By Annemarie Paulin-Campbell
In the early hours of Wednesday morning, a significant, and perhaps soon to be historic, gathering took place at Fordham University in New York. It was live-streamed so that people all around the world could take part. The atmosphere was electric with expectation.
For the first time since the Pope established a commission in August 2016 to study the question of women deacons, two distinguished scholars and members of the commission, Phyllis Zagano and Fr Bernard Pottier SJ, spoke publically. The panel also included Sr Donna Ciangio OP, Chancellor of the Archdiocese of Newark, who spoke about how people in the pews in the United States feel about the possibility of women deacons.
The eminent scholars said there is overwhelming archaeological and literary evidence that women were ordained deacons up until the end of the 12th century in the West. The female diaconate was suppressed when the church began to view the deaconate as a transitional role on route to priesthood only, and not as a ministry in its own right. The church stopped ordaining women to the deaconate because the teaching was that women couldn’t be priests (and so the argument went, they could therefore not be deacons either).
However, during the Second Vatican council, the church reclaimed the deaconate as its own ministry. While it remains a step to priesthood for some, there are now also many permanent male deacons (most married) who are not on a priesthood track. So that argument for not having women deacons has evaporated.
The research confirmed that ceremonies for the ordination of male and female deacons were the same. They included the laying on of hands, the epiclesis (calling down of the Holy Spirit) and the investiture with a stole. Zagano said that while at that time the words for ordination and blessing were used interchangeably, it seems clear that women went through exactly the same rite as their male counterparts and that they were indeed ordained.
The Pope has received the report from the commission but has not yet made a statement. The commission was not asked to give a recommendation regarding whether the church should ordain women as deacons, only to research the issue from an historical perspective.
Zagano said she felt hopeful that the Pope would choose the right time to speak about the issue. She speculated that it could be around the May this year when the International Union of Superiors General (UISG), who originally requested Pope Francis look into the issue, will meet. Or that he might link it with the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, on the theme: “Amazonia, new paths for the Church and for an integral ecology”, which will take place in October 2019.
The launch of Zagano’s book “Women Deacons: Past Present and Future” together with a study guide for parishes suggests the ground may be being prepared.
If the Pope approves women deacons then it is likely that individual Bishops conferences will decide whether women deacons are ordained in their dioceses. Although we have yet to hear from the Pope, there seems to be a real possibility that there could be movement coming on this issue soon.
Watch this space!
Read more on Spotlight.africa