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Joe Paprocki Answers:
What we find in the New Testament is a reference to a woman named Phoebe as “minister of the church at Cenchreae” (Romans 16:1) The Greek word used here for minister is diakonos which means servants, attendants, or ministers. St. Paul used the word to refer to himself on occasion as he did in 2 Cor 6:4 (“ministers of God”) and 2 Cor 11:23 (“ministers of God”). It is not at all clear, however, that this had been established as an ecclesiastical role in the church at that time.
On the other hand, it is very clear in Paul’s First Letter to Timothy (3:8, 12) that the word deacon referred to an established office of the church’s hierarchy to which one was ordained. Thus, because we do not know what the precise functions were of those like Phoebe who are referred to with the word diakonos, we cannot assume that they were part of the ordained hierarchy of the church. Speaking of the role of women in the Church and specifically of Phoebe, Pope Benedict XVI said, “Although at that time the title had not yet acquired a specific ministerial value of a hierarchical kind, it expresses a true and proper exercise of responsibility on the part of this woman for this Christian community.” (General Audience, Wednesday, February 1, 2007). While there is no evidence that ministers of the church such as Phoebe served liturgically, it is believed that, for proprietary reasons, they assisted during the baptisms of women since catechumens were baptized in the nude. Thus, when adult baptisms diminished in favor of infant baptisms after the first few centuries of the Church, the role of the “deaconess” eventually vanished.