Questions Answered

St. Phoebe, Deaconess, and Three Other Deaconesses of the Early Church.

Question: Would you care to comment on women deaconesses? The question of reinstating them has been raised by a Cardinal.

Answer: The question of women deaconesses is a long and complicated one. It has arisen because the Church is clear that women cannot be ordained priests and, in lieu of that, the issue of deaconesses has been resurrected.

At the moment, Latin Canon Law clearly states that only a male can receive Holy Orders (Canon 1024) and “deacon” is one of the degrees of Holy Orders. The way the Canon is worded, then, would exclude women from all three degrees of the sacrament of Orders: bishop, priest, and deacon. The Pope certainly could change Canon Law to human law, but even he could not alter divine law, and so the issue arises as to whether the diaconate falls under the institution of Christ in the same way that “bishop” and “priest” do.

This issue is complicated by the fact that deaconesses are mentioned in Scripture, and up until the 10th century in the Western Church, there were rites of ordination of deaconesses. These still continue in some of the Eastern churches. This historical evidence and, indeed, the nature of the deaconess, are ambiguous because they were never understood to include service at the altar. One very important piece of legislation in the early Church on this matter is found in the Apostolic Constitutions in the Syrian church, which dates from around 380 A.D. The word is used. However, it is clear that this did not refer to service at the altar. “Ordain also a deaconess who is faithful and holy, for the ministrations of women. For sometimes [the bishop] cannot send a deacon, who is a man, to the women, on account of unbelievers. Thou shalt, therefore, send a woman, a deaconess on account of the imaginations of the bad. For we stand in need of a woman, a deaconess, for many necessities, and first in the baptism of women, the deacon shall anoint only their forehead with the holy oil, and after him, the deaconess shall anoint them: for there is no necessity that the women should be seen by the men.” (AC III, 15)

Other Church documents state that deaconesses are “such as have assumed the habit, but who, since they have no imposition of hands, are to be numbered among the laity.” (Canon XIX, Council of Nicea) Experts on this maintain then that what whatever the concept of deaconess may have been, it did not involve laying on of hands, or service at the altar. Their most important role in the early Church was helping adult women in baptism by immersion since they were not fully clothed. The attempt to revive the office of deaconess could, of course, occur but they would not be members of the clergy, nor would such an office be a stepping stone to ordination. (The bulk of this article is taken from the excellent research and article online by Cathy Candi, JCL on the website: “Canon Law Made Easy.” I gratefully acknowledge this research, and direct the reader to this excellent article, should he wish to know more.)


Question: Please review the laws regarding fasting from food and liquids before Holy Communion? Sometimes at gatherings we see Priests, Religious, and others carrying coffee cups into the area where Mass is about to be offered. Is coffee seen as “water” and allowed at any time before Communion, or is there a one hour fast from coffee and other beverages?

Answer: The Church has required fasting from all but water as a fitting physical preparation for the reception of communion. Prior to Vatican II, this fast was from midnight on. After Vatican II, the communion fast was reduced to one hour. This fact is legislated in the new Code of Canon Law. “Whoever is to receive the blessed Eucharist is to abstain for at least one hour before holy communion from all food and drink, with the sole exception of water and medicine.” (Canon 919, 1) This would restriction would include drinking coffee (which is not water) just before receiving holy Communion. The hour time period here is not calculated from the beginning of Mass, but from the actual reception of Holy Communion itself. Given the length of most Sunday masses this is a small and symbolic attempt to ensure reverence and thought about the momentous gift which is received.

There are some mitigations to the fast, though, which are also expressed in the same Canon. “A priest who, on the same day, celebrates the blessed Eucharist twice, or three times, may consume something before the second or third celebration, even though there is not an hour’s interval.” (Canon 919, 2) The same courtesy and mercy is extended to those who are sick, or suffer from old age. “The elderly and those who are suffering from some illness, as well as those who care for them, may receive the blessed Eucharist even if within the preceding hour they have consumed something.” (Canon 919, 3)

Spiritual preparation would include some time of meditation and quiet prayer to appreciate the gift received, and the bounteous character of the Giver. The physical preparation is also important, but it is not to be taken in too rigorous a manner. The situation you describe in the question would not be among those which are dispensations from the communion fast required in the law, but perhaps the priests, and others, may be elderly or sick. It could also be a priest’s second or third Mass that day—not uncommon in today’s parishes with a reduced number of priests, and so they would be permitted to “take something” even if the hour’s fast is not observed. So it would perhaps not be a good idea to rashly judge them.

Fr. Brian Mullady, OP About Fr. Brian Mullady, OP

Fr. Brian T. Mullady, OP, entered the Dominican Order in 1966 and was ordained in 1972. He has been a parish priest, high school teacher, retreat master, mission preacher, and university professor. He has had seven series on EWTN and is the author of two books and numerous articles, including his regular column in HPR, “Questions Answered.”

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Fr. Brian T. Mullady, O.P.
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Portland, OR 97232
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  1. Avatar Susan Dirksen says:

    Who wrote Cannon Law ?