In the News 2016

Commission on female deacons well-received by local Catholics

In a move that has energized those who have been advocating for women’s equality in the Catholic Church, the Vatican announced Tuesday that Pope Francis has set up a panel to study whether women could serve as deacons, a role long reserved for men.

The 12-member commission of six men and six women includes priests, nuns and laywomen. The announcement came after Francis told superiors of nuns’ orders in May that he intended to set up such a commission.

Sister Jayne Helmlinger, general superior of the Sisters of St. Joseph in Orange, said she was “very happy” to hear the Vatican’s announcement.

“Pope Francis has been vocal about the desire to be inclusive of women and how to expand our sphere of influence and participation,” she said.

While such an announcement from the pontiff can cause great excitement in local parishes, it is necessary to proceed with caution, said Frank Chavez, director of the Office of the Diaconate at the Diocese of Orange.

“It’s a really interesting issue,” he said. “But it is something that we need to study, pray and take our time.”

Married men who serve as deacons can preach and preside over weddings, baptisms and funerals, but only priests can celebrate Mass. There are 125 active deacons in Orange County and about 17,000 deacons nationwide, Chavez said.

Deacons serve as conduits between their parishes and the community, Chavez said.

“They take the grace of the altar to the streets and bring back the needs of the street to the altar,” he said, adding that deacons’ wives are collaborators with their husbands and are as involved in programs and projects.

Today, women can’t perform sacraments in church, but they do hold critical positions that shape the church, said Ryan Lilyengren, spokesman for the Diocese of Orange. He gave the example of Shirl Giacomi, the diocese’s chancellor, who has remained in that position for more than a decade.

The head of Francis’ newly created commission is Archbishop Francisco Ladaria Ferrer, a Jesuit who is the No. 2 official at the Congregation of the Faith, the Vatican office entrusted with ensuring doctrinal orthodoxy.

But the fact that the commission has Phyllis Zagano, an author and academic from Hofstra University in New York, is an encouraging sign, said Father Sean Dempsey, assistant professor of history at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

“She is a scholarly expert on the role women deaconesses served in the earliest years of the Catholic Church,” he said. “Her inclusion in the commission tells me that there will be a true openness to this process, that it’s not just symbolic.”

“I’m happy about this step forward,” said Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice and an advocate for women’s ordination in the church. “Of course, I’d like the pope to go further. But the reality is that when it comes to women, Pope Francis has a blind spot.”

This piece was originally published by The Orange County Register.

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