A woman is depicted at prayer in an ancient Christian mosaic seen in the Vatican's Pio Cristiano Museum. (Wikimedia Commons/Miguel Hermoso Cuesta)
Growing up, I never heard about St. Phoebe. She, like so many women of the early church, was lost to me for a long time.
The female doctors of the church — Catherine, Teresa, Thérèse, and, later, Hildegard — were beacons whose wisdom, faith and example I was drawn to. As a young adult, I grew to know and love Mary Magdalene, the apostle to the apostles, as well as a number of other women saints, who, each in her own way, invited me to be more fully myself and more fully engaged with my faith.
Not until my late 20s do I recall Phoebe's name surfacing in my consciousness and even then, I couldn't place her beyond the heading "women of the early church." The reasons she remained in the shadows of my consciousness are as much a reflection of my own life and learning as of the institutions that have taught me and their conscious and unconscious influence on our wider perspectives as individuals and a church.
Phoebe appears in Paul's letter to the Romans, in which he exhorts the Romans: "I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae." Paul writes, "I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me" (Romans 16:1-2).
Brief though it is, this introduction is full of import. In these two verses, Paul provides critical information about the woman he has entrusted to deliver his letter to Rome.
Calling her sister, deacon and benefactor, Paul signals that Phoebe is his co-worker in the kingdom. He has chosen her to convey his message and it is his hope that they, like her, will come to believe and to support the Christian mission. By identifying Phoebe as a deacon, Paul indicates that she was a preacher and teacher of the faith and gives us the earliest written record of women's ordained ministry in the church.
When I first heard about Phoebe's ministry, I wondered how I hadn't heard about it sooner. A search of the Scriptures used at daily Mass revealed why Phoebe hadn't crossed my path. "In the continuous reading from Romans, verses one and two of chapter 16 are omitted," Benedictine Sr. Ruth Fox writes in her work on women in the Bible, "Thus churchgoers will never hear in our liturgy of Phoebe, a woman who was a deacon."
One can't be sure of the reason for this omission, but by excluding Phoebe (and the stories of many other women) from the lectionary, the church makes a distinctive choice about the models of church and stories of faith it chooses to lift up. Phoebe's absence from daily readings obscures the history of women deacons in our church and directs popular consciousness away from considering women's place in ordained roles of leadership in the church.
Phoebe is part of a much larger story of women deacons. In the Western church, from the first Christian communities through the 12th century, women carried out the ministry of the diaconate in its fullness, serving in the diaconal ministries: baptizing and anointing, proclaiming and preaching on the Gospel, caring for those on the margins, assisting in liturgy, and helping to sustain the life of the church through their ordained ministry.
Yet, in the 12th century, when the diaconate became a transitional ministry exclusively for men pursuing priesthood, women deacons ceased to be ordained.
For 800 years, the permanent diaconate lay dormant. Without the presence of permanent deacons, the diaconate became synonymous with the priesthood, with the transitional diaconate serving as a step on the way to priestly ordination. As time went on, this association became ingrained in the popular understanding of who deacons were and what deacons did.
Not until the time of the Second Vatican Council did the permanent diaconate again find its footing in the church.