by Annemarie Paulin-Campbell

Late last week the news broke that Pope Francis has agreed to set up a commission to study the history of women deacons in the church, and by implication, the possibility of women as deacons in the church today. This was in response to questions raised by religious sisters at the triennial assembly of the International Union of Superiors General (UISG).

Although the issue of a commission to study the diaconate has made the headlines, the meeting was also interesting because it covered a number of issues in relation to women and the church. It is very encouraging that the Pope seems to be listening and responding to the issues and questions that were raised by women in this forum. It is very much in line with his general stance, one in which he emphasises dialogue and discernment and trying to sense the leading of the Spirit.

The issue of women in ministry is sadly a contentious one. The ecclesiology of Pope Francis is one in which we need to be continually discerning together where the Holy Spirit is leading the church. This can only happen through a genuine listening to one another. Reports of the meeting seem to indicate that Pope Francis was inspired and challenged by his engagement with the sisters. He said: ‘’I like hearing your questions because they made me think….I feel like a goalie who is standing there waiting for the ball and not knowing where it is going to come from.” It was also good to hear Pope Francis emphasize that women must be heard at every level of decision making, in the parish, the diocese and at the Vatican.

However, other things that were said were rather disheartening. The Pope reiterated that women may give a homily at Liturgies of the Word but not at a Mass – where only a priest can preside and preach. He said that he would ask for a full explanation of why, this will be sent to the UISG. It seems strange that, despite his insistence on the importance of all the baptised being gifted by the Spirit for the sake of the church, women, who may have a particular gift for preaching, are not allowed to exercise that gift in the service of the church at our most central liturgy.

For those who favour a greater role for women’s ministry in the church, the establishment of the commission may feel like a significant breakthrough. It certainly puts the issue of ordained ministry for women (at least to the diaconate) back on the agenda for discussion. However, it is at this stage only a commission to study the issue. Fr Lombardi, the director of the Holy See’s office reiterated this just two days later saying: “The Pope did not say he intends to introduce the ordination of female deacons, and even less did he talk about the ordination of women as priests.” The outcome of that commission and any changes made, in response to its findings, remains to be seen.

Critics of the idea of the ordination of women argue that no one has the right to be ordained and I would agree. The question of women’s ordination (and men’s) should not be about rights or about power or having a place in the hierarchy. This is simply clericalism which is, as Pope Francis has said, an evil in the church. Ordination can only be about service and about sharing the gifts given by the Spirit for the community. As it says in the Pentecost readings, there is “a variety of gifts but always the same Spirit.”

One important aspect of how an authentic call may be recognised and discerned is noticing where there is a deep longing to serve and to use one’s God-given gifts in a particular way. Some very devout Catholic women do not feel a sense of deep longing to serve in this way because the Holy Spirit has called and gifted them to serve in other significant ways. However, there are others who often, from an early age, have had a deep desire and sense of call to serve the community in administering the Word or the Sacraments: women who seem to have been naturally gifted for the work of preaching and liturgical ministry.

For these women, there is a deep sense of pain in being excluded from areas of ministry to which over many years they have experienced a sense of call. Some eventually leave and engage in ministry in other Christian churches. Many, for whom the Catholic church is their spiritual home, stay and live with that pain, exercising the priestly ministry of their baptism as they can within the church as teachers, spiritual directors, sacristans and so on. But when women who feel a call to ministerial ordination see and long to respond to the need of people in contexts in which ministerial ordination is required and cannot, it is extremely difficult.

Pope Francis himself has pointed out that the church is not static. Throughout history, as the church has listened to the Spirit, it has changed in response to what has become clear. In this time of Pentecost may we as church be gifted with wisdom. We need to continue dialoguing as we discern the invitation of God’s Holy Spirit in relation to this issue of the role and call of women in the church in our own time.