Rome - After a thousand years the Catholic Church might welcome female deacons - a rank just below that of priest on the list of Holy Orders. Pope Francis on Thursday announced that he intends to set up a commission to study the role of female deacons in the early Church, affirming that a female diaconate is a possibility today. Should the announcement be followed by a decision, it would be the first time in this millenium that the Church has shown an opening to the prospect, considered definitively shut down by John Paul II. His formulation, however, was limited to ordaining female priests and did not explicitely address that of deacons, prompting a number of reputable clergy members, including the deceased Archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Martini, to discuss the possibility of reinstating a female diaconate in recent years. Deacons can officiate a number of sacraments, including baptisms and marriages, and in certain countries there are entire regions where deacons substitute for priests as the spiritual leaders of their parishes. An opening to such a possibility would be a major step in strengthening women's role in the Church.
The main argument against ordaining women as priests is their absence at the Last Supper and the institution of the Eucharist. But a recent decision by Pope Francis already 'dismantled' part of that argument when women were admitted to the Washing of the Feet. His Holiness performed this ritual on the first Holy Thursday of his Pontificate, when he went to the juvenile correctional facility of Casal del Marmo and decided from that day forth young women could take part in the rite. His unexpected announcement on Thursday signaled a historic openness to the possibility of women serving as deacons. "Constituting an official commission that might study the question?" the pontiff asked himself aloud. "I believe yes. It would do good for the church to clarify this point. I am in agreement. I will speak to do something like this. I accept. It seems useful to me to have a commission that would clarify this well." His Holiness reiterated that women must have a greater role in the Church as they are currently "excluded from the decision-making process", and said they should be able to lead offices at the Vatican. "For me, the elaboration of decisions is very important. Not only the execution, but the elaboration; namely, that women, whether consecrated or lay, are inserted into the process of the discussion," he stated. Pope Francis added that having an equal voice in the Church "is not a matter of feminism, but of right". (AGI)