In 1979, Sister Theresa Kane welcomed Pope John Paul II on his arrival to the United States with a bold address asking for him to include women “in all ministries of our Church.” The Pope responded with stony silence.
Four decades later, and a Latin American Pope walked into the Vatican’s Paul VI hall side by side with two senior nuns for a 40-minute question and answer session with 850 superiors of female religious orders. Among the issues up for discussion is whether women can be ordained as deacons.
While many are frustrated that Pope Francis has not gone further and faster on the question of giving more visible roles to women in the Church, the meeting he held with the Union of Superiors General on 10 May 2019 is a sign of how far things have developed.
The question of women in the Church has for years been akin to a car stuck in a stationary position. The door was closed, the engine off and the questions settled. Under this pontificate, however, the vehicle is spluttering into life.
The clearest evidence for this is how Pope Francis is allowing for an open discussion to take place on female ministry, whereas John Paul II ruled in 1994 that women could not be ordained priests, and insisted that the matter was not up for debate. While this Pope has repeatedly pledged his full adherence to John Paul II’s teaching barring female priests, Pope Francis has permitted a debate about the women’s diaconate to bubble away for the last three years. It was during a 2016 meeting with the union of superiors general that the Pope promised he would set up a commission looking into the matter. That commission’s report has been handed over by the Pope to Sr Carmen Sammut, who leads the religious superiors.