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Katie Owens MulcahyMarch 08, 2024
Pope Francis with some of the women members of the assembly of the Synod of Bishops, including Spanish theologian Cristina Inogés Sanz, left, at the assembly's session on Oct. 6, 2023, in the Paul VI Audience Hall at the Vatican. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

As someone who has attempted (and failed) to make sourdough bread on more than one occasion, I was struck by the vivid breadmaking imagery that Timothy Radcliffe, O.P., a spiritual advisor to the meeting of the Synod on Synodality in Rome last October, used in his second Synod retreat meditation:

Renewing the Church, then, is like making bread. One gathers edges of the dough into the centre, and spreads the centre into the margins, filling it all with oxygen. One makes the loaf by overthrowing the distinction between edges and the centre, making God’s loaf, whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere, finding us.

If we can reimagine a 21st-century diaconate that is prophetic and synodal and that extends out to the margins—that overthrows the distinctions between edges and the center—more of the faithful will be nourished, bringing us all closer to God, breathing new life into our ailing church.

Father Radcliffe’s bread-making imagery came to mind as I read the recent Synthesis Report of the 16th General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, which proposes reassessing the role of the deacon as being not solely in the domain of liturgy, but as one that serves those in need, especially those living in poverty, much like the deacons of the early church: “Deacons are ordained for the ministry of serving the People of God in the diakonia of the Word, in the liturgy, but above all in the exercise of charity.”

The report also recommends further research and deliberation on women’s access to the diaconate, urging that the synod discuss the reports of past papal commissions and highlighting the importance of women’s active contributions and charisms in ministry and pastoral leadership.

Lay and religious women are reaching out to people on the margins in service of the church all around us—offering exactly the gifts referred to in the report. Consider the following examples of pastoral ministry being done by women.

Chicago has received more than 35,000 asylum-seeking refugees in just one year, the majority from predominantly Catholic countries in Central and South America. These individuals, grappling with unimaginable trauma and indignities suffered on their journeys, need and want access to the sacraments and the word of God. However, due to the limited number of priests and deacons, their spiritual needs often remain unmet.

Two women who have been ministering to these refugees are JoAnn Persch, R.S.M., and Pat Murphy, R.S.M., Sisters of Mercy who have been serving immigrants and refugees for over 40 years. They told me that their ministry is at times restricted because of the limitations put on women in the church. Even their efforts to visit immigrants in detention centers have often been met with obstacles. In those centers, ordained status opens the door to priests and deacons; this is not always the case for laypersons or even religious women.

Sister Pat and Sister JoAnn both said the Holy Spirit is always calling them to new challenges, and at ages 94 and 89, they keep answering. As immigrants continue to pour into Chicago, the sisters are called to walk with them. In collaboration with the larger Mercy community, made up of sisters, associates and volunteers, they are currently housing nine newly arrived families—with plans to expand.

Another example: Katie McCarthy is a wife, a mom of teens and a business owner. She dedicates much of her free time volunteering as a sacristan, working as a facilitator of women’s retreats and serving in the parish food pantry at a parish in suburban Chicago. She finds joy in helping teens participate in Sunday evening liturgies. Katie creates a welcoming space for young people and in turn, the teens become active participants in the Mass: preparing the altar, reading, singing, offering petitions and serving as ushers and Eucharistic ministers.

This kind of ministry to Catholic youth is critical at a time when young people are at greater risk than ever of falling away from church life. According to a national survey by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate in 2021, nearly one-third of young people age 18 to 35 said that they expected to attend Mass less often after the pandemic than they did before. Perhaps of greater concern to the church, 73 percent agreed “somewhat” or “strongly” that they could be good Catholics without going to Mass every Sunday. And only 39 percent agreed “somewhat” or “strongly” that they could never imagine themselves leaving the Catholic Church.

When women infuse their diverse skills, values and lived experience into the planning and participation of liturgies, it makes for a more engaging, inclusive experience. Ordaining women to the diaconate and giving them the authority to preach at Mass can bring a whole new dimension to sharing the Gospel and providing pastoral care, which will strengthen and renew parishes.

A third example: Donna Liette, C.P.P.S., a member of the Sisters of the Precious Blood for over 60 years, works on the south side of Chicago with some of the most marginalized communities—youth who have been victims of violence or have committed acts of violence, and mothers who have lost children to violence or incarceration. She uses her gifts to create spaces where everyone can share their stories and find support, healing and hope. In her ministry with grieving mothers, Sister Liette often hears of their longing for spiritual nourishment in the form of prayer, blessings and Scripture broken open to them.

Imagine how women’s ministry, already diaconal in its response to the needs of the poor and marginalized, could be empowered by the authority and dedication to service associated with ordination. What if the doors to the ordained diaconate were opened to women like Sister Persch and Sister Murphy, Ms. McCarthy and Sister Liette or the thousands of other women who are already walking the walk of diaconal service?

So many people around the world and in our own communities are suffering from violence, oppression, poverty and loneliness. How many more faithful could be brought to the center of church life if women could more effectively use their gifts for ministry, liturgy and charity?

Perhaps the Holy Spirit, the protagonist of the synod, is encouraging us to deepen our understanding of diaconal ministry within the life of the church. There is good reason to recommit to the work of theological and pastoral understanding of women’s access to the permanent diaconate as called for in the synthesis report. This is a living, breathing conversation that we are encouraged to engage in as we, the people of God, are called to be co-responsible for the mission of our church.

We can start by recognizing the gifts of diaconal women all around us—those who are preparing liturgies, going out to the margins, serving the poor and breathing life into the church. Imagine what could be possible if these gifts were empowered through ordination?

As the Second Vatican Council stated regarding restoring the permanent diaconate, “It is only right to strengthen them by the imposition of hands which has come down from the Apostles, and to bind them more closely to the altar, that they may carry out their ministry more effectively because of the sacramental grace of the diaconate (“Decree on the Church’s Missionary Activity,” No. 16).

In Christ, women and men are clothed with the same baptismal dignity (Gal 3:28) and equally receive the variety of gifts of the Spirit. In his final Synod retreat meditation, Father Radcliffe said, “There can be no fruitful conversation between us unless we recognize that each of us speaks with authority.”

Let us recognize those women already offering diaconal service in so many ways. Acknowledging and understanding their ministry can enrich our ongoing theological reflections on the possibility of women deacons.

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