A file image of Catholic women from Myanmar praying as Pope Francis conducts Mass inside a stadium in Yangon on Nov. 29, 2017. (Photo by Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP)
Can you say where in the Gospels Jesus institutes the presbyterate (priesthood) and the deaconate? Hint: nowhere.
St. Paul mentions deacons along with bishops in his letter to the Christians of Philippi. Later, in the first epistle to Timothy, Paul (or more likely someone writing in his name) talks of the qualifications for those ministries. There is a sentence about women that might refer to deaconesses since it is in the middle of the list of qualities that should typify a deacon. Art historians have discovered early representations of the liturgy that show women sharing a role at the altar with men.
So, it is clear that from the early days of the Church, at least in some places, there were bishops and deacons, perhaps of both genders, though they would have been very different from their evolved descendants. Those ministries postdate Pentecost when the Church received the power of God to fulfill its mission.
Presbyters (we call them priests, though the ordination rite calls them presbyters) apparently came to share the priestly ministry of bishops sometime after the New Testament period.
The Acts of the Apostles presents the origins of a ministry that evolved into the deaconate we know today. In Acts, seven men were appointed in response to a practical problem in the Church. The charitable work of the community was expanding beyond the ability of the leaders to equitably serve all (Acts 6:1-6). So, the community, at the behest of the leaders, chose men to engage in that work.
After the Ascension, the newborn Church had no problem organizing its life and ministry in accord with needs and opportunities with which Jesus did not, could not nor needed not deal.
The ordained ministries of bishop, presbyter and deacon arose out of concrete needs and were intended to meet those needs that could only arise after the Church developed into a more or less structured community. It is need, not precedent, that determines the way the Church meets new situations.
The Vatican has been studying the question of ordaining women as deacons, focusing on history. However, whether or not women in the first, second or third century exercised what we would call ordained ministry is irrelevant.
Answers to situations back then in the Mediterranean basin are, in themselves, of no use in the 21st century. What is relevant, and is the true tradition, is confidence in the presence of the Holy Spirit guiding the Church to innovate in meeting the needs and cultural situations of that time and place.
What does that mean two millennia later when the Church has become truly catholic, truly universal? Obviously, there are different needs, needs that will not and cannot be answered by continuing or restoring ancient precedents.
In major parts of the world, the spread of the Gospel is hampered by the increasing perception of the irrelevance and injustice of the Church’s relationship with women. Women are taking their place as equals of men. That is not the case everywhere, but it is a major and growing trend in large parts of the world. Therefore, the need facing the Christian community today is to respond to that fact where the roles and relations of men and women are rapidly diverging from what they have been in the past.
Ordaining women will not be a panacea and may not even be desirable when there are more important needs that should be met by involving women. But it may be step toward being a sign of openness to the call of the Spirit to once again answer the needs around us with creativity and confidence.
We do have a precedent for recognizing that women may not be excluded from full discipleship by their gender. The one who broke the precedent was Jesus himself.
When he visited Martha and Mary, Mary sat at the feet of Jesus. In the world in which he lived and taught, that posture had a special meaning that those who saw it and those who originally read Luke’s Gospel would have understood. And that meaning would have surprised or even shocked them. It bothered Martha.
One who sat at the feet of a teacher was that teacher’s disciple. We still speak of disciples sitting at the feet of a master. Mary was a disciple of Jesus, entitled to sit at his feet as any other disciple would.
But in that time and place, women belonged in the kitchen, doing what Martha was doing. For a woman to occupy the position of a full disciple was a radical challenge to the society in which Jesus lived. Mary was claiming equality with men! And Jesus not only allowed it; he even said to Martha that Mary had “chosen the better part.” And, he added, “it will not be taken from her.”
In fact, not much time passed before it was taken from those women who followed Mary as disciples of Christ. Jesus’ and the early Church’s radical view of equality did not long survive. Customary attitudes toward women, even among women, were just too strong.
Today, as attitudes toward women that subverted the practice of Jesus are changing in many places, we are challenged to accept the fact that Jesus still has something to teach us that seems subversive of the so-called “normal” ordering of society and the Church.
What has been is not what need be.
Father William Grimm is a New York-born priest active in Tokyo. He has also served in Cambodia and Hong Kong and is the publisher of ucanews.com. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of ucanews.com.