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Oriental Orthodox-Roman Catholic Theological Consultation
St. Nersess Armenian Seminary, New Rochelle, NY; June 9-10, 2003

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Deacons and deaconesses were the main topic of discussion at a June 9-10 meeting of the U.S. Oriental Orthodox-Roman Catholic Consultation. Meeting at St. Nersess Armenian Seminary in New Rochelle, N.Y., the group June 9 heard brief presentations from representatives of each church on the theology and practice of the diaconate in that church, including limited use of deaconesses in some of the Oriental Orthodox churches. Generally, according to a news release on the meeting released June 26 by the communications office of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, in the first millennium all the participating churches experienced deacons as vital ministers working closely with bishops, with special emphasis on social and administrative duties. By the start of the second millennium, however, in most of the churches diaconate had become largely a transitional state preceding ordination to the priesthood. While the churches held a common understanding that deacons share in the sacrament of orders along with priests and bishops, each tradition had unique developments in its practice.

WASHINGTON (June 26, 2003) — The annual meeting of the Oriental Orthodox-Roman Catholic Consultation took place at St. Nersess Armenian Seminary in New Rochelle, NY, June 9 and 10, 2003. It was chaired jointly by Bishop Howard Hubbard of Albany, New York, and the Right Rev. Chor-Bishop John Meno of the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch.

The main topic for discussion was the diaconate in the theology and practice of our churches. On June 9 the Consultation heard a brief presentation from each church participating in the dialogue. During the first millennium all our churches experienced deacons as vital ministers with a special emphasis on social and administrative duties, working very closely with the local bishop. But in most cases by the beginning of the second millennium the diaconate had become a transitional state that was required before priesthood ordination. There is also a common understanding that deacons share in the sacrament of Holy Orders along with priests and bishops, but there have been unique developments in each tradition.

Father Simeon Odabashian of the Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church noted that while his church technically prohibits marriage after ordination to the sub-diaconate, this rule has generally fallen into disuse and deacons are allowed to marry up to the point of their priestly ordination. Deacons play a central role in the Armenian liturgy, which requires the presence of at least one deacon at the Eucharist, daily offices and sacramental services. The ancient social role of deacons is being revived in the Armenian Church in America, where they train children, train altar servers, visit the sick, and take on responsibilities in parish administration. There are now both permanent and transitional deacons in the Armenian church, and some cases of deacons in charge of parishes where no priest is available. More intensive training programs for permanent deacons are now being planned. The ordination of women to the diaconate through the laying- on-of-hands by the bishop is also known in the Armenian Church, but it has almost died out in recent years. There are plans in Armenia and elsewhere to revive this ministry. Historically this was a local phenomenon never dispersed throughout the church, and women deacons always had a range of duties more narrowly defined than that of men deacons.

Father Shenouda Maher Ishak spoke on behalf of the Coptic Orthodox Church, which counts the diaconate as one of seven clerical orders. The deacon has such an indispensable role in the liturgy that a priest is not allowed to celebrate the Eucharist without one. Others of lower orders may assume this role if a deacon is not present. Coptic deacons are not allowed to baptize, but in the early centuries had a prominent role in devotional censing. They are not allowed to marry after ordination. At present there are very few full time permanent and professional deacons in the Coptic Church, since almost all of them are called to higher orders. The Coptic Church is now in the process of restoring the female diaconate in three orders: the female reader for women (now called "devoted one"), sub-deaconess (now called "assistant deaconess") and deaconess. The Coptic Holy Synod has made it clear that deaconesses may not in any way participate in service of the altar or sacerdotal service. The rite of initiation into the female diaconate is performed by a bishop without the laying-on-of-hands but with a signing of the cross three times over the candidate. In their ministry they are to work exclusively with women and children. They assist at the baptism of women, visit sick women in hospitals, supervise women's activities in parishes, and clean the church building except for the sanctuary area which they may not enter.

Father Michael Tekle Mariam Greene offered a presentation on the diaconate in the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church. Deacons are very numerous in Ethiopia, and play a prominent role in the parishes where they serve. Their numbers in Ethiopia increased dramatically during the decades of Marxist rule in reaction to state-sponsored atheism. The function of deacons is primarily liturgical. At least two deacons are required for the celebration of the Eucharist. They prepare the components of Holy Communion and ensure that the correct prayers of the day are sung. But deacons also have a wider role in the community: they participate in the education of parishioners, teach in Sunday School, and are increasingly involved today in training new candidates for the diaconate. The order is made up predominantly of young men who serve as deacons until marriage, after which most are ordained priests. In the Ethiopian diaspora they often teach young people about Ethiopian traditions and language. Although there is mention of women deacons in ancient Ethiopian texts, there are none in the church today.

Very Rev. Raban Eugene Aydin spoke about the evolution of the diaconate in the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch. Today the Syriac Church has five orders within the diaconate: archdeacon, deacon, subdeacon, lector and chanter. Deacons are ordained by the bishop, serve primarily on the altar, and assist the priest in the celebration of the liturgy. Some teach and instruct the faithful or carry out charitable work. Each archdiocese may have one archdeacon who is called "the right hand of the bishop," working closely with him in administrative and liturgical duties. Deaconesses were well known in the ancient Syriac church, and the bishop laid hands on them in the rite of ordination. In the sixth century they poured the wine and water into the chalice, read the Gospel in gatherings of women, placed the incense, washed sacred vessels, lit the candles and cleaned the sanctuary. By the end of the seventh century their role was already being restricted and, some scholars would later assert that the ordination of deaconesses was of a different nature from that of male deacons. The ancient order for the ordination of deaconesses is still used today with some adaptation in the Syriac Church, but women are ordained only to the order of chantress, the lowest of the diaconal orders. Their role is to sing liturgical hymns in the church and to teach children in Sunday school. His Eminence Metropolitan Mor Cyril Aphrem Karim added that the ancient rite of ordination of deaconesses left out some sections that are present in the rite for the ordination of male deacons, including the invocation of the Holy Spirit over the candidate. Otherwise the wording is almost the same. The deaconesses had no authority in the sanctuary, but fulfilled some duties there in the absence of a priest. They could give communion to women and children, and assisted in the anointing of women at Baptism.

Father Anthony J. DeLuca commented briefly on the practice of the Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church in India, which is linked to the Syriac Orthodox Patriarchate. In the Malankara tradition the apostles were regarded as deacons and sometimes Christ as well. There is some evidence that the women called deaconesses in ancient times were actually the wives of deacons. Until fifty or sixty years ago deaconesses in the Malankara Church were the wives of priests, and assisted with the anointing of women at their baptism.

In a presentation of the diaconate in the Maronite Catholic Church, the Rev. Chorbishop John D. Faris summarized the statutes concerning deacons and subdeacons in the pastoral handbook of the Eparchy of St. Maron (Eastern United States). Almost all the permanent deacons in the Maronite Church today are in North America; this may be due to the fact that most married deacons in the Middle East can proceed to ordination as priests. The statutes outline the duties of subdeacons and deacons, and the eparchy's very successful formation and ministerial programs. Subdeacons can enter marriage but deacons cannot.

Paulist Father Ronald G. Roberson then gave a presentation on the diaconate in the Latin Church. In the West the diaconate declined as a permanent office in the second half of the first millennium and by the seventh century had become a transitional step for candidates for the priesthood. The Council of Trent (1563) mandated a restoration of the office but this was not carried out. Pope Pius XII expressed openness to the idea but it was only at the Second Vatican Council that the diaconate was restored as a permanent order in the church. The official restoration was carried out by Pope Paul VI in the 1967 document, Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem. It specifies that deacons may assist at liturgical celebrations, administer baptism, distribute the Eucharist, bless marriages in the absence of a priest, preside at funerals, read the Gospel and preach, and assume charitable and administrative tasks. Married men over the age of 35 can be ordained to this permanent office; they may not marry afterwards. This new ministry has spread rapidly in the church. Today there are about 28,000 world wide and 13,764 in the United States. The possibility of ordaining women to the diaconate is still an unsettled question in the Catholic Church. Latin rituals for ordaining deaconesses exist from as late as the 10th century, but the precise sacramental nature of these ordinations has not yet been determined authoritatively. There are recent indications that the Holy See intends to continue the exclusion of women from this office.

On the morning of June 10, Deacon Anthony Cassanetto, the director of the Permanent Diaconate Formation Program in the Archdiocese of New York, joined the meeting. He offered an overview of the program currently in place in the Archdiocese. The program emphasizes understanding the diaconate primarily as an order of service. It aims to be spiritually enriching, pastoral in orientation, theologically sound and well-integrated, and adapted to local needs and resources. The program focuses on developing a diaconal ministry devoted to the Word of God, the liturgy, and charity/justice. The great majority of the candidates are married men, and their wives must sign a statement permitting their husband to enter the process before they will be admitted to the formation program. It is a rich and intensive program with a total of 1,263 hours of formation over a four-year period.

The members of the Consultation also had an opportunity to exchange information about major events in the lives of their churches. These included the appointment of Bishop Brian Farrell as Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and of Archbishop Angelo Amato as Secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, developments in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, a new patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Church, the document Reflections on Covenant and Mission issued by a Catholic-Jewish dialogue group, the 1700th anniversary of the dedication of the Cathedral in Holy Etchmiadzin and the upcoming visit of a delegation of US Catholic Bishops to Armenia, the Preparation of the Catholic Church-Oriental Orthodox Churches International Joint Commission for Dialogue, the progress of the Anglican-Oriental Orthodox international dialogue, the situation of the Coptic Orthodox Church, the visit of Pope Shenouda III to Armenia, and the continuing division among Oriental Orthodox in India.

During the meeting the members of the Consultation participated with pleasure in Armenian morning and evening prayer in the chapel of St. Nersess Seminary. The next meeting of the Consultation was scheduled for June 7-8, 2004, at the Cardinal Spellman Retreat House in Bronx, New York. It will focus on the evangelization ministries of our churches.

The United States Oriental Orthodox-Roman Catholic Consultation was established in 1978, and is sponsored jointly by the Bishops' Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the USCCB and the Standing Conference of Oriental Orthodox Churches in America. In 1995 it published Oriental Orthodox-Roman Catholic Interchurch Marriages and Other Pastoral Relationships, which includes pastoral guidelines for marriages involving the faithful of the two communions as well as ample documentation about the development of our ecumenical relationship in recent decades.


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Last Update: July 27, 2003