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Should women be deacons? The stories behind Motion 54

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Should women be considered for ministry as deacon? Should Pope Francis authorise such ministry? This topic often raises emotions, and strong views either for or against. This is one of the questions posed by Motion 54 to the Church’s July Plenary Council session, where members will amend and vote on 105 motions, prompted by the question, ‘What do you think God is asking of us in Australia at this time?’ Motion 54 is one to watch.

Since beginning to publicly further this conversation in Australia in October 2021, I have heard many responses to the question of women in ministry as deacon. Yes, some will say: of course women should be deacons, as they were in the New Testament and the early Church. No, others say: it’s a slippery slope to the priesthood and we don’t need more clericalised women.

In contrast, our conversations through the blogsite Liturgy on the Margins and Australian Catholics Exploring the Diaconate, are about real people in real ministry situations. We gather stories of men and women, lay and ordained, who already practise ‘diaconal ministry’; this is qualitative data. And we seek the true value of the permanent diaconate.

So far, we have learned that the diaconal call is very specific, flourishing alongside many other lay and ordained ministries. However, in critical ways the permanent diaconate enhances the faith life of Catholics in Australia, as well as the wider community.

Proper authorisation of people in diaconal ministry situations is extremely important. For those receiving the ministry, it gives reassurance of qualification, training, supervision and lifelong commitment to God’s work. For those performing the ministry, it gives spiritual foundations, ethical responsibilities, standards of operating, lines of accountability and recognition of vocation. Such people are genuine and not ‘filling in’ until the real minister shows up. Historically in our Catholic Church, authorisation for ordinary sacramental and liturgical ministry is called ordination. No other lay ministries (such as pastoral associate or catechist) have the same traditional, affective or operational qualities.

 

'As a pastoral worker and chaplain, I practice many diaconal ministries, overseen by my bishop. I lead liturgies, preach and distribute communion, especially in marginal settings like remote towns, schools, nursing homes and prisons. However, it is always in a volunteer or extraordinary capacity. Unlike the permanent vocation of a deacon, these activities are seen as provisional and contingent.'

 

In situations of liturgical need, bishops and parishes already seek creative solutions. Often they call upon someone who is close by, faithful, spiritually mature, valued by the community and willing to learn. For some, this is a temporary and part-time responsibility. However, for others, it is a deeper calling that they are willing to pursue further.

Those ‘on the margins’ exist everywhere, in short-term or enduring situations. Even the most privileged may lack access to sacraments and liturgy. When ministers are prepared to reach out, there is a great yearning for, and appreciation of, such ministry. Deacons build bridges between the marginal or non-attendant people of God and the institutional Church.

Some true stories that have been shared from the blog further illustrate the value of the diaconate. A dying man’s family decided that it was time to reconnect with their faith. Deacon Gary, who had recently baptised the man’s children, was called in to the hospital. With Gary's help, the man made his peace with God, right before the end. Gary maintained that it was who he was, rather than what he did, that ‘made all the difference.’

Sr Gerri was asked to become Administrator and Pastoral Leader in a remote parish of Western Australia. She led liturgies, baptisms and funerals. However, as a lay minister she could not witness marriages. Prospective couples would go to other denominations or local JPs and ‘the opportunities for marriage preparation, adult faith formation and liturgical celebration were lost’.

As a rural pastoral worker in Bourke, NSW, Mary Anne Gordon meets people where they are, offers pastoral care and connects them with formal parish activities. She conducts liturgies and funerals, and feels that it is not simply a job, but a vocation. One day, she was invited to read a part during a deacon’s ordination. In listing all of the criteria for the ministry, she realised, ‘I do that. All those things.’

As a pastoral worker and chaplain, I practice many diaconal ministries, overseen by my bishop. I lead liturgies, preach and distribute communion, especially in marginal settings like remote towns, schools, nursing homes and prisons. However, it is always in a volunteer or extraordinary capacity. Unlike the permanent vocation of a deacon, these activities are seen as provisional and contingent. I have experienced, in professing religious vows, the value of a public lifelong commitment within a bishop-presided Mass. Moreover, I have experienced the difference between offering only pastoral care and also providing liturgy, which adds a profound dimension to one’s ministerial relationships and evangelical capacity.

So we ask Plenary Council Members to discern seriously, with our real experiences in mind. We are ready to act on Motion 54: ‘sharing [our] experiences and reflections on women’s ministry with our bishops’, ‘reporting to Pope Francis’ reconstituted Study Commission on the Female Diaconate’ and ‘considering women for ministry as deacon’.

 

 


 

Elizabeth Young rsm was born in rural South Australia and professed as a Sister of Mercy in 2010. Her ministries with youth, prisons, detention centres, parishes and nursing homes have arisen from her Bachelor and Masters studies in theology. She is currently a pastoral worker and secondary school chaplain in the Wilcannia-Forbes Diocese, NSW.

Main image: (DNK.Photo/Unspash)

Topic tags: Elizabeth Young, Female deacons, Ministry, Plenary, Diaconate

 

 

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Existing comments

As Elizabeth has shown by her ministry and by her words here women are already doing the work of deacon. This is often in circumstances where there is a shortage of ordained ministers. However, a vocation has been discerned and should be recognised by Church hierarchy. We can hope for the Plenary Council to be active in promotion of this ministry.


Pam | 16 June 2022  

Elizabeth,
I strongly support the call for the Plenary Council to vote in favour of Motion 54. As Pastoral Associate in a Far North Queensland Parish, under the guidance of a 74 year old Parish Priest , I soon learnt that there were tasks and responsibilities that were not listed on my "Statement of Duties". I was in effect doing the role of a Deacon but not ordained. Being a rural parish and having a forward looking Bishop, the late Michael Putney, it was a joy to serve the far flung community of our Parish. I still have very fond memories of that time decades ago. I would like to hope the Council will have the foresight to recognise the Holy Spirit's inspiration, seen in so many submissions. However there are very powerful conservative forces at work in the Australian Church. Therefore I am prepared for disappointment in the short term. Decades ago, in answer to a question from a Year 12 student in my Religious Studies class asking me on my last day of teaching: "What do you think is the future of ministry in the Church in Australia?". I responded, I was 61 at the time, that in my life time there would be ordination of female Deacons . A long pause followed. Then I concluded," in your lifetime there will be women Priests in ministry." The class as one, including the boys, applauded. Knowing how controversial remarks spread like wildfire in a school community, I wondered how long it would be before I was summoned to the Headmaster's Office!


Gavin O'Brien | 16 June 2022  

In the Orthodox and I believe some Eastern Catholic Churches, which are close to their Eastern roots, the diaconate is seen as a separate and distinct ministry and not just a prelude to priestly ordination a year or so later. The Catholic Church is, I think, slowly realising this. It is a necessity of the times: in Australia we no longer have more than enough priests and have to import them and even then these priests may not be suited to working in remote areas. As far as I am aware - and I consider myself theologically literate but not a theologian - I am unaware of any impediment to ordaining women as deacons in the Magisterium, but I stand to be corrected. If I am correct, I would welcome this move as a real insight into the way the Holy Spirit is at work now. I would think it best this is seen as an issue in itself and not as an inevitable prelude to the ordination of women viz Gavin O'Brien.


Edward Fido | 17 June 2022  

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