them). The male diaconate was revived after Vatican II, but has only appeared in our own diocese over the past few years.


Phoebe, who may have been a deacon in of the church at Cenchreae, in Corinth (Source: https://forallsaints.wordpress.com/2011/01/29/lydia-dorcas-and-phoebe-witnesses-to-the-faith/)

Phoebe, who may have been a deacon in of the church at Cenchreae, in Corinth (Source: https://forallsaints.wordpress.com/2011/01/29/lydia-dorcas-and-phoebe-witnesses-to-the-faith/)

Chosen by Pope Francis to be a member of the commission he appointed last year to study the role of women deacons in the early church, Zagano, at the time of the interview, anyway, refused to say whether she thought the Pope would reinstate the female diaconate but said she saw no reason why it shouldn’t happen. It’s not the first time, however, that such a study has taken place. In 1997, Pope John Paul ll appointed seven men to investigate the notion of female deacons. They produced 17 pages on the female diaconate, concluding “that it was no big deal.” Cardinal Ratzinger, Prefect of The Congregation of The Doctrine of Faith at the time, put together another group who came up with 78 pages of information on the same subject, but interestingly though not surprisingly, neither Pope John Paul ll nor Ratzinger when he became Pope Benedict X1 did anything about either report.

While there are those out there who believe that if women were to be ordained deacons they would naturally begin campaigning to be ordained priests, (not that there’s anything wrong with that), it’s not necessarily what would happen. Flogging what could very well be a dead horse, it’s interesting to note that, according to an October article in the Catholic Herald, Hermann Glitten, recently named Bishop of Innsbruck, Austria, is “definitely” in favor of women deacons and hopes that the commission appointed to study the subject last year will “come into the home stretch relatively soon” and make “a positive decision” in favor of women deacons. The ordination of women to the priesthood is not something he would address at this stage, referring to the idea as “no so utopian,” but adding that “first steps were needed – such as female deacons.” The new bishop is “very” open to having divorced and remarried Catholics receive communion, although they may not have had their marriages annulled, another decision the pope has left to his bishops. (How’s that going in our diocese, one wonders?)

Zagano herself, who has always had an interest in “women in ministry” and has written a book with that title, recalls a visit to a seminary where she expressed an interest in studying to be a deacon. She says that, as usual in such a situation, she was interviewed “by about 25 people who wanted to find out” if she was “crazy” but on discovering her background, decided she would be a candidate for the priesthood (were she a man, one presumes), something in which she insists has no interest. She reveals that if a man approaches the seminary and declares his desire to be a deacon rather than a priest because he has a wife and wouldn’t take a vow of celibacy, he wouldn’t be accepted, just as a man who, also married but with a liking for “dressing up on Sunday” would not be given the green light either.


While Pope Francis’ commission has spent more than a year researching the very existence of women deacons in the early church, the Synod of the Greek-Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria and All Africa (!), under the chairmanship of Patriarch Theodoros II, decided last November “to reinstate the ancient order” of women deacons. In a letter on the ordination of female deacons, the Patriarch refers to the “historical, theological, canonical and liturgical validity of this order which has been attested to time and time again in recent years by Orthodox scholars and theologians.”

The Patriarch goes on:

The re-institution of the female diaconate does not constitute an innovation but the revitalization of a once functional, vibrant and effective ministry in the Orthodox Church in order to provide the opportunity for qualified women to offer, in our era, their unique and specific gifts in the service of God’s people.

Female deacons could be chosen “in the same fashion as male deacons” and such a revival, could “emphasize in a special way the dignity of women and give recognition to their contribution to the work of the church as a whole.” So, couldn’t this same argument be made in the ongoing discussion of female deacons in the Roman Catholic Church?

Why wouldn’t it be possible to ordain qualified couples as deacons, serving together in a parish and supporting each other in such a ministry? It’s for sure that married male deacons must have the full and willing support of their partners just to consider taking on such a role. Why not have that person serving beside you if, of course, that person wished to do so?

(I’m reminded of a story in Shepherds’ Tales, a 2007 collection of stories from priests of our diocese. In the 1970s, a “team approach” was initiated for employees in a Glace Bay parish. Fr. Mickey Malcolm MacDonald, then pastor at Holy Cross in the Bay commented, “And who’s going to make the sweaters for the team”?)

Of course, a female diaconate is no laughing matter, but when Rome has to set up a commission to see if such a ministry even existed, you have to laugh — or you’d weep.




Dolores Campbell


Dolores Campbell, a lifelong resident of Sydney, is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Cape Breton Highlander, the Nova Scotian, Cape Breton Magazine, Catholic New Times and The Cape Breton Post.




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