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Deaconesses, Baptism and the Eucharist

A historical and sacramental look at deaconesses

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From the start, Christian men and women equally received baptism and the Eucharist (e.g. Acts 8:12). This was a radical advance for women over Judaism. Recall that in the Temple, only men were allowed inside the building proper and were adjacent to the area of priestly sacrifice; women had to stay outside in the Women’s Court. In contrast, everyone at Christian services came to the sanctuary to receive the Eucharist. This occurred readily because Jesus made recognition of spiritual equality an organic part of his Church.

The Lord demonstrated such equality abundantly. Even in his mother’s womb, he inspired both male and female to greet him as Lord: his cousins Elizabeth and the preborn John (cf. Lk 1:40-45). Jesus conversed with and healed both men and women. In his parables and prophecies, he paired male and female examples (e.g. Lk 15:1-10; Mt 24:17-19, 40-41). Thus he made clear that men and women partake equally in the universal vocation to holiness. While he created a new priesthood to which he called only men, he also ensured that both sexes have equal access to the sacraments of life (baptism, confirmation and the Eucharist).

Pastoral Response

A pastoral problem arose, however, because baptism in the early Church was of nude adults. How could the Church preserve the modesty of women receiving baptism? Significantly, the Church was committed to providing the sacrament to her daughters. Never were women denied baptism; instead, another woman would assist. Often curtains surrounded the baptistery and the baptizer could reach his hand through a flap to put it on the woman’s head to pronounce the baptismal formula.

In most churches, any Christian woman could assist at baptism, as Coptic, Greek and Latin documents attest. In missionary work, with no Christian community available, one catechumen could assist another, as recounted in the Acts of Thomas (third-century Syria). In the West, Gennadius of Marseille cited widows and nuns as well able “to teach with clear and wholesome speech” (aperto et sano sermone docere), instructing women for baptism. However, in some areas in the East, this role was restricted to women who had been blessed as deaconesses.

Significantly, in the West and much of the East, women in the Church had freedoms we take for granted in modern America. Women could speak directly to the clergy. Women, while menstruating or pregnant, were free to worship in church. Indeed, Pope Gregory the Great explained that women who had just given birth could attend church and receive holy Communion, because Jesus had set aside the Levitical laws of ritual impurity, as when he healed the woman with the flux of blood.

In some areas of the East, however, women lacked these freedoms. For instance, pregnant women were housebound due to societal norms. It is a great testament to the Church’s commitment to the sacramental life of women that in those areas of the East, the Church invented deaconesses to ensure that women could be baptized and that pregnant women could receive the Eucharist. In those cultures, it would have been scandalous for a cleric to visit a woman in her home, as reported in the Didascalia (third century, Syria). The Apostolic Constitutions (c. 380, Greek) further explained that a deaconess was also needed as an intermediary between women and the clergy, to relay any concerns. In short, the existence of deaconesses was an accommodation to cultures in which women were still under restrictions of the Old Law. A formal ministry of deaconesses existed in Constantinople, Jerusalem and among the Byzantine population of Southern Italy.

Role with the Eucharist

Note that the deaconess had a role with the Eucharist — not at the consecration, but in distributing the already consecrated gifts to women in certain circumstances. Therefore, the rite blessing her for this service was accorded special respect, and deaconesses were consecrated when men were ordained as deacons, during the Divine Liturgy (the Eastern counterpart to the Latin Mass). The rites for the deacon and deaconess, however, had several obvious differences, in action and in language. These matched the essential differences in the ministries of the two.

The Greek rite in the Codex Barberini is instructive. The man to be ordained a deacon wore an alb. When he entered the sanctuary, he knelt on his right knee, a liturgical posture indicating that he was receiving part of the powers of the priesthood (a man being ordained to the priesthood would kneel on both knees). The bishop placed his hand on the ordinand’s head and offered two prayers. They explain that God had chosen the deacon-elect to minister to “your immaculate mysteries,” meaning the Eucharist. These Greek prayers cite Christ and the apostles and use the term “deacon” (diakonos). The new deacon then stood and the bishop placed a diaconal stole (orarion) around his neck, laying it over a shoulder so that one end hung down in front and the other in back. This arrangement indicated one of his liturgical roles: with the orarion worn this way, the deacon could chant the petitions; during them, he reverently covers his uplifted hand with the front end of the stole.

Next, the bishop gave him a rhipidion, or liturgical fan, which is used in processions and, more importantly, during the Eucharistic liturgy, to fan the holy gifts on the altar. When the bishop had consecrated the Eucharist, he communicated the new deacon and handed him the chalice; the deacon then proceeded out of the sanctuary and distributed Communion to the faithful. Evidently, the deacon had adjusted his stole so that he was now wearing it in the manner used when distributing Communion — that is, with both ends to the front. This allowed him to cover each hand with an end of the stole and thus hold the chalice reverently.

When a woman was to be consecrated as a deaconess, however, she was not vested. Nor did she kneel. She only bowed her head. This stance indicated that she was being blessed, not ordained. Although the bishop placed his hand on her head and offered two prayers, they are unlike the prayers over the deacon. The first prayer for the woman affirmed spiritual equality: “O God, holy and omnipotent … through the birth in the flesh of Thine only begotten Son and our God from a Virgin, You sanctifieth the female, and not only the male” (Euchologion Barberini, No. 163). The woman was blessed to serve in God’s holy houses; no mention was made of the Eucharist. Moreover, the prayers lack weighty language from the prayers over the deacon: absent are the term “deacon” (or “deaconess”), reference to Christ and the apostles and diction used specifically of clergy — for example, “worthy.” Though the bishop then placed a stole around the neck of the new deaconess, he arranged it with both ends of the stole in front. This indicated that she could distribute the pre-consecrated Eucharist to women who were housebound, but she could not intone the ectanies (petitions) in the Divine Liturgy. Then, after the Eucharistic consecration, the bishop communicated her and handed her the chalice. In vivid contrast to the deacon, however, she placed the chalice on the altar and left the sanctuary. Her consecration was the only time she entered the sanctuary, as attested by, for example, Theodore Balsamon, 12th-century Patriarch of Antioch (Responsa, No. 35).

At this time, Eastern churches had separate places along the perimeter of the sanctuary, one for women, another for men. It would have been simplicity itself for the new deaconess to have taken the chalice to the women’s side and given Communion to them, if that had been the Church’s intention. But the deaconess was to take the Eucharist only to housebound women.

The documents present deaconesses consistently. They had a few sacramental roles aimed at respecting women’s modesty and provided works of practical charity specifically for women. Significantly, deaconesses had no liturgical role. In contrast, the deacon’s duties prominently included assisting at the Divine Liturgy — chanting the petitions, preaching, assisting at the altar, distributing the Eucharist — as well as works of practical charity. The differences between deacons and deaconesses accord with Canon 19 of the Council of Nicaea (325), in which it clearly states that deaconesses are members of the laity. As Aimé Georges Martimort concluded in the 1982 book “Deaconesses: An Historical Study” (Ignatius, $22.95): “However solemn may have been the ritual by which she was initiated into her ministry … a deaconess in the Byzantine rite was in no wise a female deacon. She exercised a totally different ministry from that of the deacons” (“Diaconesses,” [1982], pp. 443-44).

Mention must be made of a separate context in which deaconesses were needed: certain isolated Eastern women’s monasteries, especially among Syrian Monophysites. As Alfred Kalsbach documented nearly a century ago, diaconal abbesses in the fifth century, in the absence of clergy, could distribute pre-consecrated Communion to their sisters and could read the epistle and Gospel in their community’s services. The pre-consecrated host was reserved at the side of the sanctuary, so the abbess could gather it without approaching the altar. Disregarding this by some caused the Council of Laodicea to reaffirm that women ought not to approach the altar (Canon 44). As in the parishes, so, too, in the monasteries women had no role in the Eucharistic liturgy or with the altar.

Western Monasteries

In Western women’s monasteries, however, all nuns could potentially read lections in the Divine Office in their community. Their religious vows were understood as granting them these capacities, which the abbess assigned them according to the rules of the various orders. Only since the 13th century was a brief prayer reported for granting a nun the authority to read the Gospel at vigils, but since nuns could already fill that role, the prayer was essentially honorific (José-Juan Fresnillo Ahijón, “Diacon(is)ado femenino en la Edad Media” [2018], p. 704).

Women in Western parishes had ready access to baptism and the Eucharist. Therefore, as Manfred Hauke in “Women in the Priesthood?” (Ignatius Press, $24.95) observed, “The office of deaconess [was not needed] there.” Although a para-monastic kind of deaconess seems to have existed, she had no ministry. Nor is the Latin rite for her called “ordaining” or “blessing,” but simply “making” a deaconess (faciendam diacona). Found from the 10th century in the Pontifical Romanum, it is a pastiche of details from the consecration of a widow and that of a virgin. It lacks the essential elements of an ordination, such as election, blessings specific to holy office, and reference to holy orders. Although she received a stole, it and her veil were clearly parts of her religious habit. Note the obvious difference: When the bishop bestowed the stole on the deacon, he commanded him, “Receive your stole, fulfill your ministry.” In contrast, when he bestowed it on a deaconess, he intoned, “May the Lord clothe you with the stole of joy.” Moreover, the Latin rites for ordaining deacons, priests and bishops were together in the pontificals, but the faciendam diacona was among monastic blessings.

Academic Claims

Yet, despite the evidence in both East and West, academic claims about deaconesses are sharply divided. For instance, Valerie Karras, Cipriano Vagaggini, Kyriaki Karidoyanes FitzGerald, Gary Macy, Phyllis Zagano and John Wijngaards state that the rites for ordaining a deacon and consecrating a deaconess are virtually identical, that the differences reported above are irrelevant. Why the opposite views? Marianne Schlosser, recipient of the Ratzinger Award and professor of theology at the University of Vienna, rightly called attention to the underlying issue: The Church is a “sacramental reality,” not merely a human institution run on egalitarian lines. In Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (1994) Pope John Paul II definitively articulated the doctrine of the Church for all three ranks of holy orders: the will of Christ, decisive for all time, is evident in his selection of twelve men as his first priests.

Universally, the Church has always been committed to ensuring women access to baptism and to the Eucharist. For this, formerly some parts of the East needed deaconesses. But deaconesses were blessed for their work, never ordained. They never had any liturgical role, and their ministry was exclusively to women. The joy of Christianity is that God calls everyone, male and female, to holiness. In mystery, he calls only men to the Sacrament of Holy Orders. The history of deaconesses confirms that this has always been so.

CATHERINE BROWN TKACZ, the first woman to earn a Ph.D. in medieval studies from the University of Notre Dame, is professor of theology at the Ukrainian Catholic University (Lviv) and external faculty at Bishop White Seminary (Spokane, Washington).


Suggested Further Reading

Catherine Brown Tkacz, “Deaconesses and Ritual Impurity.” Nova et Vetera, English Edition, 22 (2024) 187-214. PDF available for free:


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