What Pope Francis said on studying deaconesses

Catholic News Agency

Vatican City, May 12, 2016 / 10:18 am (CNA/EWTN News).- On Thursday Pope Francis said he would be open to the idea of forming a commission to study the historical context of deaconesses, as well as the possibility of women serving as deaconesses today.

Read here: “What Should I Know About Pope Francis and Women Deacons” by Catholic Answers

He spoke to some 800 members of the International Union of Superiors General (UISG), who are meeting in Rome May 9-13 for their Plenary Assembly, which focuses largely on the role of women in the Church, and obstacles hindering it.

He briefly touched on the temptations of both feminism and clericalism, as well as the question of the presence of women in the permanent diaconate of the Church, saying it would be “useful to establish a commission to study” the topic.

Part of the Church’s sacrament of Holy Orders, the diaconate is currently only open to men.

However, in the lengthy May 12 question-and-answer session with the plenary participants, one of the religious sisters asked the Pope “Why not construct an official commission that might study the question” of reinstating deaconesses in the Church.

Read here: Full text of Pope’s Q & A at Meeting With International Union of Superiors General by ZENIT

In response, Francis said he had spoken some time ago with “a good, wise professor” who had studied the topic of female deacons in the early centuries of the church, and noted that their role was primarily linked to assisting the bishop in full-body immersions of women for baptism.

The Pope said that the exact role female deacons played in the early Church is still unclear to him, and recalled asking the professor “What were these female deacons? Did they have ordination or no?”

He said the precise answer “was a bit obscure,” and questioned aloud the possibility of forming an official commission to study the question.

“I believe yes. It would do good for the Church to clarify this point. I am in agreement. I will speak to do something like this,” he said, adding later that “it seems useful to me to have a commission that would clarify this well.”

CNA asked the Vatican for confirmation of the Pope’s remarks, but did not receive a response by deadline.

While Pope Francis has suggested a new commission could be helpful in studying the question further, the International Theological Commission, an advisory body to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, released a document on the diaconate in 2002 in which they addressed the question of whether women might be also be eligible.

Read here: “From the Diakonia of Christ to the Diakonia of the Apostles” by the International Theological Commission (2002)

The document overwhelmingly concluded that female deacons in the early Church had not been equivalent to male deacons, and had no liturgical or sacramental function.

It reflected what the professor to whom Pope Francis had spoken said, referring to the Constitutions of the Holy Apostles from around 380, which stressed that deaconesses had “no liturgical function,” but rather devoted themselves “to their function in the community which was service to the women.”

The deaconess, the document read, “does not bless, and she does not fulfill any of the things that priests and deacons do, but she looks after the doors and attends the priests during the baptism of women, for the sake of decency.”

While deaconesses were able to carry out the anointing of women in baptism for decency’s sake and to visit sick women in their homes, “they were forbidden to confer baptism themselves, or to play a part in the Eucharistic offering.”

Even in the fourth century, the document read, “the way of life of deaconesses was very similar to that of nuns.”

While history proves that the ministry of female deacons did indeed exist, the text noted that it was “developed unevenly” in the different parts of the Church, and that affirmed that it is clear “that this ministry was not perceived as simply the feminine equivalent of the masculine diaconate.”

Divided into seven chapters and a conclusion, the document’s second to last paragraph addresses the question of the ordination of women to the diaconate today.

While the general tone was that the question needed further study, the document offered two points of reflection for future consideration.

First, it mentioned that the deaconesses referred to in the ancient Church, “as evidenced by the rite of institution and the functions they exercised – were not purely and simply equivalent to the deacons.”

Secondly, it asserted that “the unity of the sacrament of Holy Orders…is strongly underlined by ecclesial tradition, especially in the teaching of the Magisterium,” and stressed the “clear distinction” between the ministry of priests and bishops versus that of deacons.

The document concluded with no clear indication either way, but instead simply stated that the question “pertains to the ministry of discernment which the Lord established in his Church to pronounce authoritatively on this question.”

COMING UP: Pilgrimage: A journey through Church history

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“Let it be known to you then that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen.” Paul proclaims these words the end of the book of Acts, capping off the biblical narrative of the work of the Apostles. The story of salvation history doesn’t end with the death of the Apostles, however, but continues in the life of the Church, fulfilling the words of Paul. The Gentiles have accepted the Gospel and have built up the Kingdom of God on earth. This is our story and we continue it.

If you want to know how the story continues after Acts, I’ll be teaching a class through the Denver Catholic Catechetical School this year, called “Pilgrimage: A Journey through Church History.” It begins with the early Church and follows the story to today. The class explores the Church Fathers, the fall of Rome, the building of Christendom, the High Middles ages, the Reformation (perfect for the 500th anniversary this year), the expansion of the missions around the globe, the modern revolutions, and the Second Vatican Council. We’ll be looking at and discussing the most important historical sources and exploring the art of the various time periods. We’ll be entering into the Church’s story by allowing the key figures and events to guide us.

We see one turning point in the story in the year 430. St. Augustine lay dying in Hippo as the Vandals prepared to sack and conquer the city. Augustine lived at the end of an age as the Roman Empire slowly crumbled, but also at the beginning of a new Christian one, an age he helped forge. The great doctor of the Church thought through the implications of the rise of Christianity in an age of political decline and saw right into the heart of history. History, unlike the focus of our textbooks, finds its true course not in politics or economics, but through love.

Augustine posited that all mankind belonged to one of two cities: the City of God and the City of Man. One city took its shape by loving God before all else and the other in a love turned inward on oneself. Augustine taught us that we live as citizens of our true homeland above even within the midst of this passing world: “The glorious city of God is my theme in this work. . . . I have undertaken its defense against those who prefer their own gods to the Founder of this city—a city surpassingly glorious.” Augustine’s teaching laid the foundation for a new Christian civilization, Christendom, which sprang up amidst the ruins of Rome in Europe.

One young man unexpectedly began building the foundations for this new civilization. He was studying within the ruins of the decadent city of Rome in about the year 500 and fled the temptations of town to live as a hermit in the wilderness. Eventually, others flocked to him and he laid the foundations for monasticism throughout Western Europe. The monasteries provided the foundation upon which a new society was built. St. Benedict, for this work, has been recognized as a patron of Europe and a true father of Christendom. His Rule does not seek to build up the earthly city, but looking to the City of God to “hasten to do now what will profit us for eternity.” And this is the key to Catholic culture and history: seeking the lasting the city helps us to live better in this life, with wisdom, courage, and hope.

We are all pilgrims, living in exile in the city of this world, and journeying toward the heavenly Jerusalem: “For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come” (Heb 13:14). And yet we have to build a city on earth and looking to the past provides inspiration for this great project. This is why we should study Church history, especially as our culture goes through a period of upheaval, not unlike St. Augustine’s time. We need the witness and the legacy of the saints and doctors to guide our pilgrimage as we continue the story of the Church. Looking to the past helps us to plot out our own path on our journey to eternal life.

Class details

“Pilgrimage: A Journey Through Church History,” John Paul II Center, Denver. Tuesdays, 9:00 AM. Information Sessions: Aug 1 and Sept 5, 9:00 AM. Classes begin Tuesday, September 12, 2017. Register at: https://www.regonline.com/builder/site/Default.aspx?EventID=1968327