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January 24, 2019 — In the early Church, women deacons were well and duly ordained, like the men, but their functions in the church were different. This is what we learned this past week from members of the Commission on Women Deacons instituted in 2018 by Pope Francis. Phyllis Zagang of Hofstra University in New York and Fr. Bernard Pottier SJ of the Institute of Theological Studies in Brussels spoke publicly for the first time in the context of a colloquium at Fordham University in New York. The two researchers also gave an interview to America Magazine.


In August 2016, Pope Francis had instituted an official Commission to study the female deaconate. Their mandate was to study the role of deaconesses in the early Church and to reflect on the possibility of reinstating this practice.

Women deacons existed in the first stages of Christianity. This is known. But what functions did these deaconesses exercise exactly, and what was the nature of their ordination? It was these questions, particularly, that the gender-balanced Commission created by the head of the Catholic Church was to answer.

According to the two specialists, women deacons administered the sacrament of baptism and the anointing of women who were sick. They also brought communion to ailing women, something which men did not do.

The decision of the Holy Father to create the commission is historic, because it is balanced, composed of six men and six women, all of them theologians.

The polarizing debate on the role of women in the Church has continued since the second Vatican Council (1962 – 1965). In restoring the permanent deaconate for men, Vatican II started a reflection on female deacons, but nothing has since been done. Fr. General Arturo Sosa gave his support to an enhanced role for women in the Catholic Church. In addition, on March 8, 2018, the International Woman’s Day, the Jesuits hosted in their own Roman Curia a conference given by Catholic feminists. Organized by the collective Voices of Faith, this conference had been ignored by the Vatican.

During his official visit to Canada last May, Fr. Sosa reaffirmed the commitment of the Jesuits to a greater participation of women in the Church. As well, one of the eminent researchers on the pontifical Commission, Fr. Pottier, is himself a Jesuit.

The openness of Pope Francis to the possibility of restoring the deaconate for women could represent a historic shift for the Catholic Church. But Mrs. Zagano and Fr. Pottier are not sure what the Vatican will do with the report. The Vatican Commission was not asked to make recommendations to the Pope, but rather to focus on the female deaconate in the first centuries of the Catholic Church.

Mrs. Zagano hopes that the Church will move ahead on this questions. “The Church cannot deprive itself of something it needs…. namely, more ministers of worship.”

For the interview with America Magazine, click here.

For more on the colloquium held at Fordham University, click here.

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