Pope Francis has said he is willing to create a commission to study whether women can become deacons in the Catholic Church – the first step towards allowing women to serve in ordained ministry.
The Pope agreed to create an official study commission during a closed-door meeting with some 900 superiors of women’s religious orders.
Deacons are ordained ministers but are not priests. They can perform many of the same functions as priests – preside at weddings, baptisms and funerals, and preach – but cannot celebrate Mass.
Currently, married men – who are also mostly excluded from the Roman Catholic priesthood – can serve as deacons. Women cannot, however, though historians say women served as deacons in the early church.
The Pope in no way signalled during a 75-minute conversation with the sisters that the church’s long-standing prohibition on ordaining women priests will change.
But asked during a question-and-answer session if he would be willing to create a commission to study whether women could serve as deacons, Francis said he was open to the idea, adding: “I accept. It would be useful for the church to clarify this question. I agree.”
Francis noted that the deaconesses of the early church weren’t ordained as they are today. But he said he would ask the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to report back.
He also said he would ask the Vatican office in charge of the liturgy to report back on why women aren’t allowed to give a homily at Mass.
The Women’s Ordination Conference, which advocates for women priests, praised Pope Francis’s willingness to create a study commission as a “great step for the Vatican in recognising its own history”.
“Biblical evidence names several women deacons, working alongside men in the early church,” the group said.
The Rev James Martin, a Jesuit author, said: “The female diaconate is not only an idea whose time has come, but a reality recovered from history.
“Women preaching during Mass would mean that Catholics would finally be able to hear reflections on scripture from women speaking from the pulpit, and thus the church would be immeasurably enriched.
“This is news of immense joy for the church.”