We are into the seven weeks of Easter, leading to Pentecost, which falls on May 24 this year. In our church history, the number seven is special. It’s considered a number of perfection: God rested on the seventh day of creation; there are seven sacraments; Peter asked Jesus if he should forgive his brother “seven times.” (Jesus trumped that with “seventy times seven times.”)
Another seven in our Christian history shows up this week, the third of Easter. On Monday and Tuesday, we hear the story of St. Stephen, the first martyr (Acts 6 and 7). On Wednesday and Thursday, we hear of St. Philip first in Samaria and then meeting the Ethiopian eunuch.
These two men belong to the group of the first seven deacons. They were appointed, under guidance of the Holy Spirit, to assist the Twelve Apostles after disagreements arose over the care of poor widows in the early church.
After learning of the problem, the apostles called the disciples together. “It is not right for us to neglect the word of God to serve at table. Brothers, select from among you seven reputable men, filled with the Spirit and wisdom, whom we shall appoint to this task, …” The proposal was acceptable and they chose Stephen along with “Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas and Nicholas of Antioch, a convert to Judaism” (Acts 6:2-5).
What do we know of these seven men? The original Greek of Acts makes clear that they were first chosen for table service (diakonein). However, it didn’t take long before deacons were identified with other tasks.
St. Stephen is the best known. Besides table service, he became a preacher, speaking God’s word so fervently that “his face was like the face of an angel” (Acts 6:15). He became so popular that the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem grew concerned and called him before the Sanhedrin. Stephen preached at length to them and, for his efforts, was stoned. His feast day is Dec. 26.
After Stephen’s death, a persecution of the church broke out in Jerusalem and the disciples “all were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles” (Acts 8:1).
One of those scattered disciples was the deacon Philip, who is sometimes called “Philip the Evangelist,” because he also was a preacher. He preached in Samaria. He soon gathered a following that included a sorcerer named Simon the Magician (Magus). Philip not only preached, but healed the sick and drove out demons. Simon was impressed and asked to be baptized by Philip. However, once Peter and John came to Samaria to impart the Spirit upon Philip’s converts, Simon showed his true colors by trying to buy Peter’s power (Acts 8:18-25).
With his work done in Samaria, Philip was sent by an angel to walk the road to Gaza. There he encountered a court official of the Queen of Ethiopia, who had been to Jerusalem. The eunuch was reading the book of Isaiah. Philip explained to him how Jesus fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecies. The man was so impressed that he had Philip baptize him on the spot. The Ethiopian church traditionally traces its history to the baptism of this court official.
Afterwards, Philip was snatched from the scene by the Holy Spirit and went on to preach in Caesarea. This is where we last hear of him in Scripture. In Acts 21, Paul and Luke — on their way to Jerusalem — stop in Caesarea and stay at Philip’s house for several days.
We also hear that Philip had “four virgin daughters gifted with prophecy” (21:9). While the Western church does not deal with these daughters, Eastern Christian churches honor at least one of them by name: St. Hermione, who was martyred in 117. Her feast day is Sept. 4. Her father’s feast is on Oct. 11.
In the Eastern churches, all seven deacons share a feast day of July 28. Prochorus is further honored as one of the “70 Holy Apostles” — those Jesus sent out in pairs — who share a feast day on Jan. 4.
Prochorus is said to have been a companion of Peter and, later, of the Apostle John. Some Eastern icons picture him as a scribe serving St. John. Prochorus is said to have become the bishop of Nicomedia in modern Turkey. Some traditions also call him a nephew of St. Stephen. In the Western church, his feast is celebrated on April 9.
“The Catholic Encyclopedia” notes that “nothing further is known of several of the seven deacons, namely Nicanor, Timon and Parmenas.” In the West, St. Nicanor is honored on Jan. 10, and St. Timon is on April 19 as a martyr. The Eastern Orthodox churches say Timon was appointed as a bishop in Arabia and had the gifts of healing and driving out evil forces. St. Parmenas is remembered on Jan. 23 in the West. The Eastern churches say that he preached in Asia Minor (modern Turkey) and was martyred in Philippi, Macedonia.
NOT A SAINT
The deacon Nicholas, the Jewish convert, is not honored as a saint in the West and little is said of him in the East. “The Catholic Encyclopedia” notes St. Clement (d. 98) saying that Nicholas was jealous of his own beautiful wife and had to be reproved by the apostles.
Later, in keeping with the number of the first deacons, churches in major cities had no more than seven deacons. This was especially true in Rome, until the 11th century when the number was increased to 14.
Whatever happened to the first seven deacons after their appointment by the apostles, they now serve as examples of what the U.S. bishops ask us to remember today about the diaconate: “Deacons are ordained as a sacramental sign to the Church and to the world of Christ, who came ‘to serve and not to be served.”
Sources: “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; the U.S. Catholic bishops’ website at usccb.org; anglican.org; the Orthodox Church in America at oca.org; biblesaints.blogspot.org; wikipedia.org and orthowiki.org.
Kasten is the author of “Linking Your Beads, The Rosary’s History, Mysteries and Prayers,” and “Making Sense of Saints,” both published by Our Sunday Visitor Press.