Pope Francis sets up committee on women deacons

By Christopher Lamb
Sunday, August 7, 2016

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis wasted no time in getting back to business following his five-day trip to Poland for World Youth Day. On Aug. 2 he announced the formal establishment of a commission to study the possibility of female deacons or, as the Vatican put it, “the diaconate of women.”

Deacons date back to early Christian times and have a specific ministry assisting the local bishop. Following the Second Vatican Council, married men were allowed to be ordained to the permanent diaconate; for others it is the stage before priesthood.

The new papal body includes Phyllis Zagano, a theologian who has argued extensively in favor of the female diaconate. She will be joined by another U.S. scholar, Augustinian Father Robert Dodaro, president of the Patristic Institute Augustinianum in Rome. He is an expert in the early church — this is important, given that this topic is a top priority for Francis.

Their job is primarily to look at the history of female deacons — known as deaconesses — during the first centuries of Christianity. That they existed is not denied, given that one is referred to in St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans, along with several other accounts from the early church period.

The question at stake is what their ministry was and whether it is one that can be retrieved. One of the hinges that Catholic theology turns on is the notion that the church today is united to the first Christians — like an umbilical cord stretching over the centuries.

The role of deaconesses in the early church has, however, been studied before. In 2002, a Vatican theological commission ruled that deacons were distinct from their female counterparts but said it was up to the pope and bishops to decide whether to bring back this form of ministry.

Pope Francis decided to set up the commission after being asked a question about the topic during a meeting with leaders of women religious back in May. His response to the sisters then and his decision to set up the commission now once again revealed that Francis is willing to listen and act collegially.

His model of a listening papacy, one that is in touch with the people, is something he’d like bishops to adopt as well. It was something he focused on during his informal meeting with the Polish bishops during his World Youth Day visit.

A transcript of the discussion was released on Aug. 2. It revealed the pope urging bishops to remain sensitive to the needs of their people while also having the confidence to “go out” into the world. He stressed that parishes must also make the sacraments available and that churches must be open and friendly — he even colorfully described parish secretaries who scare off newcomers as “disciples of Satan.”

When he met separately with priests and religious he urged them not to “remain enclosed, out of fear or convenience.”

His words were important as Catholicism in Poland is at something of a crossroads. While it has an honored place in the country’s history for its opposition to both Nazism and communism — epitomized by the decisive contribution made by Pope John Paul II in ending Soviet rule — more could be done by way of renewal. After all, it has a powerful engine room of faith with 7,000 seminarians, 30,000 priests and a population that is 90 percent Catholic.

One of the other key messages the pope gave the church in Poland was to welcome migrants, particularly those fleeing their homeland due to poverty, war and destruction.

Among the pilgrims who took part in World Youth Day were some Syrians who had fled their country’s protracted civil war. One of them, Rand Mittri, a 26- year-old from Aleppo, told the pope and the crowd about the devastation in her home country. The day before Francis said that the credibility of Christians would be measured by how they treat outcasts.

The gathering in Krakow was a powerful demonstration of different nationalities mingling together. In the city’s streets Koreans drank Polish beer in bars sitting alongside Italians while Brazilians played guitars as young nuns danced in the squares.

World Youth Day had, however, started under a cloud after news came of the brutal killing of French priest Jacques Hamel by Islamic extremists near the city of Rouen. It was shocking — especially for the 35,000 French pilgrims. Responding to the news on the plane to Krakow, Francis said the world was at war, later stressing this was not a war about religion.

He instead took the platform of World Youth Day as an opportunity to inspire young people to “build a new humanity.” Telling them to turn off their video games and stop being “couch potatoes,” he urged them to find God among the marginalized, such as refugees.

Using faith as an inspiration was something Archbishop Cupich did when he addressed a group of Chicago pilgrims in Poland. Taking place at the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Krakow, Archbishop Cupich spoke and took questions from the assembly. One of them asked how to become more involved in parish life and to get others to do the same.

“You are the best inviters and the best evangelizers,” he told the young people. He urged them to be reflective about the big, “transitional” moments and to ask God what he was calling each of them to. “If you do, life won’t become boring, it will become an adventure. And you are too young not to take up that adventure.” He stressed: “faith is not just believing in something, it’s believing in someone — it’s about trust. I’ve experienced God pushing me so far against the wall until I trust him.”

Faith and trust in God were tested to the limits in the face of humanity’s cruelty, particularly the mass extermination of Jews during the Second World War.

It was to the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz, 30 miles west of Krakow, that Francis went on July 22 in what was one of the most poignant moments of his visit. The pope was silent throughout the entire visit, spending time in prayer at points where executions had been carried out, and meeting Holocaust victims. The only message he left was in the guest book where he wrote: “Lord, have mercy on your people! Lord, forgiveness for so much cruelty!” For Francis, Auschwitz is a sign of what happens when mercy is forgotten.

It was another big, symbolic act of his papacy and showed the radically improved relationship between Catholicism and Judaism. This is important for Francis when looking at the violence in the world today, much of it perpetrated under a veneer of Islam. The point is this: interfaith dialogue, when conducted with patience and humility, can eventually bear fruit.


  • pope francis
  • vatican
  • women in the church
  • poland
  • world youth day 2016
  • church history

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