Fitting Service

The candidate to be ordained deaconess is presented to the bishop.... As she bows her head the bishop imposes his hand...praying:

“Holy and almighty God, who by the birth of thine only begotten divine Son of a virgin hath sanctified womankind, and hath poured forth the grace and coming of the Holy Spirit not only on men but also on women, now therefore look upon this thy handmaid, and call her into the work of thy service, and send the abundant gift of thy Spirit upon her. Amen.”

The bishop imposes his hand on the head of the ordained, praying:

“Supreme Lord, who dost not reject women consecrating themselves to fitting service in thy holy temples, but admittest them into the order of thy ministers, even upon this thy handmaid, wishing to consecrate herself to thee and to carry out the grace of thy ministry, pour forth the grace of thy Holy Spirit, as thou admitted Phoebe to the work of thy chosen ministry....”

—From Prayer for the Ordination of a Deaconess,
Vatican Library, Codex Barberini gr. 336.
Eighth-century Italo-Byzantine provenance.


It was in Rome during the heady days of Vatican II. There was to be a meeting of the Consilium, the commission for the reform of the liturgy.

I was standing on the sidewalk in St. Peter’s Square, waiting to cross into the Vatican’s Palazzo Santa Marta. A continuous stream of cars swept past as I was joined by a stout, red-faced figure in black, the very caricature of a baroque Germanic cleric. From prior meetings I recognized Bishop Franziskus Zauner of Linz, Austria.

There was no pedestrian crossing, no traffic light. The Fiats maintained a steady flow. I waited strategically to the lee of my corpulent companion. Finally, seeing a gap, he took courage and stepped off. I followed, keeping his considerable bulk between me and the oncoming horde. Suddenly, aware of his Irish shadow, he asked: Quid facis? (What are you doing?) I rejoined: Bonus pastor debet vitam suam dare pro ovibus. (The good shepherd should give his life for his sheep.) The great baroque bulk jiggled with laughter as we made it safely across.

Our Consilium agenda featured a report on the deacon project. Over the centuries the diaconate had become a mere steppingstone on the path to the priesthood. Every aspiring priest was a deacon for a few short months. Periti (experts) had been assigned to study the reintroduction of permanent deacons who would serve their parishes in various ways, without proceeding to priestly ordination. In practice this would enable suitable married men to assist the pastor by preaching, officiating at baptisms, funerals, etc.

Presiding at the massive table was Cardinal Giacomo Lercaro of Bologna. Below him was a bevy of cardinals: the aristocratic Carlo Gonfalonieri, Valerian Gracias of Bombay, Laurean Rugambwa of Tanzania.... Next sat the archbishops: Denis Hurley of South Africa, Clément Mansourati of Syria, George Dwyer of Birmingham.... And back along the walls on both sides of the table sat periti from the top theological faculties, many of whom I had studied under: Bouyer, Gelineau, Gy, Jungmann, McManus, Martimort, Neunheuser, Vagaggini....

It was typical that while we met in the Palazzo Santa Marta inside Vatican walls, a facility staffed by sisters, there was not a single woman in the room. Likewise typical of the then clerical culture was the titter around the table when the diaconate project reporter floated a passing allusion to the early history of deaconesses. One prelate could not resist a muttered aside in Latin that occasioned even louder laughter.

Somewhere in the room a chair scraped noisily on the polished floor. A great baroque bulk was heaving to its feet. The face, normally red, was flushed a dangerous scarlet. Bishop Zauner’s voice was hoarse and trembling, his Latin heavily Teutonic: Ego habeo in diocesi meo sororem [it came out as “so-ROAR-em”] qui preparavit ad mortem christianum tria millia hominum.QUIS inter nos talia fecit? (I have in my diocese a sister who has prepared for a Christian death three thousand people. WHO among us has done the like?)

There was dead silence in the room, and it seemed to last forever. I have played the tape over and over again in my head these past forty years.

About the Author

Damian Barry Smyth, STL, JD, was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland. He recently retired from the California Bar, and lives on an island in San Francisco Bay.



Commenting Guidelines

  • All

"Quis"  indeed. Let's think about the codex Barberini  and Phoebe.

And the reason we can't have women deacons is???

Our parish could use at least 5 of them!

I hate to have to be contrary. But this is something that I feel to speak of. I will not go into a very long doctrinal discussion (hopefully!) but I wish to state some things that I think are part of basic common sense.

After God created Adam he said that "it is not good that man should be alone". Now God could have proceeded to provide him with Abraham or Noah or Jack or some other man. He would have done this had the reason for it being "not good" for Adam to be alone been simply that he would get bored. Instead he provided Eve. Why? Because Adam, being a man/male, had many great qualities but was decidedly inadequate to accomplish the purposes God had and has for mankind. And so it follows that God had to create someone different from him. Someone who could do things he couldn't do or couldn't do well or would not be best for him to do. It stands to reason also that that someone would also have shortcomings of their own which would make them unfit/unable to do the things that Adam could and should do or atleast to do them as well.

   And therein lies the equality of men and women and also their inequality (or difference, as I prefer): They are equal because, in God's plan for the happiness of His children both are absolutely essential and equally so. They are unequal because neither is capable of stepping into the others' shoes and fill them perfectly. And because of this roles were created for each of them, some by God and some by men. The purpose of these roles was to ensure that each's qualities would be used in the most effective and productive means for the sake of mankind.

 Let us, for an example consider this principle's parallel in economics: Let there be two countries, called A and B. Country A can produce potatoes and wheat. Country B can also produce potatoes and wheat. However it is found that in country A the resources for producing wheat are far more limited than those in country B making it far more expensive for it to produce the grain. Assume the reverse is the case with regards to potatoes. What then happens is that Country A will decide that it will be a better use of its resources to abandon the production of wheat and focus rather on the production of potatoes. Country B will obviously do the opposite. All this for the greater good of BOTH countries.

And so it is in the economy of mankind. I do not doubt the women can do many things that men are called to do. I do not doubt that men can do many things that women are called to do. But it would not be in either of their best interests to operate that way.

My point therefore  is that the argument of the feminists that "women can also do it" is not sufficient to justify that women should also do it. The greater good of mankind needs to be considered. That, I'm sure, was God's reasoning when he chose to make men the holders of the priesthood and not women. And there can be no doubt, if we believe the scriptures as they are revealed to us, that it was God's decision and not the decision man. Our society is not really any more intelligent than those that lived in previous generations.

I just finished reading the beautiful "Fitting Service" (Cw2011Jan28) for the third time. This time I picked up on the echo in Bp Zauner's comment "... tria millia hominum ..." translated very reasonably into English from the context as "... three thousand people...".

One of the most dramatic Latin phrases in the Vulgate account of Jesus' encounter w/Pontius Pilatus is "Ecce homo" translated into English as best as is possible "Behold the man".

In this time of concern of the translation of Latin into English appropriately, would that the lessons of the differences in the two above phrases and their translation were more widely appreciated. And their implications also. We will never know why Jerome did not write "Ecce vir". Perhaps someone with the Greek original in front of them might comment. Jerome might say to us what he has PP saying in re the inscription on the cross "Quod scriptsi, scriptsi." (What I have written, I have written.)

Thanda, your reasoning is completely circular and ignores the difference between individuals of any gender. That's really what most of these arguments come down to: Do we consider people based on their own God-given talents and attributes or do we continue to classify them broadly based on their genitalia? If the grouping were based on ethnicity or parents' social status would it seem as self-evident?


The "Greater Good" is a dangerous phrase, and IMHO a red flag...

I submit tha the following quote as an example:  "What then happens is that Country A will decide that it will be a better use of its resources to abandon the production of wheat and focus rather on the production of potatoes. Country B will obviously do the opposite. All this for the greater good of BOTH countries."

What happens when a blight destroys the potato crop or there is a disease that likewise destroys the wheat?  Then the country with its crop now has GREAT power over the other country. 

Another idea also gives me great pause. "And there can be no doubt, if we believe the scriptures as they are revealed to us, that it was God's decision and not the decision man."

Yes, there CAN be doubt.  The scriptures are a reflection of their times.  Since women of that era were not taught to read, should we refuse to theach women to read now?  I could go on with many more examples, however, I will suffice it to say that translating scriptures into any secondary language (i.e. not the original language) and/or the use of literary devices not properly translated preclude nuances that might mitigate our understanding of "scriptures as they are revealed to us."

PS: Thanda, I apologize for misspelling your name earlier.

Although in vestigial form, the Armenian Church has preserved the office of deaconess for all these centuries.  This is important, because it shows that the office can exist in an Apostolic Church.  As now constituted, these deaconesses are nuns -- probably not always the case.  However, they function liturgically exactly as do male deacons (an important office in all the Eastern Churches).  While the Liturgy may not be foremost among the Western reasons for restoring deaconesses, this liturgical practice among the Armenians can help us to avoid a second-class status for deaconesses when we get them. 

Add new comment

You may login with your assigned e-mail address.
The password field is case sensitive.

Or log in with...

Add new comment