Deacon Blues

Recently, the deacons of Antigonish Diocese were honored on Mass For Shut-Ins for the generous and charitable services they perform in addition to their participation in religious services. The diaconate, as we have discovered since these ordained men were introduced into the diocese a few years ago, is open only to married men, who become “permanent” deacons—as opposed to “transitional” deacons who eventually receive Holy Orders as ordained priests.

Phyllis Zagano

Phyllis Zagano (Source: National Catholic Reporter)

St. Francis of Assisi, as I noted back in 2017, was a deacon, choosing to serve in that capacity rather than as an ordained priest because he wanted to minister to the poor. Women deacons performed similar services in the early days of the Church, especially for other women which, given the culture of the time, was the only option allowed them. St. Paul references Phoebe, a female deacon, as an “emissary” who delivered his Letter to the Romans.

In her book The Diaconate is a Ministry of Service, Dr. Phyllis Zagano, long-time champion of women deacons, presents evidence from scripture, theology, history and tradition that women deacons definitely existed in the early Church, although they had faded away by the 12th century. But “even the permanent diaconate for men was abandoned after the Council of Trent [1545-1563].”

Zagano calls for the restoration of the female diaconate but restoration, let alone recognition, has not been forthcoming. In 1997, Pope John Paul ll commissioned seven men (!) to “investigate the notion of female deacons” and they came up with 17 pages that found no problem with it. Pope Benedict XVI—or Cardinal Ratzinger, Prefect of The Doctrine of Faith, as he was at the time—refused to promulgate the commission’s findings. Instead, he named a new group of men (!) to study the same subject. They reached the conclusion, as Zagano wrote in the National Catholic Reporter (NCR), that:

…while male and female deacons did not perform the same tasks and duties, there is a clear distinction between the diaconate and the priesthood. Therefore, they wrote, the question is up to the magisterium to decide.

So the question was left to John Paull II who, says Zagano, “did nothing” and was succeeded in 2005 by Pope Benedict XVI who “did not further investigate women in the diaconate.”


Sadly, Pope Francis, of whom I would have expected better, has made no progress on the issue either. He established a similar commission in 2016, at the request of the International Union of Superiors General (UISG, a Catholic organization representing about 600,000 sisters and nuns from 80 countries worldwide). Francis appointed Zagano, among others, to once again explore the

Phoebe, a deacon in of the church at Cenchreae, in Corinth (Source:

Phoebe, a deacon in of the church at Cenchreae, in Corinth (Source: For All Saints)

veracity of the existence of female deacons in the early Church. (Although I find it hard to believe that Francis, a Jesuit, was unaware that women had indeed served in that capacity).  In May 2019, as the NCR reported, Francis gave the organization a report on the group’s work, saying the commission “had been unable to come to agreement about the role of women deacons in the early centuries of Christianity.” Or as Zagano explained it, the commission:

…completed work in June 2018. Nearly one year later, in May 2019, Francis gave a portion of the commission report to the UISG leadership, saying they could do with it what they wished, and that he had more commission documents they could request. Months later, the UISG president affirmed she had received the commission’s historical analysis. It remains unknown if the UISG ever requested the remaining papers the pope offered.

I believe the word “ordained” is the stumbling block in a faith where women will never be called to the priesthood if church leaders (men, of course) have their way. Bill Chappell, reporting for National Public Radio in February 2020, wrote that bishops in South America’s Amazon region, which covers parts of Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia and Venezuela and where a “critical shortage of priests” has “hobbled Catholics’ ability to celebrate sacraments,” petitioned Pope Francis to permit married male deacons and women to take on new roles. Rocco Palmo, editor of the website, Whispers In The Loggia, told Chappell:

They can’t have a priest for weeks or months, which, if they can’t have a priest, that means they can’t have Mass. If they can’t have Mass, they can’t have the Eucharist, Holy Communion, the thing that Catholics consider to be the bread of life, the thing that keeps us alive spiritually.

In his response to the bishops, a document called “Querida Amazonia” (“Dear Amazon”), Pope Francis “deflected many of the core issues about ordaining married men as priests and women as deacons,” writing:

Priests are necessary, but this does not mean that permanent deacons (of whom there should be many more in the Amazon region), religious women and lay persons cannot regularly assume important responsibilities for the growth of communities and perform those functions ever more effectively with the aid of a suitable accompaniment.

(Maybe a really good piano player?)

In April 2020, Francis established a fourth commission to meet in Rome to consider the issue of women deacons, this one including women and, for the first time, deacons, although the NCR noted that several of its members appear to oppose women deacons.


On the other hand, speaking to NPR in 2021, the Rev. Aidan Rooney, vice president of mission integration at Niagara University, pointed out that Francis has changed canon law to permit women to be installed as lectors, as well as allowing them to assist male priests during Mass and Holy Communion. (Functions women have been performing since shortly after Vatican ll in our diocese and throughout the world; as Kate McElwee, executive director of the Women’s Ordination Conference, told NPR the move “officially recognizes common practices globally.”) Francis has also appointed Italian magistrate Catia Summaria to be the first woman prosecutor in the Vatican’s Court of Appeals and French Sister Nathalie Becquart as co-undersecretary of the Synod of Bishops, which organizes meetings of world bishops.

Sr. Jolanta Kafka greets Pope Francis I

Pope Francis greets Claretian Missionary Sr. Jolanta Kafka, president of the International Union of Superiors General, during a May 5 audience with participants in the plenary assembly of the union at the Vatican. (CNS/Vatican Media)

Zagano, noting these recent moves  by Pope Francis, said:

If women, like men, were once ordained as deacons, then what the church has done the church can do again. If women are no longer forbidden from being present inside the sanctuary, then they need not be restricted from the ceremonial tasks and duties of the diaconate.

According to NPR’s Marion Hetherly, one young women, faced with those restrictions, took matters into her own hands. Marion Kraebel of Depew, NY, joined the Lutheran Church, where she has fulfilled her long-held hope of being an ordained deacon. Kraebel says she feels “like a leader, not just a participant” since becoming a Lutheran deacon:

As a deacon, Kraebel can’t marry ( she says, “I can’t marry him but I can bury him,” is her catchphrase) but she can conduct funerals, make pastoral visits, baptize (something we were always taught Catholics, man or woman, could do in the case of an emergency), preach and lead a worship service. She is not able to distribute communion, something only the pastor—who, in Kraebel’s case, is also a woman!—can do. Says Kraebel:

I find it very hypocritical for any faith to say, ‘you can’t do this because you’re gay’ or ‘you can’t do this because you’re a woman’ or ‘you can’t participate because you don’t look like us.’ I’m no expert, but I don’t think when you go to heaven they’re going to care what color you are, who you slept with or what gender you are. I think what kind of person you are and how you’ve lived and have you been a good person, you know? I think it matters more what’s inside than what’s outside.


In fairness to Pope Francis, his struggle within the Catholic Church has pitted him against the “ultra-conservatives in the church in Europe and the U.S.” (and I’d bet my boots in Canada, too) who have warned “allowing married priests in the Amazon could trigger total abolition of the clerical celibacy requirement.”  However, no less a personage than Germany’s Cardinal Reinhard Marx has been calling on the Vatican to “lessen the celibacy rules for clergy,” given the shortage of priests in many areas around the world.

Cardinal Reinhard Marx

Cardinal Reinhard Marx (Photo By Dieter Schmitt, Fulda DSC – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Pope has also been criticized for being more open to gay couples, although that “openness ”concerns their civil rights rather than any move to bless their unions.

But considering Pope Francis’ freely expressed hope for “bigger changes” in a Church he has long viewed as “bearing the weight of clericalism, (a male religious hierarchy) that is a “perversion” of the priesthood, we might be looking at changes even more significant than those of Vatican II!

One hopes the Synod will feature meaningful discussions on same-sex marriage and access to the Eucharist for such couples, as well as for divorced and remarried Catholics; the recent weaponizing of the Eucharist by San Francisco’s Archbishop Cordileone, who denied US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi the sacrament until she “publicly repudiates her position on legal abortion;” questions surrounding a future role of inclusion for women and perhaps serious contemplation of Pope Francis’s remarks concerning the large rift between the high and mighty in the Catholic church and the many congregants who suffer the daily torments of hunger and homelessness.





Dolores Campbell, a lifelong resident of Sydney, is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Cape Breton Highlander, the Nova Scotian, Cape Breton Magazine, Catholic New Times and The Cape Breton Post.