Speaking to an international group of women and men religious last Saturday, Pope Francis said that the Church needed women’s voices, input, and experiences. He went on to say that although women could be appointed as heads of some offices of the Vatican curia, that would not be enough to “recover the role” that women should have in the Catholic Church. What was important was ensuring that women had a voice and are listened to because the Church needs their specific richer, stronger, and intuitive contributions. He said, as he has before, that the Church needed the “feminine genius”. Nevertheless, so far there has been little evidence of any such real progress for women as advocates or officials in the Church.
Might I suggest that suitable Religious and lay women who are given vocal and official roles in the Church be ordained like men to the permanent diaconate – with its three-fold ministry of the Sanctuary, the Word, and charity. For those conservative male clerics who might be worried about ordaining women to the permanent diaconate, this would not necessarily be a “slippery slope to women priests” because the contemporary restored ordained diaconate is permanent.
There were many women deacons or deaconesses during the first millennium, particularly in the Eastern part of the Catholic Church. Women deacons are mentioned in Scripture or were canonised like St Olympias (pictured), who I included in the litany of the saints in my own diaconal ordination. The ancient diaconate of women had all the elements of an authentic sacrament – imposition of hands by the bishop with the invocation of the Holy Spirit, investiture with the diaconal stole and so on. The only difference in the ancient roles of women and men deacons was that only women could prepare women catechumens for joining the Church, as only women could anoint and immerse women at baptism, for which catechumens had to strip totally.
Michael Phelan is a retired Permanent Deacon in the diocese of Northampton and a trustee of The Tablet