Some wonderful news came out of the Vatican on Thursday. During a meeting with some 900 leaders of the world’s congregations of Catholic women religious, Pope Francis announced he will create a commission to study the possibility of allowing women to serve as deacons in the Catholic Church.
Many church historians have being saying for decades that there is abundant evidence that women served as deacons in the early centuries of the church. The apostle Paul mentions one such woman, Phoebe, in his letter to the Romans.
The permanent diocanate was retored to the church after Vatican II and there are now over 40,000 male permanent deacons ministering in parishes and dioceses throughout the world. Permanent deacons cannot say Mass, anoint or hear confession, but they are able to baptize, preside at marriages and funerals, proclaim the Gospel and preach during various liturgies.
Women deacons would be able to do these very same things.
How wonderful would that be! Imagine a woman in vestments proclaiming the Gospel and preaching in St Peter’s in Rome! The image of a church transformed that would send out.
What kinds of things could women deacons preach on? In the words of Fr James Martin, S.J.: “Everything of course, like male deacons! But imagine them preaching on the following: The Annunciation, the Visitation, the Nativity, Mary Magdalene, Mary and Martha, the Woman at the Well, the Syrophoenician woman, the appearance of the Risen Christ to Mary Magdalene, and on and on. Women deacons could preach on anything, like male deacons, but how I long to hear them preach on Jesus and on women in the New Testament.”
One of the most offputting aspects of major church liturgies is the rows of robed male clerics with not a single woman in sight. I don’t know how women put up with it. It’s why I choose not to concelebrate at Mass, if I don’t have to.
Of course, it is early days and all the pope has done is announce his intention to form a commission to study the possibility of women deacons. The commission may amount to nothing in the end, or propose no change in the status quo.
But it’s good to dream.
When one considers the question of women and the Catholic Church today, some things are obvious. First, women not only make up a significant majority of those who attend Mass and the sacraments week in week out, they play the primary role in handing on the faith. Without women the Catholic Church would be moribund or close to it.
Second, women have traditionally done much of the church’s dirty work. Think of religious education (nuns and catechists); church and parish administration (secretaries); upkeep and decoration of churches (altar societies and Martha Ministers), care of priests (housekeepers and helpers). If these women downed tools tomorrow the church would scarcely be able to function.
Three, women continue to have a tremendous love for the church. They show this not just by continuing to occupy the pews every Sunday and doing most of the church’s dirty work, but also by the number who serve on parish pastoral councils, teach religion in schools, become extraordinary ministers of the Word and Eucharist, do voluntary work and take courses in theology.
Indeed, the commitment and enthusiasm of so many women is extraordinary given that they are second-class members of their own church. The Catholic Church is the last great western institution that systematically discriminates against women.
It is no longer good enough to pay lip service to the dignity and vocation of women in the church, as church leaders have tended to do. Real and equal involvement in the church is not a privilege women must earn but a right that belongs to them by virtue of their creation in the image of God and their cooperation into Christ through baptism. Ordaining women to the diaconate would be a wonderful step in the right direction.