VATICAN CITY. Pope Francis told the heads of women’s religious orders from around the world that he would set up a commission to study the New Testament deaconesses, and he also insisted more can and should be done to involve lay and consecrated women in Church decision-making at every level.
Asked if he would establish “an official commission to study the question” of whether women could be admitted to the diaconate, Pope Francis responded: “I accept. It would be useful for the Church to clarify this question. I agree.”
The pope spent more than an hour May 12 responding to questions posed by members of the International Union of Superiors General, repeatedly asking if they wanted further clarification and making funny asides or rephrasing his responses when it was clear they were not hitting the mark.
“I like hearing your questions because they make me think,” the pope told close to 900 superiors general, representing almost 500,000 sisters around the world. “I feel like a goalie, who is standing there waiting for the ball and not knowing where it’s going to come from.”
Asked about deaconesses in the New Testament and the possibility of the modern Church admitting women to the permanent diaconate, Pope Francis had said his understanding was that the women described as deaconesses in the Bible were not ordained like permanent deacons are. Mainly, he said, it appeared that they assisted with the baptism by immersion of other women and with the anointing of women.
However, he said, “I will ask the (Congregation for the) Doctrine of the Faith to tell me if there are studies on this.”
Pope Francis also promised to have the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments send the International Union a full explanation of why women cannot give a homily at Mass. While women can preach at a Liturgy of the Word when there is not a celebration of the Eucharist, he said, at Mass the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist are parts of a whole and only one who is ordained can preside and preach.
Pope Francis “did not say he intends to introduce a diaconal ordination for women,” and he certainly did not speak about the ordination of women priests, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman said.
After some news outlets reported the pope was considering ordaining women deacons and comments were made about women deacons leading to women priests, Father Lombardi issued a clarification May 13.
The spokesman insisted “it is wrong to reduce all the important things the pope said to the religious women to just this question.”
Women and the diaconate “is a question that has been discussed much, including in the past, and that comes from the fact that in the early church there were women who were called deaconesses, who carried out certain services within the community,” Father Lombardi said.
Pope Francis told the sisters that he thought it would be a good idea to form a commission “to take up this question again in order to view it with greater clarity,” Father Lombardi said. “But one must be honest: The pope did not say he intends to introduce a diaconal ordination for women and even less did he speak of the priestly ordination of women. In fact, talking about preaching during the eucharistic celebration, he let them know that he was not considering this possibility at all.”
In a video statement May 13, Sister Carmen Sammut, superior of the Sisters of Our Lady of Africa and president of the International Union, said the sisters “were quite excited by the fact that Pope Francis did not leave any question out; he really wanted to answer each of our questions.
“He was very strong about the fact that women should be in the decision-making processes and the decision-making positions of the Church,” she said.
“About the diaconate,” she said, the sisters “had proposed that there would be a commission. He accepted that proposal and has said that he would bring that forward so that it could be studied even more than it has already. And I hope that one day there will be a real decision about this.”
“For a number of years now there has been some ongoing efforts to understand the role of women in the early church, especially whether or not this was a role that paralleled the role of the deacons,” said Nashville Bishop David Choby. “Consequently, it seems the decision on the part of Pope Francis to form a commission to study this issue is an outcome of that decades long debate about the possibility.
“The more significant aspect of the question it seems to me is not the question of the service women render the life of the Church. There’s no doubt historically women have played a pivotal role in the life of the Church, for example, in their roles in education and health care,” Bishop Choby added. “However, examining the question of women serving a role that would be comparable to the role of ordained diaconate would have many doctrinal implications.
“As this commission does its work, our contribution as priests and people is to pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit for those engaged in the study,” Bishop Choby said.
Mother Ann Marie Karlovic, O.P., prioress general of the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia Congregation in Nashville, was not present for the meeting with the pope. “However, I am always struck by the ways in which women religious have used their gifts to serve the Church, whether in education, in serving the poor and marginalized, in health care, and in countless other areas. Always it has been a gift of self, an expression of our dedication to Christ and the Church,” Mother Ann Marie said. “The witness of the women whom we meet in the Acts of the Apostles is marked by this same dedication. In a world that is so hungry for God, it is exciting to realize that we preach and witness to his presence by our very consecrated lives.”
During the meeting with the Internation Union, the pope was asked about the lack of influence women religious are given in Church decision-making processes. Pope Francis said the obligation to listen to women in the parish, diocese and at the Vatican “is not a matter of feminism, but of right.”
All the baptized – women and men, lay or consecrated – have been given gifts by the Holy Spirit for the good of the entire Church, he insisted. The entire Church suffers when some voices are excluded from the conversation, he said.
“Our desire is that the Church talk with us – like is happening now – and not about us,” one of the sisters told him.
“To talk about someone when they are absent is not evangelical,” the pope said. In the meetings of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, “you must be present and I will tell the prefect this,” he said.
“I never imagined there was such a disconnect, truly. Thank you for telling me so courageously and for doing so with that smile,” he said.
However, Pope Francis warned the sisters about the danger of clericalism, which he described as “a sinful attitude,” but one which is “like the tango, it takes two.” There are priests who see themselves as lords of the Church, he said, but there also are women and laymen “who ask to be clericalized.”
On the other hand, the pope expressed concern about the number of consecrated women working as housekeepers for priests. Their work is that of “a servant, not of service,” he said, and that “undervalues their dignity.”
The sisters applauded when the pope suggested such priests pay local women in need of a job and let the sisters teach, care for the poor, heal the sick. “And when you superiors are asked (to assign a sister) for something that is more servanthood than service, be courageous and say ‘no.’”
While warning that “the devil enters through one’s pocket,” Pope Francis also urged the superiors to choose their treasurers well, be suspicious of “friends” who promise to invest and increase their money and to ensure that their evangelical poverty is a life of simplicity, not misery.
But many of the women burst out laughing when the pope told them that if their congregations are in serious financial need, they should turn to their local bishop. When they laughed, he jokingly suggested that they were saying their only hope is prayer, “give us this day our daily bread.”
Turning serious, Pope Francis insisted the vow of poverty is a matter of detachment from material goods and commitment to God and to the poor, “but it’s not suicide.”
Andy Telli contributed to this report.