Documented Appeal to Pope Francis to Request the Re-instatement of the Ordained Diaconate for Women
3 September 2015
Feasts of St Phoebe and St Gregory the Great
Dear Pope Francis,
Respectfully we ask you to restore to women the diaconal ordination in our Roman Catholic Church. How better may we embrace the Spirit and respond to the signs of the times than by giving such freedom and dignity to women, for the good of all, in equality and fraternity?
Contemporary research shows that tens of thousands of women served as ordained deacons during the first millennium of the Church: in Italy, Gaul, Greece, Asia Minor, Palestine and Egypt. That they received a full diaconate ordination is clear, a ‘sacramental’ ordination in today’s theological language. Here is a prayer of 780 AD:
Holy and Omnipotent Lord,
through the birth of your Only Son our God from a Virgin according to the flesh,
you have sanctified the female sex.
You grant not only to men, but also to women the grace and coming of the Holy Spirit.
Please, Lord, look on this your maidservant and dedicate her to the task of your diaconate, and pour out into her the rich and abundant giving of your Holy Spirit.
Codex Barberini Gr.336
Many documents confirm that these ordinations were by the imposition of the bishop’s hands and took place in the sanctuary, in front of the altar and during the Eucharistic Liturgy immediately after the Anaphora, just like for the ordination of male deacons, presbyters, and bishops. Several of your predecessors authorised Sacramentaries containing ordination prayers for women deacons.
There should be no room in our Roman Catholic Church today for the rationale which subverted female deacons in the Middle Ages: the phobia concerning menstruation and the conceit that women are innately inferior to men.
The need for the ministry of women deacons is plain in every country. May your hands be the first to restore the diaconal dignity to women.
We take this occasion to express our consideration and esteem in Christ.
Luca Badini Confalonieri, Research Director,
on behalf of the Trustees, Patrons and Staff of the Wijngaards Institute
Social and cultural changes are giving women in our time the opportunity to play vital roles in so many areas of life. This also affects Christian communities all over the world. There is an urgent need for the Roman Catholic Church to recognise the important pastoral ministries already exercised by women, and to invite others to take up similar responsibilities.
For the Roman Catholic Church to meet this challenge adequately, we urgently request you to reinstate the ordination of women to the diaconal ministry that existed during the Church’s first millennium.
Women’s diaconate in the past
For almost a thousand years women deacons prepared female catechumens for baptism. They anointed them during the baptismal ceremony itself. They assisted female members of the congregation during church services. They visited the sick and took them the Viaticum. They anointed the dying and arranged the deceased for their funeral. In the absence of a male deacon, they assisted the presbyter at the altar when celebrating the Eucharist.
Research has shown that tens of thousands of women served as fully ordained deacons in local churches during ten long centuries. Some of them ministered in Italy and Gaul, but the majority lived and worked in Greece, Asia Minor, Syria, Palestine and Egypt, remembering that these latter were Eastern regions of the Christian Church as yet undivided by the schism of 1054 AD.
The ordination rite for women deacons
The ordination of women deacons was clearly a real ordination, ‘sacramental’ to use today’s terms and substantially identical to the ordination of male deacons. The rite has been preserved in ancient manuscripts, such as the Barberini Gr 336 (780 AD), the Bessarion (1020 AD), Vatican Mss Gr 1872 (1100 AD), the Coislin Gr 213 (1050 AD) and the Codex Vaticanus Syr 19.
That the rite conferred a full ordination to the diaconate, equivalent to that for male deacons, is clear from the following facts:
• The female deacon, just like her male counterpart, was ordained by the Bishop who imposed hands on her while invoking the Holy Spirit: “Holy and Omnipotent Lord, through the birth of your Only Son our God from a Virgin according to the flesh, you have sanctified the female sex. You grant not only to men, but also to women the grace and coming of the Holy Spirit. Please, Lord, look on this your maid servant and dedicate her to the task of your diaconate, and pour out into her the rich and abundant giving of your Holy Spirit.”
• The Bishop, while still imposing hands, spoke a second prayer of ordination, the ekphonese, characteristic only for the three major orders of episcopacy, presbyterate and diaconate.
• Before the ordination of both the male and female deacon the Bishop publicly declared his intention of ordaining the candidate to be a deacon in the ‘Divine Grace’ statement, as only happened for all major orders.
• The ordination of both male and female deacon took place in the sanctuary before the altar, during the liturgy of the Eucharist and at a very solemn moment, namely after the sacred Anaphora, just like for the ordination of male deacons, presbyters, and bishops. In contrast, so-called minor orders, such as the lectorate and subdiaconate, were imparted by a simple imposition of hands outside the sanctuary and not during the Eucharist.
• Both the male and the female deacons received the diaconal stole, the diakonikon, as a sign of their ecclesiastical rank.
• During the ordination rite the bishop handed the chalice to the female deacon, just as he did for the male deacon, which indicates that deacons of both sexes had equal authority to distribute communion.
These features convince a vast majority of scholars that the rite was a true ordination establishing women as much as men in the major order of the diaconate.
Confirmation in Tradition
Overwhelming evidence shows that, at least in the Eastern part of the Church, women were fully accepted as ordained ministers during the first millennium.
In Scripture we read about “Phoebe, our sister, who is a deacon [diakonos] of the church at Cenchreae” (Romans 16,1-2). Scholars attribute to her a true ministry. We find the instruction in 1 Timothy 3,8-11: “Deacons [diakonous] must be serious, reliable in what they say, not given to wine, not greedy for money […]. The women in the same way should be respectable, not gossips, but sober and reliable in everything.” That this last sentence refers to ordained women deacons and not deacons’ wives follows from an attentive reading of the Greek text and is confirmed by the interpretation of early Greek Fathers of the Church.
The First Council of Nicea (325 AD), while declaring invalid the diaconate of women in the sect of Paul of Samosata “because those women had not received the imposition of hands”, implicitly acknowledged women’s diaconate as a valid order in the Church. The Council of Chalcedon (451 AD) imposed a minimum age on female deacons, as it did on male deacons and priests, an injunction repeated by the Council of Trullo (692 AD).
The ministry of women deacons is mentioned or commended by the Fathers of the Church: St Clement of Alexandria (150-215), Origen (185-255), Epiphanius of Salamis (315-403), St Basil of Caesaria (329-379), St John Chrysostom (344-407), St Gregory of Nyssa (335-394) and many others.
Just like male deacons, women deacons are extensively covered in early Pastoral Manuals, such as the Didascalia of the Apostles (ca 250 AD) and the Apostolic Constitutions (ca 380 AD). The latter contains early ordination rites for bishops, priests and deacons, including for women deacons. Church legislation, such as under Emperor Theodosius (390 AD) and Emperor Justinian I (529-564) gives women deacons the same rights and duties as other members of the clergy, apart from some specific provisions.
Many Popes endorsed women’s diaconate. Representatives of Pope Sylvester I (314-335) attended the Council of Nicea which accepted women deacons. Pope Innocent I (401-417) corresponded with John Chrysostom, the archbishop of Constantinople, who regularly ordained women deacons. The Council of Chalcedon, which imposed an age limit on women deacons, was partly organised by Pope Leo the Great (440-461). Pope Gregory I (440-461) composed a sacramentary which contained the ordination prayer for a woman deacon, identical to the prayer for a male deacon. At the request of Emperor Charlemagne, Pope Adrian I (772-795) sent a model sacramentary with ordination rites, the Hadrianum, to Gaul. It contained the ordination prayer for women deacons.
A Pastoral Need for Our Time
Though the ordination of women deacons remained known in the West till the Middle Ages, it met heavy resistance in many regions which had been part of the Roman empire. This was due to a bias against menstruation by which it was feared women could pollute the altar and the Roman belief that women are inferior to men. In the East the ordination of women deacons ceased after 1000 AD by a combination of the fact that the number of adult catechumens diminished and the same fear of menstruation.
Society in our time is rising above such ancient prejudices. Women are now proving their value in education, medicine, science, commerce, government and other spheres of modern life. Women too have been playing a crucial role in the life of the Catholic Church which often amounts to a real diaconal ministry. It is only right that they should be supported and affirmed in this by receiving a full ordination, as their male counterparts do.
Let us recall the teaching of the Early Church:
• “So, bishop, appoint for yourself fellow-workers in almsgiving, assistants who may co-operate with you towards life. You are to choose and appoint deacons from all the people who are pleasing to you, a man for the administration of the many things which are necessary, a woman however for the ministry of women, since there are houses where you can not send a deacon to the women because of the pagans but you can send a deaconess, and in many other matters there is need for an office of deaconess.” Didascalia 16 § 1 (250 AD)
• “The deacon […] is present as a type of Christ, and is therefore to be loved by you. And the deaconess is to be honoured by you as a type of the Holy Spirit.” Didascalia 9 § 3 (250 AD).
We take this opportunity to express our consideration and esteem in Christ.
To see the references and the names of the signatories, or to sign the letter yourself, go to: