Elizabeth Young rsm, 13 April 2023, First published in The Diaconate, National Association of Deacons of Australia Newsletter, March 2023, Issue 7
Along our journey of life, we all have hopes and fears about the future. We hope for a liveable interdependent Earth. We hope for world peace. We fear the growth of inequality and polarisation. We fear climate disasters, oppression and pandemics. In the face of such great issues, it seems rather inconsequential to be asked about my hopes and fears in relation to the Plenary Council statement about women deacons. Yet, to paraphrase the opening line of Gaudium et Spes, the hopes and fears of the ‘least of these’ are the hopes and fears of the followers of Christ.’
This is the statement from the Fifth Australian Plenary Council in full: “That, should the universal law of the Church be modified to authorise the diaconate for women, the Plenary Council recommends that the Australian Bishops examine how best to implement it in the context of the Church in Australia.” To end on a positive note, I would like to start with my fears.
Firstly, I recognise that there is already a Vatican-level Study Commission on the Diaconate of Women tasked with investigating the possibility of women deacons. The first of the latest series ended in 2018 with no resolution. The current one had its latest, and presumably last, meeting in July 2022. There have been no public statements or information about its findings.
Secondly, there is no doubt that the process of change will take a lot of time. Yet in the meantime, we as a Church are missing out. If women in the diaconate might enrich the life and mission of the Church, then we are depriving ourselves. Why can we not offer as many pastoral, liturgical and spiritual responses to the needs of the world as possible? For those who live on the margins, or who experience marginal spaces in their lives, might the ministry of women contribute to their healing? Might we build together new synodal ways of leadership for our times with more diverse and inclusive models? I fear that the life and gifts women could offer the Church may not be received.
Nevertheless, I do have many reasons to live in hope. We do have a global Synod of Bishops in process and all topics are on the table. The Australian Catholic Bishops’ synthesis that was submitted in 2022 read, “For many people in parishes and dioceses, the limitations on the role of women in leadership constituted an obstacle to greater synodality and this issue needed urgent attention. There was a desire among many that women—lay and religious—needed to be given greater opportunity and empowerment for leadership positions, including in parishes. There was also a desire for ongoing discussion about the ordination of women and a need for greater clarity around the consideration of women for diaconate roles.”
Since then, we have all been asked to reflect on the Working Document for the Continental Stage of the Synod, named Enlarge the Space of Your Tent. It gathered material from Catholics across the world, and said, “ Almost all reports raise the issue of full and equal participation of women… After careful listening, many reports ask that the Church continue its discernment in relation to a range of specific questions: the active role of women in the governing structures of Church bodies, the possibility for women with adequate training to preach in parish settings, and a female diaconate.”
Many people think that for change to happen at a Church-wide level, this Synod would be the place to start. The Catholic Weekly article about our Feast of St Phoebe event last year seemed to assume that it was an ‘if not when’ question, but “The Vatican is unlikely to make any statement on the possibility of women to the diaconate in the Roman Catholic Church until after the conclusion of the international bishop’s Synod on Synodality”.
At a much more personal level, I have hope because of my own experiences. When I was in formation with the Sisters of Mercy, I was the only one at that stage in Adelaide. However, I joined the Ministry Formation Program at the Adelaide College of Divinity, and this group became my friends and peers. The program was for permanent deacons in formation, as well as women and men with roles such as pastoral associates and chaplains. We were all in it together.
More recently, in trying to build the conversation around women and the permanent diaconate in Australia, the conversations I have been part of have been extremely positive. I have been asked to speak at the national gathering of Catholic Religious Australia, and was welcomed to participate in the National Deacons’ Conference. In each case, people from our group and myself were warmly included.
In my blog, Liturgy on the Margins, I have had a beautiful opportunity to interview many permanent deacons about their lives and ministries. I have really appreciated and learned to value this particular calling even more, and feel that I am considered a colleague. Right now, I am starting a new ministry in a remote parish in New South Wales as a Parish Life Coordinator and Catechist. While I readily acknowledge that my positive experiences are a true privilege and that many have stories of struggle or suffering, it does demonstrate that there is a real openness in Australia to the ministry of women as well as men in the ordained position of permanent deacon.
Elizabeth Young rsm is a member of the Sisters of Mercy of Australia and Papua New Guinea, part of Australian Catholics Exploring the Diaconate, and blogs about diaconal ministry in Australia at https://liturgyonthemargins.org/
 Fifth Plenary Council of Australia, Witnessing to the Equal Dignity of Women and Men, https://plenarycouncil.catholic.org.au/, 2022.
 Phyllis Zagano, “Catholic Women Deacons: The State of the Question Part 2: Contemporary Analyses” in Doctrine & Life 72:10 (2022), pg 44.
 Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, Synod of Bishops Australian Synthesis, August 2022, #45.
 General Secretariat of the Synod, Working Document for the Continental Stage “Enlarge the Space of your Tent”, October 2022, #64.
 Marilyn Rodrigues, “ Deacons decision on hold,” Catholic Weekly, September 8, 2022, https://www.catholicweekly.com.au/deacons-decision-on-hold/
One thought on “Women and the Permanent Diaconate? Fears and Hopes”
Let your fears be quashed and hopes be revealed in time for the world to reap the benefits of your aspirations and skills.