Speaking to an international group of women and men religious last Saturday, Pope Francis said that the Church needed women’s voices, input, and experiences. He went on to say that although women could be appointed as heads of some offices of the Vatican curia, that would not be enough to “recover the role” that women should have in the Catholic Church. What was important was ensuring that women had a voice and are listened to because the Church needs their specific richer, stronger, and intuitive contributions. He said, as he has before, that the Church needed the “feminine genius”. Nevertheless, so far there has been little evidence of any such real progress for women as advocates or officials in the Church.
Might I suggest that suitable Religious and lay women who are given vocal and official roles in the Church be ordained like men to the permanent diaconate – with its three-fold ministry of the Sanctuary, the Word, and charity. For those conservative male clerics who might be worried about ordaining women to the permanent diaconate, this would not necessarily be a “slippery slope to women priests” because the contemporary restored ordained diaconate is permanent.
There were many women deacons or deaconesses during the first millennium, particularly in the Eastern part of the Catholic Church. Women deacons are mentioned in Scripture or were canonised like St Olympias (pictured), who I included in the litany of the saints in my own diaconal ordination. The ancient diaconate of women had all the elements of an authentic sacrament – imposition of hands by the bishop with the invocation of the Holy Spirit, investiture with the diaconal stole and so on. The only difference in the ancient roles of women and men deacons was that only women could prepare women catechumens for joining the Church, as only women could anoint and immerse women at baptism, for which catechumens had to strip totally.
Michael Phelan is a retired Permanent Deacon in the diocese of Northampton and a trustee of The Tablet
The author of this ‘Tablet’ article, The Reverend Michael Phelan, is a Permanent Deacon in the English Roman Catholic Church, who endorses Pope Francis’ call for a greater role for the voice and ministry of women in the world-wide Roman Catholic Church.
Deacon Michael says this:
“For those conservative male clerics who might be worried about ordaining women to the permanent diaconate, this would not necessarily be a “slippery slope to women priests” because the contemporary restored ordained diaconate is permanent.”
Acknowledging that the Permanent Diaconate has it’s very own provenance in the history of the Church, Deacon Michael reminds the Church that Women Deacons are not only in evidence in the Scriptures, but were also part of the ongoing life of the Church in its early historical life.
Although Deacon Michael assures his ‘conservative male clerical’ friends in the Roman Catholic Church that the ordination of Women Deacon need not be the first step of a ‘slippery slope to women priests’, it would at least give the Roman Catholic Church an opportunity to experience the ministry of Women in a more authoritative role than is at present possible.
The current situation is that, in parishes where male priests are thin on the ground, Nuns – and, in some parishes, other women – are already being given the responsibility of administering the sacrament of Holy Communion to parishioners, within the context of ‘extended Communion’ liturgies, where a full Eucharistic Rite cannot be celebrated because of the absence of a (male) priest to preside at the Mass. This practice already begs the question of whether, or not, a woman might conceivably be authorised by the Church to actually preside at the celebration of the Mass.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand