Women served as deacons in Europe for about a millennium in a variety of ministerial and sacramental roles, according to Phyllis Zagano, an author and professor of religion at Hofstra University, and Bernard Pottier, S.J., a faculty member at the Institut D’Études Théologiques in Brussels, in an interview this week with America. “They anointed ill women; they brought communion to ill women,” said Ms. Zagano.
They also participated in baptism, served as treasurers and, in at least one case, participated in an annulment.
Discussing that annulment, Ms. Zagano said a woman in Syria “complained that her husband was beating her. It was the woman deacon who examined the bruises and gave the testimony to the bishop. Well, to me, that’s an annulment—she is providing the information.”
“To say that everybody did the same thing all over I think is disingenuous,” Ms. Zagano added.
“But to say that everybody did the same thing all over I think is disingenuous,” Ms. Zagano added.
Father Pottier said he was able to find strong evidence of women deacons in church records and histories, but “not everywhere and not always because it was also a choice of the bishop.”
In an interview with Michael J. O’Loughlin, America’s national correspondent, on Jan. 14, Ms. Zagano and Father Pottier, who serve on the Vatican’s Study Commission on the Women’s Diaconate, discussed their research on women deacons and the early church. They emphasized that roles for women deacons varied greatly depending on geography. The two commission members were in New York for a symposium at the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture called “The Future of Women Deacons,” which convened on Jan. 15.
Ms. Zagano said, “There was ordination…. The most interesting evidence is the fact that the ordination ceremonies [we discovered] for women deacons were identical to the ordination ceremonies for men.”
Father Pottier said women began to serve as deacons “very early” in the Eastern church but by the 10th century that ministry ended. In the West, women served as deacons from approximately the fifth century until the 11th or 12th century.
Ms. Zagano has devoted much of her career to studying the role of women deacons, most recently in Rome at the invitation of Pope Francis.
“I was able to see original manuscripts,” she said. “I was able to see original 17th-century books.” She had a chance to reread a lot of the material she had already studied and “actually found a few new things for myself.”
“It was an extraordinary experience,” she added, “because I would go home at night, and typically in the Holy Father’s house a cardinal or a bishop, or four cardinals and four bishops, would be at the dinner table. So the conversations after work were equally exciting to me.”
She added, “[Some cardinals] were very interested in the topic. Other cardinals were not that interested. And I did have a couple of complaints, mostly from Africa, that we were trying to push an American idea into Africa. I said, ‘No one is pushing anything to anybody.’”
What the Vatican will do with the commission’s report is unclear, according to Ms. Zagano and Father Pottier. The Vatican commission was not tasked with making recommendations to the pope but with researching the “historical reality” of women deacons, they said.
Asked about her hopes for role of women in the church in the future, Ms. Zagano said, “I hope that the church will not be denied what it needs.
“I truly believe that the church needs more [people in] ministry,” she said. “I speak to bishops and cardinals from South America. One bishop said he had five million Catholics and 400 priests.”