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The Tasks of Women Deacons

Just as in the case of priests and male deacons, the tasks of women deacons have varied in the course of the centuries. The following tasks can, however, be clearly established from the historical records:

  1. Assistance at the baptism of women.
    The deaconesses had an important task during the baptism itself: anointing women catechumens with sacred oil over their whole bodies and performing part of the baptism itself by immersing them in the baptismal font.
  2. Care of women in the liturgical assembly.
    Women deacons controlled admission of unknown women into the liturgical assembly, just as male deacons controlled the admission of men.
    Women deacons saw to church order among women and carried pastoral responsibility for them.
  3. Apostolate among women in their homes.
    Women deacons looked after the sick and needy women. They had charge of the widows in the parish. They instructed catechumens for baptism.
  4. Service in the sanctuary.
    Although women deacons did not assist the Bishop at the altar in the same way male deacons did, they had access to the sanctuary in other ways. In particular, they could take the blessed Sacrament from the tabernacle and distribute holy communion, especially to women who had to stay at home.

It is clear that these women, therefore, exercised a full diaconate, as envisaged by the Church.

For our own days the duties of the diaconate have been spelled out as follows:

“It is the duty of the deacon, to the extent that he has been authorized by competent authority, to administer baptism solemnly, to be custodian and dispenser of the Eucharist, to assist at and bless marriages in the name of the Church, to bring Viaticum to the dying, to read the sacred Scripture to the faithful, to instruct and exhort the people, to preside at the worship and prayer of the faithful, to administer sacramentals and to officiate at funeral and burial services.” Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, no 29.

John Wijngaards


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