What we can learn from the women deacons of the early Eastern Christian church

A woman holds a sign in support of women deacons as Pope Francis leads his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican Nov. 6, 2019. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

The Very Rev. Mark Morozowich serves as Dean of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at The Catholic University of America, where he also holds the position of associate professor of Liturgical Studies/Sacramental Theology. A Ukrainian Catholic priest from western Pennsylvania, Father Morozowich in 2012 became the first Eastern Christian priest to serve as the dean of the School of Theology and Religious Studies and director of liturgy at C.U.A., making him arguably the highest-profile Byzantine theologian currently working in the United States.

Father Morozowich holds a S.E.O.D. (Doctorate in Eastern Christian Studies) and an S.E.O.L. (licentiate) from the Jesuit-run Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome, where he completed his dissertation on Holy Thursday in the Byzantine tradition from the fourth to the fourteenth centuries under the legendary Eastern Catholic scholar Robert Taft, S.J. He and Father Taft co-founded the Society of Oriental Liturgy in 2006. On Dec. 10, I interviewed Father Morozowich by telephone about the ancient institution of deaconesses, presenting a perspective on the Eastern Christian practice rarely heard in current debates about the role of women in the Catholic Church. In this interview, we focused on explaining the ancient practices in light of current discussions, seeking to inform and enlighten rather than to debate. The following transcript of our interview has been edited for style and length.

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What did deaconesses do in the early church?

The earliest period of Christianity flourished with great attention to the members of the community, with great care shown for women in the church. The New Testament demonstrates concern for the widows as well as the general well-being of women. The nascent Christian community worked assiduously to continue to spread the message of Jesus Christ and to develop ways of continuing to realize His mystery in their midst.

The community established and honed various rituals and key among them is baptism. From very early on we have witnesses of baptism by immersion and some of our earliest churches had rather large baptismal fonts. For the sake of propriety and modesty, as well as the protection of women, men were not to assist in the complete immersion baptism to avoid leering. Caring for women in these key ways eventually led to a formal office of the deaconess.

The nascent Christian community worked assiduously to continue to spread the message of Jesus Christ and to develop ways of continuing to realize His mystery in their midst.

In 2016, Pope Francis established a commission to examine the ancient role of deaconesses in the Catholic Church, but its members presented a Western Christian perspective. What does Eastern Christianity, including your own Byzantine Catholic tradition, add to this discussion that many people haven’t already heard?

For starters, many eastern non-Catholic Churches continue to have deaconesses today. Although they are very rare and do not function in largely public ways, their existence is important to note and to take into account. I know of no Eastern Catholic community that has deaconesses today.

I would like to broaden our discussion to look at the various complexities of Eastern Christian ordination rituals and practices as I believe they will help to provide a different perspective. Eastern Christianity, Catholic and Orthodox, preserves the ancient historical witnesses of married men being ordained into the presbyterate. This unbroken tradition from the earliest times demonstrates a different way of thinking about holy orders.

The Western tradition differed with the addition of mandatory celibacy beginning in the twelfth century. This disciplinary difference also creates differing expectations and understanding of the various offices. Let’s look for a minute at the ordination ceremonies themselves for other insights.

All diaconate, presbyteral and episcopal ordination rituals in the Byzantine liturgy share a common structure, as well as one prayer that begins: “The Divine Grace which heals that which is infirm…” indicating the clear understanding of our human condition and the reliance on the Holy Spirit to fulfill the ministry given to the person being ordained. This poignant prayer focuses the community upon the centrality of the work of the spirit in the midst of the faithful. This structure has remained throughout the centuries from the earliest euchologion texts still in existence. The central role of the Spirit speaks more about charism than about powers and this impacts conceptualizations regarding the exercise of ministry.

What do the Byzantine liturgical documents tell us about deaconesses?

The most ancient extant euchologion of the Byzantine tradition, the Barberini Greek 336 codex that dates from the 8th century, has an explicit section for the ordination of women to the diaconate. The prayers for ordaining deaconesses share the exact same structure as those used for ordaining men as deacons. In fact, it calls for the same prayer, “The Divine Grace,” as used for all other ordinations as previously noted. Also, the oldest manuscripts indicate that deaconesses were ordained at the altar and received communion at the hand of the patriarch within the chancel barrier.

The prayers for ordaining deaconesses share the exact same structure as those used for ordaining men as deacons.

This clear indication of women in the sanctuary would probably challenge some Eastern Christians today who have adopted a later deformation of their tradition by barring women from the sanctuary. I wish we could say more, but so little is known to us from these sources other than the prayer rituals themselves.

Pope Francis has said the surviving Western rites of ordination for a deaconess resemble the installation of an abbess more than the ordination of a man as deacon. Is that also true in the Eastern Christian ritual of the Barbarini codex?

I’ve never studied the Western ordination ritual regarding the installation of an abbess in detail. But if we look at the ceremony for the ordination of a deaconess in the Constantinopolitan tradition, based upon the Barbarini codex, we see the exact same structure of ordination as deacons. We have a public election, the laying on of hands, the invocation of the Holy Spirit, and the same vestments—including the stole as symbol of office—conferred on deacons. They obviously had a delineation of roles for the deaconesses and we can even see that from other historiographical witnesses. We don’t have a clear idea of what the deaconesses did or didn’t do in the liturgical services. Many good historical studies point to their activity in female religious communities as well as continuing the ministry to the women.

However, as infant baptism predominates in modern times their role with baptisms is not apparent today. So the Eastern witness does not give a clear historical precedent for deaconess doing the exact same things as deacons. This important fact from history is important to note as we reflect today upon these possibilities.

What does this historical evidence of deaconesses mean for Catholics today?

I think that the most important aspect to remember is that the church [historically] valued women and saw them as important to its life. However, their role in governance remains marginalized, even today. This differs from ordination and since Vatican II more and more effort has been made to increase their role, for example as chancellors, canon lawyers, etc. While these advances are positive, clearly more work needs to be done on this front.

I think that the separation of the issue regarding governance and liturgical ministry are crucial. Let’s look at the historical witness and how it might help to answer questions about whether or not ordination of deaconesses necessitates ordination to the presbyterate. At no time in the history of the Eastern tradition do we find evidence of the ordination of women to the priesthood. So the Byzantine tradition admitted women to the diaconate and did not find it necessary or compelling to admit them to the priesthood. Nor do we have clear evidence that they functioned in exactly the same manner as deacons.

This does not necessitate a negative view to women at the time: the history of the Byzantine Empire provides many witnesses of powerful women even as empresses. Empress Theodora provides a good example of a very powerful woman who even exercised important influence on the church. So I think that we need to challenge contemporary power structures and see what possibilities exist today for women to have greater roles in the church today. I think that we need to develop the understanding of church governance and differentiate ways that women can influence, shape and guide our communities that don’t depend upon the category of ordination.

We need to challenge contemporary power structures and see what possibilities exist today for women to have greater roles in the church today.

What relevance do ancient deaconesses have for ongoing debates about the role of women in the Catholic Church?

As I have said before, we need to differentiate the liturgical ministerial roles from the roles of governance. Too often the argument seems to be that the early church wasn’t even thinking of women, but we have to be mindful of its context, of what people were saying and doing in various epochs as well as the differing questions that people are asking today.

I find it very alarming that women are attempting ordination as Catholics in their own circles and posing as Catholic priests; that’s a great harm to the church and to our faithful. The whole conversation needs to be much more nuanced, looking at the whole church and the needs of people throughout the world, in their own particular situations. I think what Pope Francis did in opening up the discussions to scholars is an important step. Frankly, we need more academic research in order to more completely delineate the tradition of the church. I am alarmed that many people don’t seem interested in researching the various liturgical traditions. I am not just speaking to this issue of deaconesses, but, in general, we lack a diversity of studies explaining the historical development of liturgical tradition.

We need more doctoral dissertations written on the earliest development of our traditions and this applies to Eastern and also to Western Christianity. This type of work is quite demanding, but it helps to elucidate tradition and to free us from glib notions that fail to adequately address the richness of our traditions.

Historical theology now tells us the threefold ordained office of deacon-priest-bishop evolved only gradually during the first centuries of Christianity, as the biblical offices of deacon-presbyter-overseer did not initially resemble what they later became. As a liturgical and sacramental theologian, what do you find challenging about the murkiness of this history in trying to say with certainty what deaconesses did and where they did it from the earliest days of Christianity?

I think when we look at who we are, what we are and what we do, we always need to be mindful of the way we engage in our historical context. Tradition is lived and we need to be aware of the way we understand it. We need to be aware of the ways that traditions were handed down, even orally. Many people today want simple historical facts demonstrated by written evidence. But while that’s important, we have to look especially at our earliest history in its broadest context.

Tradition is lived and we need to be aware of the way we understand it.

The uncanny uniformity of so much of our early liturgical life challenges us. We need to acknowledge our prejudices and preconceptions in studying the past and allow it to speak in its entirety. In this way, we can re-examine the accepted received tradition in light of its actual historical context. This broader approach will lead to a richer understanding of our tradition.

Can you say more about that?

For example, the local people of Jerusalem upheld an oral tradition about where Jesus was buried, a tradition the early church accepted for centuries even though no concrete proof existed. Likewise, we cannot study the tradition of deaconesses in history with the same expectation of historicity operative today. In addition to looking at documents, we have to accept how the church has received and accepted the tradition, at how it has connected the dots. Just because we don’t have positive written evidence for or against a situation doesn’t mean something wasn’t going on. When we look at the earliest Eucharistic prayers in our records, not all of them included the words of institution like Addai and Mari, but, eventually, all of them included these words. Sometimes we do find everything written out and that’s great. But sometimes we don’t and we have to put together the witness as received and understand, as best we’re able, how something came to be—sometimes even through artistic representations. So the received tradition of the church is very important as a measure.

If we understand “women deacons” as referring to women receiving the same diaconate ordination and fulfilling the same liturgical functions as men, would that practice be an innovation in the Catholic Church today?

That’s a difficult question involving people’s expectations. We do need to see the liturgical issues clearly. We need to promote women in the church. If we’ve learned anything about pastoral ministry in the past 50 years, liturgy isn’t the only aspect of ministry, and thriving churches seem attentive precisely to the kind of ministry Phoebe did.

The church is not just the liturgy or hierarchy, but the whole people, the whole body of Christ.

The church is not just the liturgy or hierarchy, but the whole people, the whole body of Christ. The more we realize today that we need to put more attention on the ministries women can already exercise, promoting the right people pastorally or administratively, the more we will find we already have ways for women to do what Phoebe did.

Most of the important roles of women over the centuries, including spiritual direction, have not included ordination. However, we have neglected these roles in many ways and we need to accentuate them today. Our deeper challenge right now is to encourage all Catholics to see the Church as not simply a sacramental dispensary, but as a true place of the unity of the Body of Christ, a place of mutual support of one another.

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