Vatican downplays expectations for women deacons; UISG president expresses hope for decision

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by Joshua J. McElwee

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The Vatican's chief spokesman sought to downplay expectations that Pope Francis will allow women to serve as deacons in the global Catholic church on Friday, saying the pontiff's announcement of the creation of a commission to study the matter does not mean women will be ordained.

"The Pope did not say he intends to introduce the ordination of female deacons and even less did he talk about the ordination of women as priests," said Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi, director of the Holy See Press Office.

Lombardi was speaking in a statement released after Francis' announcement Thursday, first reported by NCR, that he will create a commission to study the possibility of allowing women to serve as deacons in the church.

The pontiff indicated he would create such a commission during a meeting at the Vatican with some 900 leaders of the world’s congregations of Catholic women religious, who asked him during a question-and-answer session why the church excludes women from serving as deacons.

The women religious, meeting with the pope as part of the triennial assembly of the International Union of Superiors General (UISG), told Francis that women had served as deacons in the early church and asked: "Why not construct an official commission that might study the question?"

"Constituting an official commission that might study the question?" the pontiff asked 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," the pope said later. "It seems useful to me to have a commission that would clarify this well."

Many church historians have said that there is abundant evidence that women served as deacons in the early centuries of the church. The apostle Paul mentions such a woman, Phoebe, in his letter to the Romans.

UISG president Sr. Carmen Sammut said in a video statement Friday that the sisters at the audience with the pope “were quite excited by the fact that Pope Francis did not leave any question out."

"He really wanted to answer each of our questions," said Sammut. “He was very strong about the fact that women should be in the decision-making processes and the decision-making positions of the church."

Regarding the question on the possibility of women deacons, the UISG president said her group "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," said Sammut. "And I hope that one day there will be a real decision about this."

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

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