A year-end Discerning Deacons examen

Discerning Deacons and Nucleo Mujeres encounter Pope Francis, October 13, 2021.

Discerning Deacons and Nucleo Mujeres encounter Pope Francis, October 13, 2021.

A year ago we (Casey Stanton and Ellie Hidalgo) and Luke Hansen were in the midst of shepherding and participating in a virtual retreat/workshop: discern, dream and scheme.

In the center of this Advent time of reflecting, praying, journaling – we were invited to dream

How might we grow the conversation and serve the discernment in the life of the Church surrounding the question of women and the diaconate? 

We wrote a vision. Took the leap. Left jobs, stepped into unchartered territory and worked to build a new project: a meeting ground between Pope Francis’ vision for a synodal, listening, participatory Church, and the living, persistent question around whether the Church would ordain women as deacons.

How could we be a place to live that question robustly? 

We sought guidance and support from those who hold different social locations and positions within the Church. With a flurry of initial endorsements, the administrative support of St. Thomas More Catholic Community in St. Paul Minnesota, and with Bishop Randolph Calvo ready to serve as our episcopal advisor – we launched Discerning Deacons on April 29, 2021. We kicked off with a Boston College STM webinar “The Power to Preach” to spread the word! (Thanks to Anthony Russo, from our welcome team, for helping to make that happen!) 

We started this project by listening deeply – in prayer, and in relationships.
We listened to women share their own stories of navigating their faith with a big God who was calling them to serve, to lead, to preach, to teach – and how they have followed that God even as it has been complex to express this call within the Catholic Church as it is structured today.
We listened to stories of lament and constraint.
We listened to stories of creative adaptation and contribution.
We listened to stories of women who were studying at theology schools, receiving formation for ministry in the 1980s, anticipating that ordination to the diaconate was on the near horizon.
We listened to stories of young women today who wonder how they can stay in the Catholic Church while remaining faithful to their call.  

By September, Notre Dame sociologist Dr. Tricia Bruce prepared the findings from this qualitative research study. We continue to share this important research to help ground and guide conversations. We also hope it helps women to find consolation in seeing that they are not alone. You can read the executive summary and full report here

We wanted to learn, who were the people who helped organize the listening process in the Amazon to prepare for the Amazon synod? And how was it that the issue of women and the diaconate was identified as one of the top priorities? We met the women of Núcleo Mujeres REPAM and the tenacious, faithful, deeply committed ministers who serve the people of God in the Amazon – committed to lifting up the voices of women in every space of society, and to addressing the structures that cause violence and harm to women and children. (Thank you Mariángel Marco, Ciria Mees, and Doris Vasconcelos!) We knew we had a lot to learn. That the realities facing communities in the Amazon are different from realities facing communities in Boston, Durham, Minneapolis, or Seattle, and yet. And YET – there are remarkable ways we are in communion. We share a sense that the Holy Spirit is longing to bring about new paths for women in ministry in the Church. We are nudged and encouraged to imagine the diaconate as a piece of how the Spirit may be renewing the Church.

Then, we wanted to make it possible for as many people to engage in this conversation as possible! For it not to be about a few of us becoming experts on the topic, and everyone else passively listening. But to try to build on the powerful scholarship of folks like Phyllis Zagano, along with Cecilia González-Andrieu, Deacon Bill Ditewig, Serena Noceti, Isabel Corpas and so many others – in order to serve the people of God in their active participation.

We set a goal: engage 1500 people in house meetings and parish dialogues in the summer of 2021. And….we reached it! YOU responded to the invitation. You participated in trainings, served as hosts and coaches to offer support and encouragement, provided feedback to some basic resources, and sought to hold space where we really listened for the Holy Spirit. We practiced a synodal way of being Church together in more than 20 cities and towns – where we resisted the forces that would polarize us, or keep us from hearing from those who we don’t already agree with.

We set out to journey together – not by churning out social media posts or battling things out on twitter – but by inviting our neighbors, our friends, those on parish councils and those who haven’t entered a church in years to gather together, to listen anew for the movement of the Holy Spirit, and to trust that each of us carry God’s wisdom within us.  

We heard so many different things! Hopes. Concerns. Questions. Dreams. Fears. 

We tried to synthesize them after a series of participatory, consensus workshops to identify the themes and insights. We know this “Gathering of the Fruits” is not an exhaustive summary – but we hope to have offered a contribution, a way of weighing some of the considerations before the Church in this discernment. 

In August, we released a short documentary film by two women who long to be ordained to the diaconate in the Boston region: Philomėne Pèan and Kelly Meraw. Both work in full-time ministerial positions serving their communities. “Called to Serve: Two Women’s Witness” was created by documentary filmmakers Pilar Timpane and Andrea Patiño Contreras, and is part of a longer term film project that will look at women’s roles in the Church by Timpane and producer Christine Delp. 

More than 500 of us gathered together for a virtual prayer service to seek the intercession of St. Phoebe on her September 3 feast day, while lifting up brave voices longing to be received in the Lord as deacons in our Church. Many thanks to all of you who contributed to a meaningful and moving service. 

Then, we brought our reports and our team and our partners from Núcleo Mujeres REPAM to Rome in October. We went on a pilgrimage, attentive to the fact that we did not go alone as your novena launched us on our trip. We carried many of you with us to bring forward our prayers, dreams, and hopes, to present them at the feet of Pope Francis, and to share our work to help grow the conversation with officials and leaders in the Vatican.

Encouraged by Pope Francis’ vision to build a more discerning, inclusive, synodal Church, we participated in the solemn liturgy to open the global synod presided by the Holy Father at St. Peter’s Basilica. We were received by Pope Francis at his Wednesday audience, and we gave him the gift of the image of St. Phoebe by Laura James – the image many of you have used in our house meetings to envision a listening, participatory, inclusive Church. 

Back from Rome, we convened a panel of expert theologians, Kristin Colberg, Rafael Luciani, and Hosffman Ospino, to offer a formational webinar viewed by hundreds of people, “For a synodal Church: What is Pope Francis inviting us to do?” We have heard the call to serve this synodal process. To inspire others to hear the good news proclaimed again: that we each are called by our baptism into the full membership of Christ’s Body – and that our voices together are a source of wisdom to guide and lead and share in the mission of the Church.

Finally, we were humbled by the participation and interest in a virtual Advent Retreat. Convened by Bridget Deegan-Krause and Molleen Dupree-Dominguez, nearly 200 people participated asynchronously as we each carved out time each week to pray and reflect on what is waiting to be born. Through encounters and sacred embraces, we can begin to catch the vision as it emerges. And we can come to trust there will be good company along the road, with new songs to keep our spirits lifted. (Grateful for Claire Hitchins bringing new music our way in this space too!) 

So we go forth into this new year with full hearts. Thank you! So much has come to birth this year. And so much is still in bud: as each person offers their unique contribution guided by the Holy Spirit.

Sending prayers for peace and blessings for the new year,  

Casey & Ellie
Co-directors of Discerning Deacons 

P.S.: We’ve put together a resource guide that includes what we’ve created together this year, along with the places we’ve been in the press and wider media. Feel free to reference and to share! And consider hopping onto a Q&A session in January to learn more about the synod animators cohort. We hope we can serve the global synodal process to become a listening Church, unleashed for mission. 

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“This was such a great learning experience for all of us, and even more so, a chance to build momentum and connection.”
St. Basil's Catholic Parish
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
“We are proud to stand on the shoulders of the many women who have ministered to the people of God throughout time!”
Holy Name of Jesus Parish
New Orleans, LA
“Learning about the history of women in the diaconate gave context to efforts to enable women’s participation in the diaconate today, and it was powerful to celebrate St. Phoebe and uplift the ministry of women in our own community.”
St. John Fisher Parish
Rancho Palos Verdes, CA

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