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: Remembering John Paul the Great: Three new books

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When teaching college students a few years ago, I was shocked when I asked my students to tell me what they knew about Pope St. John Paul II. It wasn’t much. We went on to read George Weigel’s definitive biography of John Paul, Witness to Hope (Harper Perennial, 2004), and the students were blown away by the greatness and compelling life of the Pope. The class made me realize how quickly the memory of even monumental figures can fade away if we do not work deliberately to continue their legacy.

The first place to begin “getting to know” John Paul better would be Weigel’s biography, mentioned above, along with the sequel, The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II — The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (Random House, 2010). In addition, I would recommend John Paul’s interview book, Crossing the Threshold of Hope (Knopf, 1995) and his trilogy of greatest encyclicals: Fides et Ratio, Evangelium Vitae, and Veritatis Splendor. The great Pope left us an enormous legacy of writings to explore, but especially relevant now are his “Letter to Families,” Familiaris Consortio (an exhortation on the family), and the Theology of the Body.

For those looking go deeper in their knowledge of John Paul, three new books can help us to remember and continue his great work for the renewal of Church and society.

George Weigel, Lessons in Hope: My Unexpected Life with St. John Paul II (Basic Books, 2017)

The final volume of a tryptic of the Pope, Weigel provides a memoir of his interactions with John Paul and an account of how he became his biographer. For those who love Witness to Hope, Weigel provides a fascinating account of how the book came about, tracing his work within the Vatican, Poland, and across the world. It narrates his own story as seminarian, lay theology student, writer, and his activity in politics, including writing speeches for a leader of the pro-life movement in Congress. His work caught John Paul’s attention, especially his book chronicling the Church’s role in the fall of Communism, The Final Revolution. Weigel gives testimony to the providence that prepared him to write John Paul’s biography and the friendship they developed in their common witness to the hope that comes from Christ.

Paul Kengor, The Pope and a President: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and the Extraordinary Untold Story of the 20th Century (ISI, 2017)

This book traces not only the remarkable working friendship of Regan and John Paul, but narrates the entire story of the struggle between European Communism and the Church. Surprisingly, the book’s common thread comes from Our Lady of Fatima, predicting Russia’s errors and uniting the faithful in prayer, as well as guiding not only John Paul but also Reagan. The two men recognized their providential role in what Reagan called the Divine Plan to end Communism in Europe. Portraits of many other key characters (on both sides) emerge: Stalin, Pope Pius XII, Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Bishop Fulton Sheen, and Gorbachev. Kengor presents extraordinary connections between the two figures: both were actors, deep men of prayer, survived assassination attempts only months apart, and played key leadership roles in the world. The book presents ground breaking research to make a compelling and undeniable case that the two great men worked together closely and succeeded in bringing freedom to Eastern Europe.

Pope St. John Paul II/Karol Wojtyła, In God’s Hands: The Spiritual Diaries 1962-2003 (Harper One, 2017)

This book gives us inside access to John Paul’s prayer life by presenting notes of his regular retreats from his time as a bishop through most of his papacy. It’s somewhat misnamed, as the book consists in his notebooks responding to the retreat material, not a normal diary. It reinforces what we know about the Pope: his strong focus on the Eucharist, his Marian spirituality of uniting our intentions to her fiat, and his concern as a bishop for the evangelization of his people. There are many gems, such as the following: “The most appropriate effects of the redemption in the human being are deeds that stem from it – deeds that through Mary are rooted in Christ, through one’s belong it Her, and that are simultaneously in accordance with Christ’s law, with His gospel” (10). The book will not disappoint those looking to enter more deeply into the spirituality of John Paul.