She Who Serves

Holy Saturdayby Phyllis ZaganoCrossroad. 192p $16.95 (paper)

The arguments for women’s ordination to the diaconate have been circulating for a number of years, indeed centuries. What then is Zagano’s original contribution to this important ecclesial discussion and debate? In my opinion, it is simply this: She writes in a synthetic way for a new generation and for a new millennium.

Holy Saturday is informative, accessible and engaging. In this volume, Zagano provides a comprehensive and carefully crafted historical analysis of the question. Her reasoning is coherent and cogent. Whether or not readers ultimately agree with Zagano’s conclusions, the traditional Scholastic style of this book has a certain appeal. If the requisite for authentic dialogue in the church and about the church is attentive listening, critical questioning and a committed faith stance, Zagano offers an example for thinking with the church, the whole church. From the outset, it is evident that Zagano takes very seriously her baptism and her vocation as a theologian. Her scholarship is rooted in discipleship and stewardship. This book is an example of loving service to the community of believers. It proposes the retrieval of memory and the pursuit of insight as faithful and creative alternatives to amnesia and naïveté.


The book is divided into three sections. In the first section, "Preparing the Argument," Zagano asserts that "the Church must formalize the ministry of women." Her reasoning follows a logic that is both faith-based and needs-based. Essentially, this section provides an introductory survey of the affirmations and tensions, both theological and structural, that inform and influence magisterial teachings and ecclesial practices regarding the participation of women in the life of the church.

In the second section of the book, Zagano lays out "The Argument." Simply stated, Zagano identifies and explores seven aspects of the argument that have direct bearing on the adequacy and appropriateness of the claim that "the restoration of the female diaconate is necessary for the continuance of the apostolic life and ministry of the Roman Catholic Church." These aspects include: 1) the church’s teachings on the ontological equality of men and women; 2) the church’s reasons for not ordaining women to the priesthood; 3) a canonical explanation of why the judgment that women cannot be ordained priests does not apply to the question of whether women can be ordained deacons; 4) historical and contemporary evidence of women who are called and have been called to the diaconate; 5) an explanation of the scholarly position that there are stronger arguments from scripture, history, tradition and theology that women may be ordained deacons than that women may not be ordained deacons; 6) documentation of how women have continually served the church in diaconal ministry, whether ordained to such service or not; and 7) an exposition of why the ordained ministry of service by women is necessary to the church, that is to both the people of God and the hierarchy. This section, which constitutes the bulk of the book, is impressively documented. Above and beyond Zagano’s own commentary, one of the most important contributions she makes to Catholic studies as well as women’s studies in religion, is her gathering of and attentiveness to a noteworthy and exhaustive compendium of resources.

The third and final section provides "Conclusions"that serve to advance the position that the ordination of women to the diaconate is possible. Among other considerations, Zagano highlights the fact that the ordination of women to the diaconate is a matter of ecumenical interest, particularly with regard to the Orthodox churches. Zagano concludes that inasmuch "as the ordination of women to the diaconate was once possible, so it is possible again." In contrast with the previous section, this one is very brief and somewhat underdeveloped. Inasmuch as the average reader is likely to be unfamiliar with the history of women deacons in Eastern Orthodoxy in general and largely unaware of developments in the Armenian Apostolic Church in particular, Zagano’s turn to the East may leave some readers unsatisfied, uncertain and somewhat perplexed. On the other hand, by choosing such a conclusion, Zagano requires the reader to enter into a larger arena of discourse, to take leave of the familiar discussions and debates, and to venture into new relationships and to engage in unexpected conversations. One might even argue that this is a requisite of hope.

Well researched and well written, the book anticipates the interests, the questions and the needs of thoughtful individuals and committed communities of faith who are willing to wrestle with the dynamics and ambiguities of history, authority, possibility and grace. Though Zagano’s context for inquiry is the United States, she is keenly aware of the broad implications of her study for the church as it seeks to respond to the people of God in a global context. To this end, Zagano’s grounding in the Roman Catholic tradition enables her to serve as an interpreter for the local church as well as an interlocutor for the world church. I predict that far beyond the borders of the church in North America, this book will have a reading, a relevance and a repercussion that may exceed the author’s expectations.

Though Zagano’s conclusions may leave some readers with a new or renewed sense of hope, it is reasonable to assume that others may find her tenacity in resurfacing the neuralgic question of women’s ordination a serious affront to the teaching authority of the church. Wherever readers may fall on the continuum of opinion and criticism, it is my hope that the icon (The Myrrhaphores) selected for the cover will focus the attention of all who pick up this book and cause each one to ponder the real mystery of diakonia before reading a word. The icon depicts three women who have returned to the place where, following his crucifixion, the body of Jesus was laid to rest the previous day. Alabaster jars in hand, stepping over the bodies of four sleeping centurions, the women are greeted by an angel who directs their attention to the empty tomb. Inasmuch as image is insight, the icon discloses the conditions of both possibility and fulfillment. So does this book.

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