Papal advisers say Francis will know right moment to act on women deacons


Papal advisers say Francis will know right moment to act on women deacons


(Credit: Photo courtesy of Leo Sorel/Fordham University.)

NEW YORK – Members of Pope Francis’s study commission on women deacons spoke publicly for the first time Tuesday, saying the pope has their report and expressing confidence that when the moment comes, he’ll make the right call.

“He will know the time to say something,” said Phyllis Zagano, a senior research associate-in-residence and adjunct professor of religion at Hofstra University, who served on the commission.

In the meantime, Zagano suggested that rank and file Catholics also have a role to play in the discussions around the subject.

“It’s up to the Church to make noise,” she said, while also warning  that “to delay a positive answer” on whether women can serve as deacons “is a negative answer.”

Zagano’s remarks came during a panel discussion on “The Future of Women Deacons: Views from the Papal Commission and the American Pews,” at Fordham University’s Center for Religion and Culture and live streamed by Salt and Light Media.

Panelists included commission members Zagano and Jesuit Father Bernard Pottier, a faculty member at the Institute D’Etudes Théologiques in Brussels, along with Sister Donna Ciangio, O.P., chancellor of the archdiocese of Newark and principal and founder of Church Leadership Consultation. Father Thomas Rosica, CEO of Salt and Light and a long-time consultant to the Holy See Press Office, moderated the event.

The commission, which was established in August 2016 and consisted of twelve members – six women and six men – and was headed by then-archbishop, now Cardinal Luis Francisco Ladaria, has “turned in a report and the Holy Father has it,” Zagano said.

Their mandate was to take up the historical question as to whether there were, in fact, women deacons in the early Church.

“I have no promises for you,” she said, adding that commission members were limited as to what they could say about the report’s contents. Even so, both Zagano and Pottier implied that there was general consensus among the commission about both the historical evidence and on the role women deacons could play going forward.

“The Church will call forth what it needs,” Zagano insisted.

Both Zagano and Pottier discussed the historical evidence regarding women deacons, noting that for millennia, women were ordained in such a capacity. While acknowledging that there have been differing opinions as to the nature of the ordinations and whether one was considered “blessed” or “ordained,” they insisted that the terms have historically been used interchangeably.

Further, they recalled that there were specific liturgies for women deacons being ordained, with women and men serving different roles in their capacity as deacons.

Pottier said that over 800 books and scholarly articles have been written on this historical debate that amount to “various kinds of evidence of true ordination” of women deacons over a span of twelve centuries.

He went on to insist that this is a different question than that of women priests, saying “it is true” that women have never been ordained to the Catholic priesthood.

The role of the permanent diaconate was restored during the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), and the number of deacons since that time has swelled to over 45,000 worldwide, with 18,000 in the U.S. alone.

Both Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI have faced the question of women deacons, with neither signing off on it. Pottier observed that a 2002 report said it was “something the magisterium would have to decide,” referring to the Church’s teaching authority – leaving it an open question for Francis, hence the new commission.

Pottier said the commission under Francis has been able to shed “more and more evidence that it was so,” regarding the historical question of the role of women’s ordination of deacons.

Ciangio, representing a “people in the pew” perspective, offered a disclaimer that she could not speak for the 19,000 parishes across the United States, but recalled her experience of helping lead a study group exploring the question of women deacons based on a book by Zagano.

She said that she has repeatedly faced questions by Catholics over why women – who do the bulk of teaching – are unable to preach.

Reflecting on her childhood, when women were first granted the ability to serve as Eucharistic ministers, “I believed anything in the Church was possible for women,” she said.

“I’m forever open, hopeful, and hoping more will happen,” she continued.

Given the ongoing fallout from the clergy abuse crisis – where Catholics across the country have expressed a growing distrust in church leaders – all three panelists noted that the role of women’s leadership seems more timely than ever, but also expressed understanding as why responding to this issue for Francis may not be “on the top pile of his desk.”

Even so, Zagano said that in recent Church statements, including both the outcome document from this past fall’s Synod on Young People and the working document for next month’s Synod on the Amazon, there is strong language about women’s leadership that leaves her hopeful.

“This is not a question of power, it’s a question of collaboration,” Pottier challenged.

Ciangio said that as a member of the Dominicans, the Order of Preachers, women have historically said that “we preach in different ways,” when asked why they don’t have formal preaching authority.

“That doesn’t satisfy me anymore,” she said.

During the question and answer period, efforts were made to expand the conversation beyond the role of women deacons.

When asked about women cardinals, Zagano remarked that in her view, it’s “easier to have a woman cardinal than a woman deacon,” as they are technically advisors to the pope and are not the rank of the hierarchy.

“Is it likely? I don’t think so. But,” she added, “it would be a game changer in saying to the world that women are equal.”

At the close of the event, an audience member interrupted pressing panelists to weigh in on women’s ordination to the priesthood. However, the panelists insisted it was unhelpful to try and conflate the topics of women’s ordination to the priesthood and the diaconate.

As recently as this summer, Francis said that the possibility of women’s ordination to the priesthood is a settled matter. He has yet, however, to formally weigh in on the diaconate.

Until then, all eyes are on Rome and eagerly awaiting word on what comes next.




RC Deacon Ed Channing, the speaker for our inspirational Deacons’ Day of Reflection, also offers his ‘take’ on this teaching document from Pope Francis.  Relevant to all ministers, whatever denomination, whatever ministry!

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Rev Deacon Ed Channing

I want to mention the teaching document “The Joy of the Gospel” of Pope Francis. Francis really understands the servant church and the pilgrim church, and everything he says applies to our diaconal ministry. One section is on temptations affecting pastoral ministers. (You can download the whole thing free from the Holy See’s website https://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/apost_exhortations/documents/papa-francesco_esortazione-ap_20131124_evangelii-gaudium.html#II.%E2%80%82Temptations_faced_by_pastoral_workers ).

I want just to summarise what he says about this. They are factors which may limit or harm us and our ministry.

  1. We need to be cared for spiritually ourselves. We must have regular personal prayer, regular spiritual direction and regular retreats. We must reflect on how our ministerial work impacts on our family life. Often we claim to be too busy, but what we have not received we cannot give to others.
  2. Inordinate concern for personal freedom and individualism, making ministry a mere appendage to life not its centre. Do we believe what we read in the gospels, do we teach the whole of what we believe, do we live what we teach?
  3. Sloth and selfishness. We are NOT part-time ministers.  Our ministry is not one thing among many others. It is not a profession but is a mission.   Do I really find every circumstance of my life being adapted to ministry, or is it the other way round?
  4. Am I a defeatist in the face of the church’s manifold modern difficulties, or do I believe that everything, even the negatives around, are in God’s hands and He can and will use them for good?
  5. Wrong relationships. Ministry is Trinitarian, all to do with good relationships, loving God and neighbour, cooperating together. The social aspects of the Gospel must be lived. Do I do it all my way, on my own? Do I really engage and share with others, really seeing and referencing the other?  Do I, deep down, believe I can do it all better on my own?
  6. Self-absorption. Ritualism, or anti-ritualism.  Insisting on rules interpreted all my own way, looking down on people not living by my rules.  A kind of evil disguised as good. Favouring Church as institution over church as incarnate crucified Christ.  Elitism.  Do we preserve church traditions at the expense of refusing to “put out into the deep”?  Not going out to seek out those looking for meaning in their lives whatever the words they use?
  7. Warring among ourselves…between denominations, within our communities, between lay and ordained, priests and deacons. Do we reach out to those from whom we differ?
  8. Not having a preferential option for the outsiders and the poor. Especially today, as clergy do we put down the laity? Do we truly reverence women’s ministry and leadership? Are we actively including the young and families? LGBT people? migrants? different races? in our ministries?

Can I point to anything which is relevant to me?

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Deacon Enzo Petrolino, a married permanent deacon of the diocese of Reggio Calabria-Bova, Italy, has published a new book on the diaconate , not yet available in English, The Diaconate in the Thought of Pope Francis: A Poor Church for the Poor. He is president of the Council of Deacons in Italy.

The book is not yet available in English, but the prologue has been translated from Italian into Spanish  by Deacon John Donaghy (the only permanent deacon in the Diocese of Santa Rosa de Copán, Honduras!)  Pope Francis has written this prologue.

Prologue by Pope Francis

In the last few decades, the Church has lived an extraordinary spiritual and pastoral growth, due to the reception in depth of the documents of the Second Vatican Council. Many papal documents have been published, beginning with Blessed Paul VI, Saint John Paul II, and Pope Benedict XVI, which have explained the Council in detail. In this context, the permanent diaconate has recovered the roots of its presence in the community of believers and even in a more extensive social fabric, on the one hand acquiring the consciousness of the service of Christ and the people and on the other hand receiving a new impetus through the orientations provided, during these years, by the Magisterium for the reflection in common by the church.

I want to thank the author, Enzo Petrolino, president of the Council of the Diaconate in Italy, who, thinking of the Jubilee of Deacons… wished to collect my texts related to the diaconate, including those from my episcopal ministry in Buenos Aires as well as the most recent which I have published as bishop of Rome.

Today it is interesting and important to analyze in depth the development of the permanent diaconate, from its renewal until the present, to understand its path better, through an interpretation which uses all the doctrinal, pastoral, and exhortative richness which has characterized the discourses addressed by the popes, in various occasions, to the deacons of the whole word in these years after the Council.

The Church encounters in the permanent diaconate the expression and, at the same time, the vital impetus to be converted into a visible sign of the diakonia of Christ the Servant in human history. The sensitivity for the formation of a diaconal conscience can even be considered the fundamental theme which ought to permeate Christian communities.

The service of the diaconal ministry finds its identity in the act of evangelizing, as John Paul II said in a homily in 1979, addressed to a group of new deacons, and reminding them of the words of the handing to them of the Book of the Gospels during their ordination: “Receive the Gospel of Christ, whose herald you have become. Believe what you read, teach what you believe, and practice what you teach.” So then, you are called to carry the words of the Acts of the Apostles in your heart. In your role as deacons you have come to be and are associates of Peter, John, and all the apostles. You help in the apostolic ministry and share in its proclamation. As the apostles, you also ought to feel impelled to proclaim the resurrection of the Lord Jesus in word and works. Also you ought to experience the urgency to do good, to be of service in the name of Jesus crucified and risen, [and] the urgency to carry the Word of God to the life of his holy people.

Therefore, as I wrote in the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium – The Joy of the Gospel – it is good for priests, deacons and lay people to meet periodically to go over together the resources that make preaching more attractive.

Another important aspect is praying for vocations. All the faithful ought to assume their responsibilities relative to the care and discernment of vocation, including in reference to the ministry of the deacon. When the apostles were looking for someone to assume the place of Judas Iscariot, Peter gathered together 120 persons ((cf. Acts 1:15); and for the vocation of the seven deacons he called together the group of disciples (cf. Acts 6:1). Even today, the Christian community is always present in the birth of vocations, in their formation, and in their perseverance (cf. EG, 107)

In addition, all the diakonia of the church – of which the ministerial diaconate is sign and instrument – has its heart beating in the Eucharistic Ministry and is made real in the first place in the service of the poor who carry in themselves the face of Christ who suffers. The deacon Lawrence, who was the administrator of the diocese of Rome, when the Emperor asked him to bring the treasures of the diocese to pay something [to the emperor] and save himself, showed him the poor. The poor are the riches of the Church. If you have your own bank, if you are the owner of the bank, but your heart is poor and not attached to money, it will always be a heart at the service of others. Poverty is this type of detachment in order to server those in need , to serve others.

Therefore, a poor Church for the poor. I have already mentioned that during my election, Cardinal Hummes, the archbishop emeritus of Sao Paolo who was also the Prefect Emeritus of the Congregation for the Clergy, was sitting next to me. When I was elected Pope, he gave me a hug, he kissed me, and told me: “Don’t forget the poor!” And immediately, thinking of the poor, Saint Francis of Assisi came to mind. And thus also there came to my heart the name, Francis of Assisi, who was, according to tradition, a deacon. For me, he is the person of poverty, the person of peace, the person who loves and cares for creation. He is the person who ought to inspire deacons.

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During the various stages of the diaconal path in these years, the papal magisterium has left a mark, at the same clarifying and stimulating regarding the faithful obedience and the joy which ought to accompany the mission of the deacon in the church and in the world today, extending the directives given by the Council, its scope, and the horizons of its action.

Those who work to promote the ministry of the deacon and who exercise it will be able to find in his different writings of the author published by LEV [Libreria Editrice Vaticana] and particularly the documents brought together in the Enchiridion [Enchiridion sul Diaconato/Compendium on the Diaconate], interesting ideas for a better understanding and deepening – even in the pastoral sense – of the identity and the role of permanent deacons in this time in which we are living.

The ministry of the deacon, thus, has to be seen as an integral part of the work achieved by the Council with the purpose of preparing the Church, in its integrity, to a renewed apostolate in today’s world. Deacons, rightfully, can be defined as pioneers of the new civilization of love, as Pope John Paul II liked to say. This is my longing, and I wish you a good and fruitful reading [of this book].

Vatican City, July 31, 2017


Full details by Deacon Greg Kandra on the Aleteia site https://aleteia.org/blogs/deacon-greg-kandra/pope-francis-writes-prologue-for-new-book-on-the-diaconate/