Australian Catholics Exploring the Diaconate, supported by Catholic Religious Australia, held a webinar to celebrate the Feast of St Phoebe on 3 September, with international experts on the permanent diaconate and women’s diaconal ministry.
On Saturday 3 September, on the day of St Phoebe’s death, over a hundred people gathered virtually to celebrate her life and learn about her ministry. St Phoebe is mentioned by St Paul in Romans 16:1-2 as a sister, a deacon and a benefactor. In fact, she is the only person in scripture to have the job title of deacon within a church community.
This story was told by Dr Phyllis Zagano, an internationally acclaimed Catholic scholar and lecturer from the US. She explained how Phoebe’s feast day had unfortunately been subsumed by Gregory the Great, which died in March. However, Phyllis went on to talk about the movement to restore women to the diaconate, including the Commission that Pope Francis had invited her to be on from 2016-2018.
She was heartened by our Plenary Council decree: “That, should the universal law of the Church be modified to authorise the diaconate for women, the Plenary Council recommends that the Australian Bishops examine how best to implement it in the context of the Church in Australia.” And she saw hope in the 2023 Synod on Synodality and Pope Francis’s considerations.
The webinar participants then heard from Rev Assoc Prof Anthony Gooley, Associate Dean (Courses) and Head of Leadership and Theology at Broken Bay Institute. He described the history of the permanent diaconate, especially since it was restored for men at Vatican II. In its renewal, it was the principal rather than the form of the ministry that mattered. It was to be about giving visible witness to the grace of the sacraments, and being faithful to the Tradition.
Yet Anthony felt that we have not yet fulfilled that intention completely. In terms of women, we could draw on the vast evidence of ordained women deacons until the 12th century to reconsider this ministry again. In fact, with women included, Anthony hoped that we will finally find the right model of the permanent diaconate altogether.
After some respectful and curious discussion in breakout rooms and the wider group, the webinar audience heard from former ABC presenter, Genevieve Jacobs AM. She responded to what she had heard with reflections on women in leadership in the Church, both now and in the future.
From a governance point of view, Genevieve spoke of the value of diversity in leadership and asked why leadership is not considered a form of service. She called us all to be inspired by St Phoebe, “an effective religious leader in her community.” While restoring women to the ministry of diaconate would not solve the Church’s problems, it could be a doorway towards a solution.
The whole event started and ended in prayer, including the reading from Romans, prayers to St Phoebe from the Eastern Troparion and Kontakion traditions, a litany of women deacon saints and a hymn for St Phoebe from Bernadette Farrell.
With the whole Church we lift our eyes to God and say, “St Phoebe, pray for us.”
To rewatch the webinar on St Phoebe, click here.
To learn more, please visit https://liturgyonthemargins.org