Phoebe the deaconess

Today is the feast day of the great pope, the Holy Father S. Gregory the Great, particularly important for England and the English, because of his great affection for that people. Legendarily, he said when looking upon some flaxen-haired Englishmen being exhibited in Rome that they would not only be Angles (English) but even Angels, if they were to be drawn into the Christian communion. In those days, the Church in England had been diminished by the invasion of our countries by the Angles and the Saxons from the Continent, which had caused the Britons to retreat to the West country. What remained was rebuilt by the envoys of the Holy Father S. Gregory, captained by the holy monk S. Augustine, who became the first archbishop of the see of Canterbury.

But today is also the memorial day of the good lady Phoebe of Cenchrae, about whom we only know from a single mention made of her by the Apostle Saint Paul, in his letter to the Romans:

“I commend our sister Phoebe to you; she has devoted her services to the church at Cenchrae. Make her welcome in the Lord as saints should, and help her in any business where she needs your help; she has been a good friend to many, myself among them.”

Romans, 16: 1-2

From these two lines has come masses of speculation about Saint Phoebe, whose service to the Church in Cenchrae Paul called a diakonia, a Greek word meaning service. All who wish to see women in the higher orders of the clerical ministry in the Church (deacons, priests, bishops) inevitably make poor Phoebe their mascot. In the early church, as is probably still the case in some eastern and oriental churches, such things as full-body anointing with oil for baptism required that the celibate clergy would appoint women to assist with the ceremonies of women. A rather dedicated diakonia, we might say. But they who push for change in the apostolic arrangements of the Church will still push…

Here is the entry in the Church calendar for Saint Phoebe, whom we love because Paul, whom we know so much more about, loved her so:

“Commemoration of Saint Phoebe, handmaid of the Lord among the faithful of Cenchrae, whom helped the blessed Apostle Paul in so many ways, the Apostle himself testifying to this in the letter to the Romans.”

Roman Martyrology, the 3rd of September