I have read many a saint story, as a child and later as a writer of children’s religious materials. So, I was a bit surprised just a couple of years ago when I started hearing talk about St. Phoebe (pronounced fee-bee) as I had never learned about her. Here is part of the reason: she is mentioned just once in scripture, in only two lines from Saint Paul: 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 26: 1-2)
In the first century, Paul was working hard to build up the very young Church. One way he did this was by writing letters to the scattered communities. His Letter to the Romans is one of the most frequently read books in the Bible and has been described as the most systematic presentation of Christian doctrine in all of Scripture. It has even been called “the greatest letter ever written.”
And Paul needed to get that letter to Rome. He chose a woman named Phoebe for this significant and demanding task. So who was Phoebe?
Saint Paul’s two sentences give us numerous clues: he “commends” her to the Roman community and asks them to receive her “in the Lord.” He thought highly of her and wants them to welcome her, assist her, and respect her.
He calls her a deacon of the Church. Historical research shows that this term meant she was a very active leader in her community, most likely a part of liturgical and sacramental life. From Paul’s words, “she has been the benefactor of many people, including me,” it is likely she was wealthy and independent, and used her wealth to help others in need, and to support the community—including Paul himself. Later descriptions of the working relationship of Paul and Phoebe are “colleagues,” and “mutual ambassadors.” We also know that Phoebe was a Greek and a Gentile.
Looking at the implications of the task Paul asked of Phoebe, we can surmise that she was a leader, intelligent, and a woman of authority.
Based on Paul’s words, it is believed that it was Phoebe herself who carried the letter to Rome. From her home in Cenchreae, Greece, to Rome, Italy, was over 700 miles, and she probably traveled much of this by ship. It is also likely that she not only brought the letter to Rome, but also delivered it orally several times, possibly explaining it as she read it aloud.
There were other women leading house churches in the early Church. Some were Mary, mother of John Mark, in Jerusalem, Apphia in Colossae, Nympha in Laodicea, Lydia in Thyatira. Tecla, Priscilla, and Junia were important names from that period also.
So, there really were women deacons in the early Christian Church? There are numerous references to women deacons in letters, wills, chronicles, and epigraphs (a short stand-alone quote, line, or paragraph that appears at the beginning of a book—I had to look that one up!). Most importantly, there is evidence of ordination rites for women deacons in the Western and Eastern churches.
What did these women deacons do? Like all orders in the Church, deacons played different roles in different times and places. What Phoebe and other women deacons may have done was read the Gospel, preach, and teach. Some played liturgical roles. Some had sacramental roles, particularly in anointing and baptizing other women. Often they ministered to the poor, widowed, and orphaned in their communities. Wealthy deacons supported their communities financially and some advised male church leaders.
Now, two thousand years later, Pope Francis is asking: can we imagine women as deacons? And how do we go about imagining it? The Synod will grapple with this. And you are part of the Synod. What do you think and feel? Who do you talk with about this? What are you imagining?
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