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Katie Owens MulcahyApril 28, 2023
a blurry young woman in a scarf sits on a bridge and looks at st peters basilica in the distance iStock

Although I had attended Catholic school all my young life, I was never familiar with the concepts of synod, discernment and the diaconate. That was until last spring, when a friend invited me to her church for a Discerning Deacons event titled “Hope, Change and the Catholic Church.” It was a cold Sunday evening, the Oscars were on, and I did not feel like driving across the city. But this is a friend who always shows up for me, so I went.

Looking back on that evening, I believe it was the Holy Spirit who was nudging me to go. I had been feeling apathetic about my place in the church. My kids, who are now teens, had been asking difficult questions and I did not have good answers. They asked, “If God loves us all unconditionally, why doesn’t the church? Aren’t women and girls also made in the image of Christ?” And here is a question that stopped me in my tracks: “If we value one group over another, aren’t we enabling oppression against the second group?”

St. Phoebe reminds us that, at one time, there was a path for women who were called to serve and lead in the early church.

I attended the Discerning Deacons event with 700 other folks—men, women, teens, senior citizens, all looking for hope, professing their faith through song, prayer and sharing stories. We heard testimonies from women who have dedicated their lives to ministry and service in the church. One story really struck me: Casey Stanton, a co-director of Discerning Deacons and a woman with advanced degrees in divinity, felt called to serve in prison ministry. Because Ms. Stanton could not be ordained as a deacon in the Catholic faith, she was limited in how much she could minister to the female prisoners. I couldn’t help but wonder: Who else is restricted in their ministry because of the limitations put on women?

Inspired by what I had witnessed, I went on a journey to learn more. I learned about St. Phoebe, a deacon and leader in the early church. St. Paul, in his letter to the Romans, said, “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me.” (Note: Some Biblical scholars differ on the translation of the Greek word diakonos in Romans 16:1, and whether Phoebe should be described as a “deacon,” “minister” or “servant.” See “The scriptural case for women deacons.”)

Phoebe showed great faith and courage by answering the call to minister to the people of God at a time when Christians were persecuted for their beliefs. She reminds us that, at one time, there was a path for women who were called to serve and lead in the early church.

I have also learned that the act of talking about restoring women to the diaconate need not be controversial—there is no need to whisper or look over our shoulders when we mention it. Pope Francis and the U.S. bishops have asked us to participate in a synod where the theme of women's leadership and ministry has emerged as a key issue around the world. Engaging in these conversations is exactly what we are being called to do. We are called to pray, listen and discern what the Holy Spirit is telling us.

Talking about restoring women to the diaconate need not be controversial—there is no need to whisper or look over our shoulders when we mention it.

Although the act of talking about women and the diaconate is not controversial, the content of the discussion is not without controversy. There is disagreement among scholars over whether the historical roles of male and female deacons were different from one another, based on the pragmatic, local needs of the communities. One member of the commission Pope Francis appointed in 2020 to study ordaining of women as deacons, Catherine Brown Tkacz, once argued that the ordination rites for women in the early church was evidence that they were “ontologically different” than male deacons—and made a point of using the term “deaconess” in her work. But other scholars, including the highly respected author and professor of religion Phyllis Zagano, argue that women were ordained to the diaconate in rituals identical to those used to ordain men to the diaconate, and that they shared similar ministerial roles of preaching, charity and service.

The fact that these historical questions have not been answered to the satisfaction of all should not be a reason for us to close the door on the discussion of a single, sacramental, permanent diaconate for both women and men. Synodality invites us to lean into the tensions we encounter in community with the trust that it is in these tensions that the Holy Spirit can be the most creative.

The movement for restoring women to the diaconate is steeped in love and faith, not activism or anger. It is not just a “women’s issue” but a human issue.

The movement for restoring women to the diaconate is steeped in love and faith, not activism or anger. It is not just a “women’s issue” but a human issue. It is a movement born of us asking, “What are the special gifts women possess that could lead to a more inclusive, loving, transformative church?”

Reflecting back on my own times of grief—miscarriage, a cancer diagnosis, loss of a parent—I can’t help but wonder what it would have felt like to be ministered to by an ordained deacon who has experienced the joys and sorrows of being a woman, a daughter and a mother. I think about my Gen Z daughters and wonder if they would be more engaged participants in liturgy and sacraments if they could see their life experiences reflected in the preaching of the Gospel and in the leadership of the church.

St. Phoebe will be commemorated on her feast day, Sept. 3. This year, Discerning Deacons is inviting Catholic parishes, schools and other institutions to celebrate during the entire month of September by collectively praying for the synodal church and bearing witness to women’s diaconal gifts for ministry.

I invite you to listen to what the Holy Spirit is whispering to you. Maybe it’s a nudge, maybe it’s a shove. How can we, the people of God, enlarge the space of our tent? By unleashing the diaconal gifts of women.

[Related: “‘God may be calling us’: Meet the women aspiring to become deacons”]

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