Judith ValenteAugust 05, 2016
Ready and Able. Cynthia Bowns

Cynthia Bowns gazes at a painting of the Last Supper that hangs in the study of her home. It is not Leonardo DaVinci’s famous depiction of Jesus and the 12 male apostles. Bowns’ painting includes several women alongside the 12 men at the table of the first Eucharist.

“I think this is probably a more accurate representation of who was actually there with Jesus,” Bowns says.

It’s clear from the gospels that Jesus had many followers among women. In the Acts of the Apostles and the letters of St. Paul, women also appear as diligent workers in the early church, spreading the Good News and ministering to other women, children and the poor in an early version of the diaconate. Those Scripture passages give Bowns hope that modern women will soon be able to once again serve as ordained deacons.

The church took a major step in that direction recently when Pope Francis named a 12-member commission—six men and six women—to study the question. If women are allowed into the diaconate, Bowns says she hopes to be at the head of the line.

RELATED: Vatican Announces Commission on Women Deacons

Few could argue with her credentials. Bowns has a master’s degree in divinity, a certificate in spiritual formation from Catholic Theological Union in Chicago and worked for years in that seminary’s development office. She is married to a deacon.

As a deacon’s wife, Bowns participated in all of the classes her husband took during his four years of formation for the diaconate. But at the end of that time, only he could approach the altar to be ordained.

“Going through the diaconate program with my husband really surfaced a desire to serve. I’ve always had a sense of ministerial call, but it really became more focused during that time.”

Bowns believes women would bring a special sensibility to the role.

“I don’t want to make blanket statements about women, but often as mothers, or like me, a grandmother, we have a sensitivity to listening to people, to perceiving things. We come at the world in a slightly different way. My husband and I, we have totally different gifts, but we come together in a really special way. I think this would be an opportunity for more women in ministry to come together with their male peers in a really holistic, beautiful way,” she says.

RELATED: Pope Francis’ Commission on Women Deacons Involves “High Stakes,” Member Says

In the early church, male and female deacons were common, says Phyllis Zagano, a theologian from New York’s Hofstra University, who has authored several books on women in the early church. Zagano will be serving on Pope Francis’ study group for women in the diaconate.

Deacons handled the finances and cared for the poor and marginalized, freeing the early bishops to concentrate on the sacramental life of the church. One of St. Paul’s epistles mentions a female deacon by name, Phoebe of the church at Cenchreae. The role of deacons faded in the Middle Ages as priests and bishops took on more authority. The Second Vatican Council restored the diaconate, but only for men.  

Maureen Garvey often serves alongside her husband, Deacon Kevin Garvey at their parish in Deerfield, Il. Parishioners refer to them as their “deacon couple.” The Garveys lead marriage preparation classes, help counsel returning veterans (Kevin is a retired Marine colonel) and plan regular prayer services at a local halfway home for women in recovery.

Maureen Garvey says she too is ready for the diaconate.

“We had the exact same training, two nights a week, one weekend a month, summer internships,” she says of her husband’s formation studies. “I wrote every paper he wrote. The only thing that was different was on the day of ordination, I had tears in my eyes when all the guys were called up [to the altar] and they left their wives sitting in the pews.”

Garvey often serves as a lector at the Masses in which her husband preaches the homily—something she says she often helps him to write.

“I would love to be able to reflect on the gospel in a woman’s voice. That’s what I feel called to. If we could do baptisms and weddings together, that would be lovely. I don’t feel the need to do that by myself. We’re a team,” she says.

Kevin Garvey says ordaining women to the diaconate would serve a practical purpose as deacons’ duties grow at the parish level because of the priest shortage. “I would love to have help, and women would be awesome in that role,” he says.

Bowns’ husband Loren, who serves in a parish in the Joliet diocese, says he too would welcome the help and the perspective a woman could bring to the role.

“We were in classes together and there were things that’s she’d bring up that as men we didn’t see. I mean, good men, good classmates who do amazing things, but there were things we didn’t see,” he says.

Not all deacons’ wives feel drawn to that role. Sylvia Foti, whose husband Franco is a deacon at a largely Polish and Hispanic church on Chicago’s south side, says she is not convinced women need to be in the diaconate at all.

“I’m worried that this might be another trend or fad,” she says. “It’s like a push from feminism to become an ordained minister, and I’m concerned about that. I haven’t fully embraced it, but I haven’t fully rejected it. I’m very ambivalent about it, but it makes me a little nervous, frankly.”

Like many Catholics, Foti wonders if female deacons ultimately will open the door to women priests. Zagano, the theologian, says that’s not likely.

“I find no history of women ordained as priests,” Zagano says. “If people say that if you can ordain a woman a deacon, then you can ordain a woman a priest, you are arguing not only against history, you’re arguing against church teaching.”

Several male deacons I spoke with from the Chicago diocese are enthusiastic about women joining their ranks.

“When I take a look at all the ministries that women already work in, you’d have to argue that women are already doing diaconal ministries,” says Deacon John Vidmar, who serves at a largely Slovenian parish in the south Chicago suburbs. “I, as well as many of my fellow deacons, would be very comfortable with it,” he adds.

St. Nicholas Church in the Chicago suburb of Evanston may well be the first parish to already have put forth the name of a woman for the diaconate. It did so in 2013, before Pope Francis was even elected.

Deacon Chris Murphy of St. Nicholas says he and other members of the parish developed a white paper citing Scriptural support for a return of women to the diaconate. They presented their paper to Cardinal Francis George, then head of the Chicago archdiocese. At the same time, the parish proposed the name of a woman for the diaconate, Lynne Mapes Riordan, an attorney who has served on the parish’s liturgy planning committee for many years.

Mapes Riordan says she and the cardinal had a “very cordial” meeting, but she does not know if the white paper or her name were ever sent to Rome for consideration. The cardinal was being treated for cancer at the time and died about a year later.

Mapes Riordan has a master’s degree in liturgy from Catholic Theological Union. She is still interested in becoming a deacon—if that one day comes to pass.

Judith Valente is America's Chicago correspondent.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
William Rydberg
5 years 2 months ago
The attitudes expressed here could be seen to be very worldly. One sets oneself up for failure in the Church when they could be perceived by some as taking what in their mind is rightfully theirs. Can anybody explain how taking advanced courses in Theology, Sacramentology, Pastoral Studies, then claiming a position within the Church is any different than Simony? Bottom line, one can be perceived as making a purchase. Point is, more discussion needs to go in to Vocations and the Church. The Church has never been a Meritocracy... All positions within the Church deserve MUTUAL discernment in Christ, It's more than a job in Christ,
ed gleason
5 years 2 months ago
William Rydberg The women deacon deal is a done deal.... next year or the one after,,You should start writng your post about What will you post when it's done
William Rydberg
5 years 2 months ago
Ed, As co-religionists, should an Ex-Cathedra pronouncement be made concerning the matter, I think our mutual response will be Amen! All Authority rests in the Church, even the Scriptures were discerned through the instrumentality of the Church in the Spirit. All the Apostles died almost 2 millennia ago, no eye witnesses remain alive. Even the Good News we read in English is a translation, neither the Apostles nor Jesus spoke English, but the Church does. We come to know Jesus-God come in the flesh through the mediation of the Church in the Trinity. We live by the obedience of faith taught by the Church in Christ. Amen and Amen... Grace and peace fellow co-religionist! You now know my answer... in Christ,
Michael Barberi
5 years 2 months ago
Ed, I applaud your enthusiasm and hope-filed prayer that women will be ordained deacons. It is clear that many issues we face today are not answered by the Gospel. It is also clear that women in ancient times lacked credibility and had limited rights. During ancient times, this made it almost impossible for women to become apostles. Nevertheless, women were deacons in the early Church and carried out many tasks that present-day deacons perform. Today, theological scholars are gaining more insight and enlightenment about the spirit of teachings and why and how they were formed. We also know a lot more about the context of Scripture. We also know that many teachings were taught as truth but were reformed as well as practices. I find no convincing evidence that women cannot become deacons merely because they are women. I pray that the Pontifical Commission will be inspired by the Holy Spirit and that women deacons become a reality in the Catholic Church.
Colm Holmes
5 years 2 months ago
The "Last Supper" painting which includes women can be seen at this link: http://wearechurchireland.ie/last-supper/
Tim O'Leary
5 years 2 months ago
The we-are-church movement campaigns against orthodox Church teaching, including women priests and a change in sexual morality, so I think the inclusion of this push might hurt the discussion re women deacons.
Luis Gutierrez
5 years 2 months ago
Agree, women deacons/priests is a clear cut issue of sacramental theology, not to be conflated with issues of sexual morality. The ordination of women to the diaconate and the priesthood is fully compatible with Humanae Vitae. Refusing to mediate female ordinations to sacramental ministry is not compatible with the pro-life doctrine of the Church; it is, in fact, an artificial contraceptive (if not an abortifacient!) of vocations on the basis of gender alone, thereby negating the Lord the possibility of calling women.
Tim O'Leary
5 years 2 months ago
My comments on 2 promising quotes from above: Bowns: “we have a sensitivity to listening to people, to perceiving things. We come at the world in a slightly different way. My husband and I, we have totally different gifts, but we come together in a really special way.” – sounds like a clear recognition of complementarity, which is good. “I find no history of women ordained as priests,” Zagano says. “If people say that if you can ordain a woman a deacon, then you can ordain a woman a priest, you are arguing not only against history, you’re arguing against church teaching.” In the last theological commission on deacons in 2002, there is this quote re the meaning of deacon or deaconess in the New Testament (section IV) "In the apostolic era different forms of diaconal assistance offered to the Apostles and communities by women seem to have been institutional. Thus Paul recommends to the community at Rome "our sister Phoebe, servant [he diakonos] of the Church at Cenchreae" (cf. Rom 16:1-4). Although the masculine form of diakonos is used here, it cannot therefore be concluded that the word is being used to designate the specific function of a "deacon"; firstly because in this context diakonos still signifies servant in a very general sense, and secondly because the word "servant" is not given a feminine suffix but preceded by a feminine article. What seems clear is that Phoebe exercised a recognised service in the community of Cenchreae, subordinate to the ministry of the Apostle. Elsewhere in Paul's writings the authorities of the world are themselves called diakonos (Rom 13:4), and in Second Corinthians 11:14-15 he refers to diakonoi of the devil. http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/cti_documents/rc_con_cfaith_pro_05072004_diaconate_en.html To follow on from the concern expressed above from Sylvia Foti, it will be extremely important that the false anthropology of radical feminism not derail an orthodox discussion of this commission.
Luis Gutierrez
5 years 2 months ago
Likewise, the false anthropology of patriarchal gender theory is to be avoided. By "patriarchal gender theory" I mean, basically, the sex/gender binary and the norm of male headship. This inadequate anthropology is radically dismantled by the adequate anthropology of St John Paul II in his Theology of the Body. It is time to recognize that our sacramental theology must be liberated from radical patriarchy. There is no need to surrender to "radical feminism" (whatever that is). It is "simply" a matter of recognizing that baptized women are "proper matter" for *all* the sacraments. Obviously, the saintly pope determined that the Church was not ready back in 1994 (thus is letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, a tragic mistake). My feeling is that the Church, 20 years later (equivalent to 200+ years in pre-internet times) is now getting ready, with resistance remaining only in those regions of the world that are still constrained by (surprise!) the patriarchal culture of male headship.
alan macdonald
5 years 2 months ago
American Catholics constitute about 5% of the Roman CAtholic Church. It is an area within the Church that is shrinking for various reasons. It is also the area where support for "deaconesses" is strongest. Where the real Church growth is, Africa, India, China, there is virtually no support for this idea. Indeed, most there view females in this role as unorthodox and anathema. "Deaconesses" are popular with Americans, Jesuits and very few others.
Mike Evans
5 years 2 months ago
Did Jesus say go forth and teach all nations, but skip on those pagan Romans? The debasement, misogyny and abuse of women in so many countries must come to a stop. Will the Catholic faith lead or fall way behind? In 25 years where will we all be?
Henry George
5 years 2 months ago
Might I suggest that the Catholic Church sit down with the Greek/Russian and other Orthodox Churches and decide together before we commit to Women Deacons. We need to re-unify the Roman and Orthodox Churches before we do anything else that might keep the Churches divided when they need to be unified.
john abrahams
5 years 2 months ago
Here is a question I've asked myself regarding this matter: Would ordaining women to the Catholic Diaconate increase or dissuade women entering the Consecrated Life made possible through traditional Religious Orders? I'll share my age --76--and my 'state in life' as it was once called--Catholic Diocesan Priest. Aware of coming to the end of my life and being mostly conservative, I'll trust the Paraclete and not the Jesuits or a Jesuit pope in matter before us.
Luis Gutierrez
5 years 2 months ago
I believe in my heart that Christ is ready, and the Church should get ready for women deacons, women priests, women bishops and, hopefully some day before 3000 AD, hear the senior cardinal deacon announcing, "Habemus Mamam." Why not? It is "simply" a matter of recognizing that baptized women are "proper matter" for *all* the sacraments. Would Christ want the Church to remain constrained within the boundaries of patriarchal gender theory (i.e., the sex/gender binary, male headship) until he returns in glory? For what is worth, my personal discernment is that the ordination of women is AMDGEBA!
Mike Evans
5 years 2 months ago
Is the church ready? Well all the women and children are. Don't they count?
5 years 2 months ago
There are two points I would like to make. First, people are called by God to be deacons. It is not something that the individual chooses for themselves. To say you want to be a deacon sounds somewhat proud to me. No one deserves or has the right to be a deacon whether they are a man or female. Second, it seems that maybe Deacon Garvey and his wife may have committed academic fraud if she truly wrote his papers etc. I would think if mr Garvey was the one earning the degree he should have done the work on his own. I did not know that the seminary was a team effort. I wonder if the rector of the seminary knew that this was a joint program.
Lenora Grimaud
5 years 2 months ago
John, I think you mis-read Maureen Garvey's comment. I had to reread it. She said: "I wrote every paper he wrote." This is to say that she was given all the same assignments as he was, and had the same training. She was not there simply as an observer. She just didn't get any credit for what she did. I was also a Deacon's wife and went through the same training.
5 years 2 months ago
Women and homosexuals do the brunk of the work in the Church. The difference is that many homosexual bishops / priests (chaste or non-chaste) get a stole whereas the women do not. If women were to truly be outright excluded from the work of the church, the church would collapse. It is unthinkable imagining the Catholic Church doing the salvific work of Christ without women or homosexuals. Give them a stole. They already bear the stigmata of Christ for choosing to smell like the sheep in spite of the wolves biting at their blessed heels and hands
Tim O'Leary
5 years 2 months ago
What an amazing example of deep-seated prejudice and multi-layered anti-Catholic bigotry! First for conflating the role of women (50% of the population, central to the creation of mankind, human biology and the survival of humanity) with homosexuals (at most 2-3%, and certainly not central to human biology). Second, for insinuating that priests with homosexual temptations are likely to be non-chaste. Third, the Church has existed and thrived over two thousand years, with over a billion alive today, so it hasn't collapsed without women deacons. Fourth, for calling priests and bishops wolves and even devils "biting at their heels and hands." Fifth, for a total trivialization of the sacred wounds of Christ for this political screed.
Tim O'Leary
5 years 2 months ago
Deacon in an online dictionary is described as the standard ancient Greek word meaning "servant", "waiting-man", "minister", or "messenger". So, while I am happy to wait for another commission to inform us yet again of the historical role of these particular servants of the Church, surely there is no need to wait on the commission to take on a 'servant's heart" for supporting the Church. However, the discussion in this article and further in the combox below seems to be far removed from a servant's heart, and more a grasping at a perceived clerical entitlement. The title of this article suggests a conclusion to be demanded, and not at all a listening for the truth. It is pure clericalism to think a deacon (or priest or bishop) is a superior position than a layperson in the Church. I would think that any grasping at a position in the Church (by men or women) is a warning sign that one is not being called by God, but is calling oneself.

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