Friday, August 26, 2016
Reinstituting women deacons
El Sol de México
August 11, 2016
"After intense prayer and mature reflection, His Holiness has decided to institute the Commission for the Study of the Diaconate of Women," the Holy See press room announced. Thus he fulfilled what he had offered to the International Union of Superiors General, who made the proposal to him. What does this mean and what does it imply? Will it be a path for women to be able to be ordained priests?
In the first centuries of the Church there were women deacons. Saint Paul mentions one: "I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae. Receive her well, as should be done among Christians and holy brothers and sisters, and help her in everything she needs, since many are in debt to her, and I as well." (Rom 16:1-2)
What did they do? As the baptism of adults by immersion was the custom and they would go down into the water without any clothes to dress in a white tunic afterwards, it wasn't proper for this celebration to be performed by the bishop, the priests, or the male deacons, therefore women deacons were established to baptize the women. Also, when there were complaints from the wives that their husbands had hit them, the women deacons would have to check the women's bodies to prove the wounds and bruises. It wasn't prudent for the men to make such a review. Moreover, it was customary to anoint the sick on the parts of their body that were hurting. It was appropriate for such service to be given by the women. Over time, these customs changed and women deacons disappeared. There is no evidence that they received sacramental ordination, but it was a service that they gave in the community.
Is it appropriate for them to be instituted again today? Before Vatican Council II (1962-65), the diaconate was only for celibate men being prepared for the priesthood. The Council re-established the permanent diaconate "not unto the priesthood, but unto a ministry of service" (LG 29), to provide some services such as administering baptism, assisting at weddings, proclaiming the Gospel and preaching at Mass, giving the blessing with the Blessed Sacrament, celebrating the funerals of the dead, giving various blessings. This diaconate was conferred on married men and there are currently thousands throughout the Church. They don't celebrate Mass or hear confessions or anoint the sick sacramentally. Whether the diaconate can also be conferred upon women is being studied.
What could they do? The same thing as male deacons. However, for these celebrations you don't need women deacons. The bishop can authorize women catechists, the wives of permanent deacons, nuns, and other adequately prepared women to perform them. In compliance with the norms of the Church, I have delegated two indigenous women to baptize and preside at marriages in remote places where the presence of a priest is rare and there are no male deacons.
The potential women deacons getting to be ordained priests is completely excluded. That has been finalized since 1994 by Pope John Paul II: "Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church's divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church's faithful." (Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, 4).
Let us ask the Holy Spirit to enlighten the Pope to decide what is most appropriate. Meanwhile, let us continue giving women their rightful place in the Church and in society.
Msgr. Felipe Arizmendi Esquivel is Bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Mexico