Seeing in St. Peter’s mother-in-law a model of diakonia

The view down into the excavation of St. Peter's home through the glass floor of St. Peter's Church in Capernaum.
The view down into the excavation of St. Peter's home through the glass floor of St. Peter's Church in Capernaum.

The newsletter in which this post originally appeared included a reflection by Pilar Siman on Isaiah 64:1. Pilar is a clinical social worker, spiritual director, wife, mother to two daughters and parishioner at St. Hugh Church in Miami where she volunteers with the children’s liturgy. She preached her reflection live at the February 2024 St. Phoebe Prayer for a Synodal Church, hosted by the Miami Discerning Deacons Circle and focused on the synod theme of migrants and refugees. Read her reflection here.

In this past weekend’s readings, we learned of Jesus’s healing of Peter’s mother-in-law. There’s a line in the reading that might at first blush give us with our modern sensibilities pause: “Simon’s mother-in-law lay sick with a fever. They immediately told him about her. He approached, grasped her hand, and helped her up. Then the fever left her and she waited on them.” At my parish in Seattle, our homilist Fr. Matthew challenged us to look deeper into the text. The Greek verb translated here as “waited on” is diēkonei, from which—you guessed it—we get the word “deacon.” It’s a verb that’s only used in Scriptures to describe the actions of Jesus, of angels, and of women. In his homily, Fr. Matthew encouraged us to reimagine this line from Scripture, into which it would be so easy to read the trappings of patriarchy, and to instead see in Peter’s mother-in-law a model of diakonia in which, having been served (diēkonei) by Jesus, she is compelled to go and do likewise—to serve (diēkonei) not only her son-in-law and his friends gathered in her home in that moment but to step into a life of service (diakonia) born of her own encounter with Jesus.

Having spent time in Capernaum, the town where this story takes place, it’s easy for me to imagine Peter’s mother-in-law embracing this ministry, with her home becoming a crossroads of ministry of service and the Word (diakonia) for early followers of Jesus. Today, St. Peter’s Church is built atop the excavation of what is believed to be the very site of this story, the home of Peter’s mother-in-law. Scholars’ confidence that they’ve got the right site derives in part from the fact that the walls are covered with graffiti left by early Jesus followers, a sign that the building served as a meeting place in the years after Jesus’s death. The church has a spaceship-like quality to it, elevated above the excavation and complete with a glass floor so that you can look down into the very room where early Christians would have gathered to share in fellowship, perhaps to be ministered to by Peter’s mother-in-law who had been ministered to by Jesus.

As we at Discerning Deacons gear up for seasons of prayer, reflection, and action this Lent and Easter, I am filled with consolation and hope at this early account of diakonia and the witness it inspired. The months ahead of us pose an opportunity for us to bear witness within our present-day Christian communities—for our homes and hearts to become crossroads of fellowship and sites of transformational encounters born of diakonia given and received.

I hope you will join us on Tuesday, February 13 at 1:00 p.m. ET / 10:00 a.m. PT for our hour-long kick-off call, “Walking with Phoebe in 2024,” where we’ll share our roadmap to continuing on the synodal path during the Lent and Easter seasons with an eye towards St. Phoebe Day in September and the second global Synod Assembly in Rome in October.

We’ll dedicate particular time on this call to resourcing our people—YOU!—to engage in your local diocesan synod sessions this Lent. As a preview of what’s to come, I’m happy to share with you all, close readers of our newsletter, an advance copy of a simple resource we’ve created to help you prepare your witness ahead of local listening sessions.

If you’re new to Discerning Deacons, we offer our DD Welcome Calls on the second Thursday of every month at 1:00 p.m. ET—meaning that February’s call is coming up tomorrow! You can expect to leave with a good sense of Discerning Deacons’ mission and some concrete ways you can get involved, having had the opportunity to get your questions answered and to connect with other newcomers and established leaders in the Discerning Deacons network.

Another great, standing opportunity to plug in with Discerning Deacons is our monthly St. Phoebe Prayers for a Synodal Church. This past Saturday, 85 friends from around the world gathered on Zoom for a service hosted by our Miami Deacon Circle, focused on praying with the synod themes related to refugees and migrants. (Read the incredible reflection offered as a part of this service by Pilar Siman.) These prayer services take place monthly on the 3rd at 7:00 p.m. ET and are hosted by different established and emerging teams from across the Discerning Deacons network. You can register for future prayer services here.

We look forward to seeing you soon as we launch our work together for 2024 moving forward on the synodal path with the inspiration of our forebears in diakonia—St. Peter’s mother-in-law and St. Phoebe!

Anna Robertson

Anna Robertson

Anna Robertson is on the team at Discerning Deacons as Director of Distributed Organizing.

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Witness
“[I hope the Church ordains women to the diaconate] to bring a wider witness and expression of God’s life, love, and presence to the people of God. Women’s voices and leadership will heal, encourage and empower the lives of men, women, and children. It will call forth a new understanding of church vocation and enrich Catholic family life.”
Deedee Van Dyke
Catholic Chaplain, Joliet, IL
Witness
“The first Apostle was a woman, Mary Magdalena. She continues to remain a tower of strength for women in ministry today. If more women were ordained to the diaconate in the Roman Catholic Church, I believe we would have more meaningful and spiritually enriching homilies, and our liturgies would embrace and welcome all to the Eucharistic table.”
Sonja Grace
Witness
“If I was ordained as a deacon, it would not be a means to an end, but rather it would be a continual invitation to a deeper and broader journey with Christ. Deacons are asked to become outwardly more visible as hands in service to the Church. To respond to such a vocation would be a treasure, a deepening of my inner faith life enriched by the outward experiences of ministry and service. Both the inner and outer journey become a longing to seek and know the Christ we are called to serve.”   
Nina Laubach
Student, MDiv program at Princeton Theological Seminary

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