Q. A book on lives of the saints which I am reading lists a St. Olympias in the fourth and fifth centuries and says that she was a deaconess of the church, “an office which existed at that time.” When did the church stop ordaining women as deacons and why? (Dunnsville, Virginia)
A. Clearly there were women in the early church who were called “deaconesses.” What is not clear is what, exactly, their role was and whether their ordination was a sacramental one. St. Paul in his Letter to the Romans (16:1) refers to a certain Phoebe, whom he calls (in some translations) “a deaconess of the church at Cenchreae.”
And the saint you mention — Olympias — was, according to the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia, “consecrated (a) deaconess” by the bishop of Constantinople in the fourth century. She had been widowed at an early age and chose to remain unmarried, dedicating her considerable fortune to helping the poor.
In the early centuries, deaconesses seem to have played a major role in the baptism of women. (Christians then were baptized naked, many of them as adult converts; since the clergy were male, modesty demanded that deaconesses take women converts into the water.) Catholic scholars have divided opinions as to whether these ancient deaconesses were actually ordained to a degree of holy orders or were simply blessed for service, like lectors or acolytes today.
In 2016, Pope Francis, with the encouragement of the International Union of Superiors General, created a study commission to examine the matter of women serving as deacons. Since then, members of that commission have arrived at varying points of view.
Pope Francis spoke about this with journalists in May 2019 on the papal plane returning to Rome from North Macedonia. As to whether women in the early centuries of Christianity had been ordained sacramentally, the pope said that the church has yet to give a “definitive response.”
Q. A number of Catholic parishes here in my archdiocese have hosted programs on the Alpha movement in Christianity. I have found conflicting guidance as to the legitimacy/orthodoxy of this movement. Can you advise me as to whether it is approved for Catholic membership? (Tigard, Oregon)
A. Alpha is a program of Christian evangelization first developed some 30 years ago at an Anglican charismatic parish in London. It consists of about a dozen interactive sessions in which participants discuss basic questions of faith — for example, “Who is Jesus?” and “Why and how do I pray?” — the goal being to bring them into a closer personal relationship with Christ.
Alpha is compatible with Catholic teaching, although it does not deal specifically with issues like the theology of the sacraments. (There is available a version called “Alpha for Catholics,” which supplements the basic program with teachings specific to Catholicism.) Since its inception, Alpha has been used in thousands of Catholic parishes in more than 70 countries.
Detroit Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron notes that “many parishes in Detroit have found Alpha a great tool for helping men and women hear the initial proclamation of the Gospel.”
Father Raniero Cantalamessa, the preacher to the papal household, is a “great friend of Alpha,” and Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna has said, “Alpha is for meeting Jesus. … For me, the Christian life has something to do with simplicity, friendship, closeness and joy. That’s what I feel about Alpha, and I think that’s a sign that it works and that it’s given from the Lord.”
Questions may be sent to Father Kenneth Doyle at firstname.lastname@example.org and 30 Columbia Circle Dr., Albany, New York 12203.
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