Today’s feast of the Annunciation, commemorating the angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary and her acceptance of God’s calling to bear the savior, has been observed since the middle of the seventh century. A more recent and probably less well-known observance is the World Day of Prayer for Women’s Ordination, chosen because Mary is considered by some to be the first priest, as she brought Jesus Christ into the world.
While the flourishing of the Roman Catholic Womenpriests movement in the past decade
has raised the profile of women’s priesthood, I support an additional focus on women being ordained as permanent deacons as well. In the early church, deacons were appointed by the apostles to assist with serving the community after it grew large, and the role of deacon remained a distinct vocation up to the fifth century. Research demonstrates that women were deacons in the early church, ordained within the sanctuary by the bishop, in the presence of the priests, and by the imposition of hands. However, the diaconate became a transitional step on the path to priesthood by the Middle Ages, and it was only reinstated as a permanent role after the Second Vatican Council at the request of the bishops. Today deacons read the Gospel and preach, perform baptisms and weddings, and perform works of charity.
To me the most important reason to ordain women deacons is so that women may preach. A glaring void in the Church with an all-male clergy is the absence of women’s voices publicly interpreting scriptures. The few times I’ve heard women homilists, I’ve been deeply moved. I’ve also really enjoyed the opportunity to preach myself on several occasions!
But use of the words “ordain” and “women” in the same sentence sets off immediate alarm bells for the hierarchy. The question of women deacons has been submitted to various commissions multiple times since the 1970s, and the official word continues to be that it’s “under study.” Theologian Phyllis Zagano, who has written extensively on women and the diaconate, speculates that it may be “They don’t want to say yes, but they can’t say no.”
However, in late 2009, Pope Benedict issued a clarification of canon law stating more clearly that priests and bishops are ordained to act in the person of Christ and the Church, while deacons serve the people of God in and through the liturgy, the Word and charity. As Zagano has written persuasively, deacons need not image Christ in the way the Church says a priest must in order to preside at the Eucharist (the “iconic” argument against women priests), so women can be deacons. Further, although the Church states it has no authority to ordain women priests, it has ordained women deacons before so it can so again.
That the leadership and calling of women will be fully and publicly embraced by the Church. We pray to the Lord!