September 2023

This issue's theme:

“I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church….” ~ Saint Paul 

Discovering Phoebe

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?



For further reading:

From Anne's Bookshelf

PHOEBE, A STORY by Paula Gooder

Discovering the work of contemporary women on the issues of women as deacons led me to learning about the deacon Phoebe of ancient times through this book by Paula Gooder.

In this work of fiction, with its involved research, we can ponder the Church of the first century, imagine the Roman world then, get a feel for the power and energy of Saint Paul, and speculate about the role of women then, and now.

Gooder is a writer and lecturer in biblical studies. She works for the Church of England as the Director of Mission Learning and Development. 

About the book:


About the author:




First century children had much to contend with, but environmental issues were not part of their time. But our children must cope with this disturbing reality. Adults have a responsibility to help them find hope and make good choices in their own lives.

Celebrating the Season of Creation (September 1-October 4) is one way to begin this. This is observed by many Christian denominations throughout the world. Encourage the children in your life to take these weeks to appreciate the nature around them. Start them on a way of life in which the natural world is forever in their hearts. Help them find ways to observe and enjoy aspects of nature as part of each day.

Challenge yourself and a child:


How many birds have you seen today? Can you name what kinds they were?

  • Obtain a bird identification book or an online source for your area to do this.


Find five different kinds of leaves. Note the differences in shape, size, texture and color.

  • Do crayon rubbings of these and other leaves. Label the rubbings with the names of the kinds of plants the leaves come from, staple these together for your own leaf-identification book.


Listen and look around each day. There is much to observe no matter where you live.

  • Take a walk and look for flowers, acorns, etc. Is the sun warm on your shoulders? What do the clouds look like? Even in busy urban areas, you can feel the wind and see it move branches and leaves, you may hear birds nearby, and even see weeds conquering sidewalks as they push their way through concrete. If you are really lucky, you may hear, see and smell rain pouring down!


Encouraging this kind of observation will help build curiosity about the natural world, which leads to appreciation and concern for it. It will be a good beginning.


Further resources:


Above is the author’s Season of Creation table, a visual way to celebrate this time of caring for creation. Acorns and pine corns, sticks and leaves will be added by a child during the weeks of September and early October.

A SAINT FOR SEPTEMBER : A Story for Kids by Anne


Introduction for Adults:

This is an introduction to the little-known Saint Phoebe. As this story requires an awareness of life in the first century, it is best for grades 4 and up. Information from the above reflection may be helpful. Encourage a discussion on the role of women in the ancient and current Church.  St. Phoebe's feast day is September 3.


The wind was strong today, as I watched a ship set sail for Rome. I am Cassandra, and I live in the Greek city of Cenchreae. Daily I see ships, moving in and out of the port, but the ship I watched was special. It carries an important letter.


It was written by the great Paul. Have you heard of him? He is a powerful preacher. He spent time here with us, telling us all about the man Jesus, who Paul believes—he knows—is God! Not the gods of the Greeks. Not the gods of the Romans. He taught us about a gentle Jew called Jesus, who came to tell us about the God of love, and the ways we should live with one another. Little by little, these teachings are changing people.


Paul speaks so well. And he writes well too. He is a very learned man. Our issues here in Greece were a real challenge to Paul. He is traveling now, but we have his letters to help us. The particular letter bound for Rome was written to the community of Jesus’ followers there. I wonder if the community in Rome has as many problems as the one here in Corinth!


For a long time, I sat and watched that ship moving away from me, for also on this ship is my friend and sister in community, Phoebe.


Phoebe! She is a follower of Jesus, sharing her time and energy. She cares about others, especially those who are suffering from poverty and unfairness. Phoebe is also so generous! She is wealthy, but she constantly shares what she has with others. I admire her and try to follow her example in many ways.


Together she and others in our small community around Corinth work to sustain the life of our new, small church. We baptize and anoint those new to the faith. We look out for people who live on the edges of society, particularly the widows and orphans. And we assist in our liturgies, proclaiming and preaching the Gospel.


But as of today, Phoebe has taken on a very different responsibility. She is the one who delivers that letter. Paul asked her to do this. It is no small request. I pray she arrives safely. It will be a long, rough trip.


But Paul chose her. He knows Phoebe and what she can do. I think it likely she will also be the one to read the letter to followers in Rome, and to explain it. I wonder what kind of reception she will get there.


Ah, Phoebe…we will miss you. Farewell and Godspeed!