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She Was an Early Church Deacon. Catholic Women Now Want To Reclaim Her Example.

Members of Discerning Deacons attended Pope Francis' Wednesday audience and presented him with an image of St. Phoebe by the African American artist Laura James. Photo courtesy of Ellie Hidalgo

(RNS) — Lisa Amman is a cradle Catholic who attended parish schools through 12th grade and then worked at her St. Paul, Minnesota, church for 15 years.

She would likely never have learned about St. Phoebe, however, had her then-6-year-old daughter, Evelyn, not begun asking questions at Mass one Sunday three years ago.

At one point in the service, Evelyn turned to her and asked, “Why are we here?” Amman recalled.

“I said, ‘We’re here to learn about Jesus and pray to God.’ And she said, ‘No, why are we here? This is for boys,’” Amman said.

On Saturday (Sept. 3) Amman and 55 other pilgrims from four countries gather in Mexico City at the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe to celebrate St. Phoebe’s feast day. In the presence of an archbishop, several priests and nuns and a host of Catholic lay women, the pilgrims will honor the little-known saint who makes a solitary appearance in the New Testament’s Letter to the Romans as an associate of St. Paul and a female deacon of the early church.

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Deacons in today’s Catholic Church are ordained clergy who preach and minister in the community but can’t celebrate Mass. Like priests and bishops, they are always men. But Amman, a stay-at-home mother of Evelyn and her sister and now the deputy director of engagement for a group called Discerning Deacons, plans to pray for Phoebe’s intercession to restore Catholic women to the diaconate.

“Phoebe represents hope and evidence that women have been in service to the church since the beginning,” said Amman. “This isn’t new. It makes me feel that it can happen in the future.”

The prayer service, which will be streamed live, will open what Discerning Deacons calls the “Year of St. Phoebe,” part of a churchwide consultation process known as the Synod on Synodality. The three-year synod process began last fall as dioceses around the world collected responses from their individual congregations on how to better structure church life. The bishops of each country are now reporting back to Rome on what they are hearing.

Discerning Deacons are hoping the synod, which concludes with a summit of bishops in 2023, might lead to reforms that will welcome women as deacons.

A groundbreaking study by Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, or CARA, confirms that more than 70% of young women in the United States were drifting away from the Catholic Church, a much higher rate than men.

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Seeing her daughter’s crisis of faith, Amman at first considered leaving the Catholic Church. Then she learned about Synod on Synodality and saw in it hope that the church might discern a way forward for women who feel called to leadership positions in the church.

Canon law defines deacons as clergy who minister to the people of God in “word, liturgy and charity.” To some extent, women fulfill those roles already but without the ability to minister to people in places, such as immigrant detention centers, hospitals and prisons, that don’t allow unordained people to serve. Joining the diaconate would also allow women to proclaim the Gospel and preach during Mass.

As Amman recently learned, until the 12th century, the Catholic Church ordained women deacons. In his Letter to the Romans, Paul introduces Phoebe as a “deacon of the church” and entrusts her to deliver his letter to the Romans.