Sunday, October 22, 2023

Phoebe: St. Paul's Deacon and the Future of Women in the Church

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me.

Romans 16:1-2
The New International Version

Our sister Phoebe, a deacon in the church in Cenchrea, will be coming to see you soon.  Receive her in the Lord, as one who is worthy of high honour.  Help her in every way you can,  for she has helped many in their needs, including me.    

Greet Priscilla and Aquila.  They have been co-workers in my ministry for Christ Jesus,  In fact, they have risked their lives for me.

Romans 16 1-2
New Living Translation, Catholic Reference Edition

Who was Phoebe and why is her legacy so important today?  Phoebe was a first-century Christian woman in the church of Cenchreae, an ancient seaport, now a village known as Kechries in the municipality of Corinth in Greece.  She is mentioned by the Apostle Paul in his Epistle to the Romans 16: 1-2.  Paul describes Phoebe in the King James Version of the New Testament as "servant,"  and :"succorer."  The New International Version changes those two nouns to "deacon" and "benefactor."   

Paul's letter to the Romans was written in Corinth, likely around the years A.D.56  to A.D. 59, before his third missionary journey.  St. Paul wrote his epistle in an effort to obtain support for a missionary journey to Spain.  He not only speaks of  obtaining assistance from Phoebe, but he also mentions other women such as  Priscilla and Aquila, whom he describes as "co-workers in my ministry for Christ Jesus."

Although some scholars believe the Paul restricted the office of deacon to men, others point out that when describing the attributes deacons must posses, Paul included women.  He wrote, "They, likewise, are to be worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything." (Timothy 3:11)  Woman deacons, therefore, were to adhere to the same standards as male deacons.

If St. Paul considered Phoebe a deacon of the church, one wonders why Catholic women are prohibited from serving as deacons. The Roman Catholic Church is facing an existential crisis.  Church attendance has plummeted in the secular societies of Europe and North America.  In France, Italy and Spain, once great bastions of Catholicism, Mass attendance has dropped substantially .  The COVID-19 pandemic certainly hasn't helped.  Still, many Catholics failed to return to the pews when the pandemic eased.  

To make matters worse, the Church has been hit hard by sex abuse scandals and residential school scandals.  It is also facing a conflict between conservative Catholics and more liberal ones.  Its charities and good works have been far overshadowed by misdemeanours and malfeasance.  Furthermore,I have noted that many people in their 20s and 30s have no attachment to the Church, even if they were raised Catholics.  Many find little relevance in religious observance.  To be blunt, social media is their god.

Prayer is good and powerful.  However, prayer alone will not increase church attendance.  Nor will it bring about a substantial increase in vocations.  Let me be clear.  I am not suggesting that tradition should be abandoned or that stability is not a desirable goal.  I am not advocating change only for the sake of change, or merely to increase church attendance.  I truly believe that women deacons would energize the Church.  

Female deacons would be a valuable asset. in spreading the gospel.  Deacons cannot perform any of the sacraments, but they can preside over services that do not involve the celebration of the Mass.  Although deacons are not able to preside at the Eucharist, they can lead worship with the distribution of consecrated communion elements, when permitted.  Catholic deacons can officiate at weddings, but only with the permission from the priest or bishop.

Women deacons would provide an underused resource, namely the greater contributions of women to the Church..  Women played very important roles in the New Testament. According to  the Gospel of Mark, It was Mary Magdalene and other women who found the empty tomb on Easter Sunday, and they saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance.

Yes, it is true that none of the 12 apostles of Christ were women., but neither were they Black, Asian, disabled or Indigenous.  The Church is said to be the Body of Christ.  Women are members of that Body.  The laity is also part of that Body.  Why shouldn't they have a voice in the direction of the Church?

At present, a Synod on Synodality (October 4-29, 2023) is underway in Rome.  It is an assembly designed to advise Pope Francis on how the Catholic Church  can more fully incorporate all of its members.  There are 54 women among its 365 delegates,  This is a distinct minority, of course, but the encouraging news is that it will mark the first time that women have ever voted in a Synod of Bishops  It is also interesting to note that more than a quarter of voting members are not bishops.

Tradition is important, but rigidity can be stifling.  Over 60 years have passed since the opening of the Second Vatican Council by Pope John XXIII on October 11, 1962.  That's why fresh air should be allowed in.  Some windows need to be opened.  Inflexibility is not the answer and a Church that fears change will stagnate and wither.  As Pope Francis put it, "If you don't change upward you go backward - And the effects on morality are devasting."  The clergy is made up of human beings.  They have made mistakes and they will continue to make mistakes.  The Church was wrong about Galileo Galilei, a 17th century Italian astronomer and physicist.  It took the Vatican 350 years to formerly admit that Galileo was correct when he said that the Earth moves around the sun.

Pope Francis is an awkward situation.  He clearly wants to make changes, but faces fierce opposition from  the conservative elements of the Church.  Francis obviously doesn't want to create deep division within the Church.  At this critical time, the Church cannot afford a schism.  It would be painful and destructive.  So, Francis has to navigate very carefully and very deftly.

Prior to the synod, five conservative cardinals submitted a set of dubia, or doubt, to Pope Francis regarding women's ordination, the blessing of same-sex unions and the authority of the synod to issue binding teaching.  They were Germsn Cardinal Walter BrandmüllerAmerican Cardinal Raymond Burke, Mexican Cardinal Sandoval ÍñiguezGuinean Cardinal Robert Sarah, and Cardinal Joseph Zen the former Bishop of Hong Kong. None of the five cardinals who submitted the new set of dubia are among the roughly 400 participants in the synod, which is scheduled to meet until Oct. 29.

Francis, for his part, has chastised conservative critics in the United States, who have challenged him on such theological issues as the Latin Mass, and social issues such as the environment and migration.  During an August 5, 2023 m meeting with Jesuit priests in Lisbon, Portugal, Pope Francis addressed the  the criticism of his leadership, particularly in the United States.  He said, "Those American groups you talk about, so closed, are isolating themselves.  Instead of living by doctrine, by the true doctrine that always develops and bears fruit, they live by ideologies."

For the sake of the Church's future, progressives and conservatives must find common ground.  They must engage in dialogue and listen carefully to each other's concerns.  All voices should be heard and much consensus is needed.  No one should be unbending and unyielding.  That, of course, is easier said than done, but the effort must be made. That is the only reasonable path forward for the Church.

Yes, it is true that none of the 12 Apostles of Christ were women, but neither were they Black, Asian, disabled or Indigenous.  The Church is said to be the Body of Christ.  Women are members of that Body.  The laity is also part of that Body.  Why shouldn't they have a voice in the direction of the Church?  

God is often portrayed as an old man with a white beard and a deep voice, but a Supreme Being does not have a gender.  A Supreme Being is spiritual.  Someday there will probably be woman priests, but it won't happen overnight.  Meanwhile, the basic tenets of Christianity (Love Thy neighbour, the Golden Rule) are more important than dogma.  If Christians follow those teachings, they will always be on the right track.  Those teachings can never be changed.  They can never be outdated.  They serve as a guide forever.


The name Phoebe means "pure," "radiant,"  It was the name of a titan in Greek mythology.

Phoebe is not canonized a saint in the Catholic Church.  However, her feast day is celebrated on September 3rd by the Roman Catholic Chuch, the Eastern Orthodox Church, and the Episcopal Church of the United States.

- Joanne