(Vatican Radio) Pope Francis led an in-depth discussion on Thursday about the role of women in the Church, saying he wants to set up a commission to study the possibility of reinstating female deacons. His conversation was part of a question and answer session with some 900 heads of female religious orders and congregations who form part of the International Union of Superiors General, or UISG.
Philippa Hitchen reports:
Pope Francis spoke off the cuff during his closed door encounter with the sisters, who are currently holding their General Assembly in Rome this week, marking the 50th anniversary of the foundation of their organisation.
During the hour and a half long conversation about the mission and ministry of women in religious life, the Pope responded to several delicate questions, including one about the history of female deacons. He said understanding about their role in the early Church remained unclear and agreed it would be useful to set up a commission to study the question.
Women deacons in the early Church
Up to the 5th century, the Diaconate flourished in the western Church, but in the following centuries it experienced a slow decline, surviving only as an intermediate stage for candidates preparing for priestly ordination. Following the Second Vatican Council, the Church restored the role of permanent deacon, which is open to single and married men. Many experts believe that women should also be able to serve in this role, since there is ample evidence of female deacons in the first centuries, including one named Phoebe who is cited by St Paul in his letter to the Romans.
More women in leadership positions
Pope Francis reiterated that he wants to see an increase in the number of women in decision-making positions in the Church, saying women’s perspectives are very important for both the elaboration and the carrying out of such decisions.
Asked about the possibility of women preaching the homilies during Mass, the Pope said it’s important to distinguish between other types of liturgies, where the sermon can be preached by consecrated or lay women, and the Mass, where the homily is connected to the role of the priest serving “in persona Christi”.
Changes to Canon Law
Questioned about the prospect of changes to Canon Law which would facilitate the reform process being undertaken by many women’s congregations, the Pope said such changes could be possible, providing they were the result of a process of discernment by the competent authorities.
Service not servitude
Finally Pope Francis spoke about the vital work of the sisters who care for the poor and marginalized. He said this is a vocation of service to the Church and must never be confused with servitude, which is sometimes still asked of them. They should not fear being labelled as ‘activists’, in their service to the needy, he said, but they should also find time for rest and for listening to older or sick members of their communities who are a precious source of wisdom and memory.