Pope Francis recently met with the International Union of Superiors General, the Rome-based umbrella group for the leaders of women’s religious orders around the world. During their conversation the Pope said he would name a commission to study the role of women in the early church as deacons to help guide the church in determining whether the order of Deacons might be opened to women today.
Francis said it remained unclear to him what role such deacons had.
“What were these female deacons?” the pontiff recalled asking the professor. “Did they have ordination or no?”
“It was a bit obscure,” said Francis. “What was the role of the deaconess in that time?”
“Constituting an official commission that might study the question?” the pontiff asked aloud. “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.”
“I accept,” the pope said later. “It seems useful to me to have a commission that would clarify this well.”
This would be a significant shift for the Roman church. The vocational diaconate was re-established as one of many reforms coming out of Vatican II, but has been restricted only to men. Some see this as the beginning of an opening leading eventually to female priests in the Roman Church. But, looking closely at what the Pope suggests, there is absolutely no guarantee there will be a female diaconate equivalent to the male diaconate even in the near future. To look at the experience of the Episcopal Church; the order of Deaconnesses was established in 1889 but they weren’t brought to an equivalency with male deacons until 1970. And in our communion partners the ELCA (who in all fairness have a different understanding of the diaconate), Deaconesses are just now being phased out and brought into the order of Deacons.
You can read more here and here. Visit here for the response of the leading advocacy group for women’s ordination in the Roman church. And here is the list of all the questions asked of Pope Francis by the International Union of Superiors General