Saint of the Day – 3 September – St Phoebe (1st Century) – Deaconess at Cenchrese, Matron and possibly a widow. She is mentioned by the Apostle St Paul in his Epistle to the Romans, verses 16:1-2. A notable woman in the church of Cenchreae, she was trusted by St Paul to deliver his letter to the Romans. St Paul refers to her both as a Deacon (Gk. diakonon) and as a benefactress or patron of many (Greek. prostatis). This is the only place in the New Testament where a woman is specifically referred to with these two distinctions. Paul introduces Phoebe as his emissary to the Church in Rome and, because they are not acquainted with her, Paul provides them with her credentials. The name Phoebe means “pure”, “radiant” or “bright.”
The mission of the Church owes an enormous debt to the early Apostles and all those who assisted them as they went beyond the Jewish circles of Jesus’ heritage toward all of the world. We are indebted to St Paul and all who assisted him in a particular way. Besides being the Memorial of St Gregory today, 3 September it is also the Memorial of St Phoebe.
“I commend you to our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchraea, so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints and help her, in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself, as well.” So begins the sixteenth chapter of St Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome.
The office of Deaconess was mentioned by St Paul in the letters to the Romans and to Timothy but we also have evidence of the office in a letter from Pliny, a Roman governor who was writing to the Emperor Trajan for advice on dealing with Christians. He mentions two women ministers among the Christians in Bithynia. The office of Deaconess is also mentioned in the Apostolic Constitutions of Hippolytus and the office developed greatly during the third and fourth centuries, although it is quite different from the office Phoebe held. The Council of Chalcedon, held in the year 451, legislated that women could become Deaconesses at the age of 40.
A Deaconess was to devote herself to the care of sick and poor women; she was present at the interviews of women with Bishops, Priests, or male Deacons (so that the clergy wouldn’t be alone with strange women) and kept order in the women’s part of the church. Her most important function was the assistance at the Baptism of women. For the first five centuries of the Church, people were Baptised naked, and so, for the sake of propriety, male deacons couldn’t Baptise women. When adult Baptism became rare and was eventually replaced by infant Baptism, the office of Deaconess declined in importance. The office was actually abolished by the Council of Epaon in the year 517 but in the Nestorian Christian communities in Syria and later in India and China, Deaconesses administered Holy Communion to women and read the Sacred Scriptures in public.
In one of the later New Testament letters is a passage about diakonoi that outlines their moral qualifications. The diakonoi of 1 Timothy 3:8 were most probably official Deacons with a recognised position in the church. St John Chrysostom weighed in on the debate about whether the women in 1 Timothy 3:11 were Deacons. In his Homily 11 on 1 Timothy he wrote: “Some have thought that this is said of women generally but it is not so, for why should [Paul] introduce anything about women to interfere with his subject? He is speaking of those who hold the rank of Deaconesses.” In response to 1 Timothy 3:12, including the idiomatic phrase “a one-woman man” which some believe excludes women, he added “This must be understood therefore to [also] relate to Deaconesses. For that order is necessary and useful and honourable in the Church . . .” St John Chrysostom may have had the Deaconess Olympias, his close friend and patron, in mind when he wrote this.
I think that the fact that Phoebe was a Deacon in the Church in Cenchreae is important because it shows that women were vital to the mission of spreading the faith. Women owned house-churches, women administered and supervised the work with the poor and widows, women handled financial affairs for the churches and women helped spread the gospel. Jesus came to turn everything upside down – the last would be first and the first would be last and the Church was shaking up the society of Late Antiquity.
This feast of St Phoebe is in many ways a celebration of the on-going apostolate of women throughout the centuries, including you and me!