In May 2016, Pope Francis met with about 900 sisters and nuns who lead religious congregations and belong to a group called the International Union of Superiors General (UISG). During the meeting, the group asked the pope to “constitute an official commission to study” the possibility of “including women among permanent deacons” in the Catholic Church.
Pope Francis responded positively, acknowledging the ancient presence of female deacons and that the Council of Chalcedon (AD 451) references their ordination, though “it is somewhat unclear.” He also mentioned their role in marriage annulment investigations. If a woman complained to the bishop about having been abused by her husband, he said, the female deacon would inspect the bruises and inform the bishop.
Pope Francis said he would have the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith refer him to studies on the female diaconate, and he would constitute an official commission to study the matter.
“It will be good for the Church to clarify this point.”Pope Francis
Sr. Carmen Sammut, the head of the UISG, which represents ~600,000 sisters and nuns who work on the frontiers of the church in every part of the world, explained in an interview, “We are already doing so many things that resemble what a deacon would do, although it would help us to do a bit more service if we were ordained deacons.”
In August 2016, Pope Francis formally constituted “The Study Commission on the Diaconate of Women” and named 12 scholars as members, six men and six women.
The commission is reportedly the first in two millennia of church history to include an equal number of men and women.
In March 2017, Pope Francis told the German newspaper Die Zeit that he would stop by and visit one of the meetings of the commission. When the interviewer said the pope’s presence would be seen as an encouragement, Francis responded: “The task of theology is to do research to get to the bottom of things, always.… We must not be afraid! Fear closes doors. Freedom opens them. And if freedom is small, it opens at least a little window.”
The commission met several times between November 2016 and June 2018 and delivered a report to Pope Francis.
In May 2019, the pope was asked about the commission’s work. He responded, “We arrived at a certain point,” and the commission’s initial report “could serve as the launching point for going ahead and studying, and giving a definitive response as to yes or no, according to the characteristics of the era.” A few days later, in his triennial meeting with members of the UISG, the pope repeated that the church must continue to study the topic.
Meanwhile, across the vast stretches of the Amazonian region, an experiment in radical ecclesial synodality and deep listening was underway as about 87,000 people in the region shared their hopes, laments and dreams for their communities and the church they love — even in the context of the complex, painful legacies of colonial power united with church growth.
This listening work, led by the Pan-Amazonian Ecclesial Network (REPAM), was charting out a refreshing ecclesiology — embodying a new way of witnessing and being church in the world. They synthesized this listening, bringing to the fore several key issues for shared discernment with the wider church.
Delegations of Amazonian and indigenous leaders traveled to Rome, bringing fishing nets, indigenous statues, traditional attire — and the hopes and cries of their people. They centered on the church’s stage — and therefore, the world’s stage — the pressing concerns of ecological and cultural devastation, of human trafficking and poaching, and also of the practical ministerial challenges of being church in the Amazon.
Women asked to be seen and recognized as deacons. Perhaps so that their ministry might bear the fullness of recognition to those they serve. And so that the church, in its formal administration of sacramentals, is present. Not by exception or exemption, but in formation and ordination.
At the synod, participants repeatedly emphasized that women are already doing the work of deacons in the Amazon. This echoes the observation of the Second Vatican Council that
“there are men who actually carry out the functions of the deacon’s office” and therefore “it is only right to strengthen them” by the “sacramental grace of the diaconate.”
At daily press briefings, several bishops made strong statements in favor of ordaining women to the diaconate.
“The majority of bishops [at the Amazon synod] were in favor of admitting women to the permanent diaconate,” said Bishop Robert W. McElroy of San Diego, one of the synod’s members, in an interview. “My hope would be that they would find a pathway to make that a reality. And I think there’s a good possibility that’s the direction it’s going.”
In their final document, the synod asked to share their “experiences and reflections” with the papal commission on women deacons, and Pope Francis immediately responded to the synod’s request:
“I will take on the request to reconvene the commission, perhaps with new members, I pick up the challenge. There’s a glove somewhere that’s been thrown down. The women have put up a sign and said, ‘Please listen to us. May we be heard.’ And I pick up that gauntlet.”
In April 2020, Pope Francis established a new study commission on the female diaconate. There are 10 members — five men and five women — from Ukraine, the U.S., Spain, Great Britain, Switzerland, Italy and France. The U.S. members are permanent deacons: Deacon Dominic Cerrato of Steubenville and Deacon James Keating of Omaha.
Will the Catholic Church again call forth women to be ordained to the diaconate as a permanent vocation, serving in the ministries of liturgy, Word and charity?
This is a moment for the whole church to engage in dialogue and discernment about the pastoral needs, missionary opportunities and the gifts and charisms of women in the church today.
Let us pray for the ongoing renewal of the ministry of the diaconate and for the work of this papal commission.
St. Phoebe, a minister (diakonos) of the church at Cenchreae, whom St. Paul asked the church in Rome to “receive in the Lord,” pray for us!