The reading from Acts shares a special snapshot of life in the early Christian community – that of instituting the first organized ministry – that of deacon. We read that the Hellenists are complaining to the Hebrews because their widows are being neglected in the daily distribution, and that this neglect is rightly perceived as an injustice by the Twelve. So, in a wise move, the Twelve call “together the community of disciples and ask them to select seven reputable men, filled with the Spirit and wisdom” to serve the community in this capacity.
Why is this action of the Twelve is a “wise move”? I believe that the Twelve rightly judge that members of the community are the ones to discern the need for this ministry to themselves. The Twelve’s action also affirms that the community will know who among them has the giftedness to accomplish the task. “The proposal was acceptable to the whole community,” and they chose seven men whom they presented to the Twelve, who then “prayed and laid hands on them.”
So here is a wonderful snapshot of the first organized ministry and how it unfolded. OR IS IT? I’ll return to this question in a few moments. . . .
The reading from 1 Peter is a testimony of how the Hebrew Scriptures inform our understanding of who the fledgling community is. They “are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of God’s own.” This early understanding of the Christian community continues for us today in our Vatican II documents. The documents speak of the Church as the People of God, of ALL the baptized being called to the missionary activity of Christ, and of a Church (again the people of God) which must “scrutinize the signs of the times and interpret them in light of the Gospel.”
Our baptismal promises also call each of us to be “priest, prophet and king.” Each baptized person is conferred with the SAME privilege and responsibility to live as Christian witness without consideration of race, gender, or social standing. Lumen Gentium puts it eloquently: “Every person must walk unhesitatingly according to his (her) own personal gifts and duties in the path of living faith.”
Finally, the reading from John shares Jesus telling the Twelve, and therefore us, that he goes ahead to prepare a place for us: “For in God’s house there are many dwelling places.” Jesus tells the Twelve that if they have seen him, they have seen God, for each is in the other. “Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever believes in me will do the works that I do, and will do greater ones than these.”
Jesus does not limit these works of God to the Twelve, or to people in a certain location or to men only. The story of the Samaritan women is a perfect case in point. Samaritans were despised by the Jews and this particular woman, drawing water from Jacob’s well, was despised by her own people. She had had five husbands and was living “in sin” with another. She could not have been more socially or religiously outcast. But Jesus’ interaction with her illuminates in her the knowledge that he is indeed the Chosen One, and he urges her to go share the Good News with her people. Jesus uses her to evangelize! A Samaritan – a woman!
It would seem that part of the diversity of God’s house – the many dwelling places – aptly mirror the diversity here on earth of the people God chooses to do God’s work. There are many talents, in many unexpected or non-sanctioned places – ALL INTENDED to accomplish the works that Christ did and to do “even greater ones.”
Which brings me back to my earlier question: Is this snapshot of the early diaconate, as wonderful as it appears? Without hesitation, I would say that the photo is only partially developed and so the true picture of the early community is very blurry and out of focus. This reading does not truly mirror the early community with regards to the ministry of deacon. Biblically and historically, there is a much different story to be told.
Women were very involved in diaconal ministry-- for example Phoebe, whom Paul praises in Romans as Deacon of Cenchrea, and they remained in this service throughout many centuries here in the West and in some areas of the Eastern Church, to this very day. Scripture also points to other women deacons, for example in 1 Timothy 3:8-11 which speaks of the characteristics that male deacons should have and then states that the “women likewise must be serious, not slanderers, but temperate, faithful in all things.”
Furthermore, Church historians, fathers and theologians have affirmed the existence of women deacons since the beginning of Christianity. Origen, of the 3rd century stated that the reference to Phoebe “teaches by apostolic authority that women also are appointed in the ministry of the Church.” Later, John Chrysostom believed the 1st Timothy reference as Paul speaking of those women who hold the rank of deacon, not as addressing deacon’s wives.”
“Clement of Alexandria, Theodoret of Cyrrhus, Theodore of Mopsuestia, and Pelagius joined John in this interpretation: that it is fitting for women to perform duties similar to those of deacons.’” Abelard in the 12th century not only quoted Origen, but would also quote “Jerome (fourth century), Cassiodorus (sixth century), and Claudius of Turin (ninth century) to support (t)his reading as well.”
So, why is this important to our discussion of the first reading? Quite simply, if you did not know the history of the early community, you would think that only men were called to be deacons. Women are not mentioned; therefore, women were not active in this ministry. This snapshot is a distortion of our community’s reality. Besides Scripture, there is much solid archeological and written evidence supporting early women deacons. I myself, did not know this until after years of study. How therefore is the average parishioner, who does not have a theological background or at least a more than passing interest in the matter, going to view the office of deacon?
We owe it to ourselves to be mindful of our own wisdom as to what our “needs” are as a community. We need to have the courage of the early Hellenists to put our needs out there for those in authority to understand “what” and “whom” we need in ministry. We must be courageous in our support of the Vatican II document’s vision of the Church of God. We need to blossom in our Baptismal Promise to be Priest for one another, Prophet to All and King – one who follows the ancient notion of “ordo” – what are we called to be, not what is conferred upon us.
In closing I share some of the words of Jesuit Fr. Arturo Sosa, who addressed the Voices of Faith event at the Vatican on International Women’s Day. Fr. Sosa stated: “We have to work harder to develop a profound theology of women. I will add an ecclesiology, a study of church, that includes women equally. The inclusion of women in the church is a creative way to promote the necessary changes in it. . . It should push the church to become the People of God as we proclaim by the Second Vatican Council. Women’s creativity can open new ways of being a Christian community of disciples, men and women together, witnesses and preachers of the good news.”
In other words, we need a better camera – or at least a better snapshot of what the church has been for us historically and what it is called to be in today’s world.
Cynthia (Sam) M. Bowns, of Crete, Illinois, recently retired as a development associate and alumni coordinator at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. Sam has a Masters of Divinity and a certificate in spiritual formation from Catholic Theological Union, where she continues to volunteer. A married mother of three, she has served for decades in a variety of parish ministries, including co-chair of RCIA, lector, Eucharistic minister and art and environment.
Sam, a certified spiritual director, became a vocal advocate for restoring a women’s diaconate as she accompanied her husband throughhis discernment and training as a deacon in the Diocese of Joliet and came to experience a call to the diaconate herself. Sam has been interviewed or featured by the National Catholic Reporter, America Magazine, and PBS in their reporting on the possibility of ordaining women deacons.