BRIDGEPORT, Conn. — The Vatican is considering the possibility of ordaining women as deacons and — no matter what a new 12-member expert commission recommends — a Diocese of Bridgeport official said the sheer existence of the panel is significant.
“Conversations are important. Listening to experts is important,” said Patrick Donovan, director of the Diocesan Leadership Institute for the Diocese of Bridgeport. “Even if nothing happens, this is really huge.”
The new panel — the Study Commission on the Women’s Diaconate — named Tuesday by Pope Francis includes six men and six women, all of whom are “brilliant thinkers,” Donovan said.
They’ve been asked to look at the history of women’s leadership roles within the Roman Catholic Church and how their participation might be incorporated in the future. The pope met with leaders from women’s religious orders in May and had promised to look into the issue of allowing women to become deacons.
Unlike nuns, who take vows, deacons are ordained under Catholic doctrine that teaches there are three degrees of priestly participation, Donovan said. Deacons, priests and bishops make up three distinct levels.
Deacons cannot celebrate Mass, but they may preach; preside at weddings, funerals and baptisms; and perform other duties in a parish.
Most of Pope Francis’s recent predecessors have said church doctrine bars women from being ordained.
However, the Greek derivative of the word deacon is ‘diakonos,’ which translates to servant or minister, Donovan said. In scripture about the early church, there are examples of women working in ‘deaconess’ roles, such as a passage about Phoebe carrying letters from Saint Paul, he said.
Women were generally involved in ministry to other women, so the new commission will have to look at the use of the word in context.
“That’s one of the things the commission will have to struggle with,” Donovan said.
Since important decisions generally take time in the Catholic Church, Donovan doesn’t expect the commission to make any final decisions or recommendations for a year or more.
He said he has not spoken with the Rev. Francis J. Caggiano, bishop of Bridgeport, on the matter and couldn’t speak to the opinions of the 400,000 Catholics in the diocese, which encompasses all of Fairfield County.
Bringing women and laypeople — two groups the pontiff has said are vital to the church — to the conversation should make for some interesting conclusions. Donovan said he appreciates the pope’s openness to others’ opinions.
“He could have just said no (to the idea of women deacons). He could have said there would be no conversation,” he said. “On this, he’s saying, ‘I’ve got a lot to learn.' "
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