What Pope Francis said on studying deaconesses

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: Father and son, deacon and priest: Deacon dads and priest sons share special bond as both serve God’s people

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The bond between a father and son is one of God’s greatest designs; however, when father and son are both called to serve the Church as deacon and priest, that bond takes on a whole new meaning. Just ask these two dads and their sons, all of whom answered the call to serve the people of God at the altar.

Deacon Michael Magee serves at Our Lady of Loreto Parish in Foxfield, while his son Father Matthew Magee has worked as the priest secretary to Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila for the past several years and will soon be moved to a new assignment as parochial vicar at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Boulder. Deacon Darrell Nepil serves at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Denver, and his son, Father John Nepil, served at several parishes within the archdiocese before his current assignment as a professor at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary.

However different their journeys may have been, all four have something in common; mainly, that far from seeing their vocations as a reward from God, they have received them as an uncommon gift of grace that has blessed their families and individual relationships with each other abundantly, knowing that God acts in different ways to help us all get to Heaven.

Interwoven journeys

Deacon Michael Magee was ordained in May 2009, at the end of Father Matt’s first year of seminary. Little did they know that God would use both of their callings to encourage each other along the journey.

Deacon Michael’s journey began when a man from his parish was ordained a deacon.

“I simply felt like God was calling me to do something more than I was doing at the present time,” he said. “I had been volunteering for a number of different things and was involved in some ministry activities and in the Knights of Columbus. And I thought the idea of being a deacon would be simply another activity for which I could volunteer.”

He didn’t know what it entailed at the time. In fact, he believed it was something a man could simply sign up for. To his surprise, the diaconate was more serious – and it required five years of formation and discernment. Yet he was so drawn to it, that he decided to do it anyway. But as he learned more about the nature of the diaconate during his formation, he became more nervous and unsure about whether God was really calling him to that vocation. 

While his doubts remained all the way up to his ordination, Deacon Michael was faithful to his studies, trusting that God would lead him in the right path. 

And God did — through the calling of his own son to the priesthood.

Deacon Michael didn’t realize that his son Matthew had paid close attention to his father’s faith journey and had found in it a light that gave him courage to discern the priesthood.

Father Matthew Magee (left) and his dad, Deacon Michael Magee (right), were both encouraging to one another as they each pursued their respective vocations. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

“Seeing my dad, as a father, growing in his relationship with the Lord was really influential for me on my own desire to follow Christ,” said Father Matt. “Looking at his courage to discern his own vocation and follow God’s plan in his life gave me the strength and courage to be open to the same thing in my life… He played a very important role, whether he knew it or not at the time, and whether I knew it or not at the time.”

On the other hand, Father Matt didn’t know that his dad was in turn encouraged by his own response to God’s calling. 

“As I went through all those doubts, I watched Matthew’s journey in seminary and listened to how he was dealing with that in his life. And, as he just articulated very well, I also saw those same qualities in him,” Deacon Michael said. “Seeing a young man in his 20s willing to consider following God for the rest of his life also gave me the courage to continue on in my own journey, to see it through.”

God’s way of uplifting them in their vocations through each other’s journey is something they are very grateful for. 

This unusual grace impacted Father Matt during his first Mass, when his dad, as deacon, approached him before the Gospel reading and asked for the traditional blessing by calling him “father.”

“It was a really special moment for me. He’s certainly my biological father and raised me. But then there’s something different when we’re at the altar in a clerical capacity — there’s a strange reversal of roles when we’re giving spiritual nourishment to the people — a father asks the new father for the blessing,” he said.

In both of their vocations, Deacon Michael and Father Matt see God’s Providence and the unique plan he has for all of us.

“We all have a vocation, even if it’s something we may not expect,” Deacon Michael concluded. “You may feel anxiety or worry about what it’s going to look like, but trust in God. He will take care of things as he always does.”

A bribe for Heaven

For Deacon Darell and Father John Nepil, the journey was different, but not any less providential.

While he grew up Catholic, Father John wasn’t interested in setting foot on any Church activity during his teenage years. His saving grace was perhaps what many parents have to do to get their teenagers to Church: bribe them.

“His mom and I basically bribed him to go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference,” Deacon Darell said with a laugh. “He didn’t want to go, but we’d heard so many good things about it, that we said, ‘We’re going to make this happen, whatever it takes.’”

So the Nepils came up with a creative idea.

“He owed me some money for a uniform that he had needed for a job in the summer. So, I said, ‘Listen, if you go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference, I’ll forgive your debt. And he did, he and his brother went. And John especially came back a different boy. He literally was converted with a lightning bolt at that retreat.”

To this day, Father John marks his conversion to Christ from the summer before his senior year in high school when he attended that conference. 

As it happens with stories worth telling, the details of how much money he owed his father have varied over the years, and it’s a matter of debate among them, but Father John remembers it was close to $500.

“That’s subject to each one,” Father John said laughingly. “But what matters is that they offered to forgive my debt if I went to this retreat – it was money well spent.”

Besides this important event, Father John said that his dad influenced him in many ways by the simple fact of who he was as a father.

“My dad’s faith and moral character were a rock for me during some difficult teenage years,” he said. “He’s a great example of a man who was always faithful and lived a really outstanding moral life, but then as he deepened in love with Christ, he decided to give of himself in a more profound service.”

Father John Nepil (left) and Deacon Darrell Nepil (right) both had rather roundabout ways to their respective vocations, but they both say serving God’s people together as brothers in Holy Orders is a great joy. (Photo provided)

Besides his desire to serve and follow God, the seed that would eventually lead Deacon Darell to the diaconate was planted by a coworker, who would also take holy orders: Deacon Joe Donohoe.

“One day he said to me, ‘You should be a deacon.’ And, of course, I laughed at him and said, ‘I don’t have time for that. My life is too busy.’ But it only took him to suggest it for the idea to keep coming back to my head, and God kept nudging me. Eventually I decided I really wanted to do that,” Deacon Darell said.

The ability to share at the altar during the Mass has deepened the natural relationship of father and son and given Deacon Darell and Father John new opportunities to grow closer to God. 

One of the most meaningful times came when Deacon Darell had a massive stroke in 2018. While he was in the hospital, Father John was able to visit and celebrate Mass at his bed and pray the rosary with him every day, as he had come back from Rome and was working on his dissertation.

“It was probably the most privileged and intimate time I’ve ever had with my father,” Father John said. “It was an amazing gift that really changed our relationship.”

“I feel like that’s a huge reason why I healed and why I am here today,” Deacon Darell added.

“It’s a real gift to have my dad as a deacon and a brother. It’s a tremendous honor. It’s one of the great joys of my life.” Father John concluded. “That’s really what has bonded our relationship together: the sheer desire to serve Jesus, especially in holy orders.”