Friday of the Thirtieth Week in Ordinary Time
Paul’s opening sentence in the Letter to the Philippians has given pause for reflection. He addresses the letter to “all the holy ones in Philippi with the bishops and deacons.” We wonder, “Is it not odd that there would be bishops in a church as small as the one in Philippi? And what might these deacons do?” The situation provokes further interest because in his Letter to the Romans, Paul describes Phoebe, a woman, as having the same diaconal function. Are some of the deacons in Philippi then women?
It is possible that Paul has women in mind when he writes. However, this does not mean that women were ordained deacons in the early church as we ordain men to the permanent diaconate today. When Paul writes “deacon,” he may intend what we think of as a minister. Almost certainly he is not addressing multiple bishops as we consider the term but rather people with responsibility for overseeing the welfare of the community. Paul is writing before the time when both bishop and deacon had the theological meaning that they carry today.
The Church has never definitively ruled out ordaining women to the diaconate. The matter demands further study of Scripture passages like the one we read today. However, even if making women deacons never happens, women still perform valuable ministry. In a short story titled “The Deacon” Mary Gordon describes a woman religious performing all kinds of services in a busy, urban parish. The tale reflects the experience that we see all the time. The Church simply could not function without the ministry of women.