2023 A year-end Discerning Deacons review: Stewards of the Question

“The one who calls you is faithful, and he will also accomplish it.”
St. Paul to the Thessalonians 5:24

From your local parish, to dioceses around the country, to five continents, to the historic Vatican Synod on Communion, Participation and Mission, a question about women and the diaconate is being asked. The question is raised in different ways, in different cultures, in different languages. We could summarize the question like this – Is now the time to restore women to the order of deacons? Or perhaps like this – Is it the will of the Holy Spirit for the Church in that the gifts of women for the ministry of deacon be unleashed to meet urgent pastoral needs in the third millennium?

We offer you this end-of-year review to recall together the remarkable synodal journey we have been on as a Discerning Deacons community and to notice the graces that have accompanied our prayer, witness and hope.

The Continental Deacon Circle

As stewards of the question about women and the permanent diaconate, we have rooted ourselves in prayer. On the third of each month we offered a St. Phoebe Prayer for a Synodal Church, and we thank the various discerning deacon circles throughout the country for taking the lead to organize a prayer gathering – St. Paul/Minneapolis, South Bend, Philadelphia, Chicago, Continental Deacon Circle, Canada, Baltimore, Durham-Raleigh, the Young Adult Delegation to Rome, and Seattle. Your thoughtful, creative, and faith-filled services have helped us to recognize our ongoing call to hold the question from the One who makes all things possible. In October we gathered weekly to Pray a Rosary for a Synodal Church, reflecting on mysteries of encounter.

Women of the Church Conference 2023

Throughout the year we collaborated with or participated in events where testimonies of women in diaconal ministry could be shared and the question could be engaged – Catholic Theological Union, Ignatian Solidarity Network / Ignatian Family Teach In, National Association of Lay Ministers, National Catholic Council for Hispanic Ministry, Religious Education Congress in Los AngelesWomen of the Church National Conference, Community Organizers at Prophetic Communities, Central and Southern U.S. Jesuit Province and more. In June we organized a pioneering synodal encounter in San Diego between priests participating in the annual assembly of the Association of U.S. Catholic Priests with women in ministry. The dialogues took place at round tables following a keynote address by Loyola Marymount University’s Dr. Cecilia Gonzalez-Andrieu.

Many told us that the Church’s ongoing discernment about women and the diaconate matters to them. “It’s an important conversation. We’re missing half of us,” said Deacon Guillermo Rodriguez of St. Paschal Baylon Church in Thousand Oaks, CA.

Pope Francis and Dr. Cynthia Bailey Manns

We continued to build our synodal muscle by animating listening sessions guided by the themes named in the Synod’s continental document Enlarge the Space of Your Tent. Participants in the Discerning Deacons School for Synodality worked as teams to host discernment sessions in 23 dioceses around the country. Women and men have been emerging as leaders in forming the people of God to become synodal protagonists in their faith communities – people with the capacities to dialogue about critical questions. And so we were overjoyed when in July, Dr. Cynthia Bailey Manns of St. Joan of Arc Parish in St. Paul/Minneapolis and Julia Oseka, a junior at St. Joseph University in Philadelphia – were named as voting Synod delegates from the U.S. by the Office of the Synod. They are among two of 54 women who became voting Synod delegates for the first time in the Church’s history.

St. Phoebe Day Celebration – Picture by Luke Nohner, 9/23

All of this synodal prayer and listening led us to imagine a powerful celebration of Deacon St. Phoebe throughout the U.S. and beyond on her feast day September 3 and throughout September. We would pray for the upcoming Synod Assembly and witness the diaconal gifts of women from early Christianity to the present. Where it was permissible, women would offer scriptural reflections or testimonies at liturgies – in some places for the very first time.

Throughout the spring and summer we gathered virtually to prepare our celebrations and educational materials, design Phoebe prayer cards and invite many more people to prayerfully hold the question about restoring the permanent diaconate to women. We were flooded with original prayers written to St. Phoebe, new icons were commissioned and revealed, and new hymns were shared that lift up the witness of Phoebe in our tradition.

Our goal had been that 100 parishes and schools would participate. So we were thrilled when 170 parishes, schools, universities and Catholic organizations participated in a Phoebe Day celebration during the month of September, involving more than 46,000 people. Our Phoebe Day celebrations were grounded in our desire to pray for our synodal Church, to educate Catholics about the history of women deacons, and to keep raising the question: Do the signs of the times point to the restoration of women to the diaconate? What difference would having women deacons make in your parish or faith community?

During the year women have taken pen to paper or have been interviewed about the urgent pastoral needs which women deacons could help to address. Jennifer Kelly shared her testimony of the difference it would make to her ministry as a prison chaplain in Seattle. Katie Mulcahy in Chicago wrote for America and Ellie wrote for the Miami Herald about the difficult questions which our daughters and nieces are asking about women and the Church. Kelly Meraw sought to kindle hope in the synod process in this Op-Ed in the Boston Globe. For St. Phoebe’s feast, Lisa Amman was interviewed on Beyond the Habit podcast, and Philomène Péan shared her testimony in an essay for National Catholic Reporter. NPR interviewed Jazmin Jimenez and Lupita Perez, and the Star Tribune spoke with Jane Cavenaugh and others about their hopes for the Synod Assembly and the discernment about women in ministry.

The three indigenous leaders in audience with Pope Francis

In June, Pope Francis received three indigenous women ministry leaders from the Amazon – Yesica Patiachi, Sr. Laura Vicuña and Patricia Gualinga at the Holy See. They presented to the Holy Father the need to recognize the diaconal ministry women provide to the Church. Soon after, we (Casey and Ellie) had the extraordinary opportunity to travel to Porto Velho, Brazil, to witness first-hand Sr. Laura’s prophetic ministry to advocate for the human rights and land rights of indigenous peoples.

If Catholic women could be deacons, what is the biggest visible change parishioners would see on Sundays? We hear many Catholics say they long for women to have the opportunity to preach from the ambo at Sunday Mass. Ordaining women to the diaconate would open up a stable, recognized pathway for women with adequate preparation to be able to preach. And so we were delighted when it was announced in mid-October that Discerning Deacons, in collaboration with Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana was awarded a Compelling Preaching Grant from Lilly Endowment to create a program that will allow students to earn a Certificate in Catholic Preaching and Ministry of the Word.

DD Young Adult Pilgrims with Synod Delegate Julia Oseka

Then, to prepare for a dynamic witness in Rome, Anna Robertson organized a 17-person Young Adult Delegation to attend Together 2023, an ecumenical gathering for young adults that included synodal conversations and workshops with other young people from around the world. They attended the Synod’s Opening Mass and had the opportunity to greet and pray with numerous Synod delegates as they made their way around St. Peter’s Square.

DD Rome delegation following A Symposium on a Synodal Diaconate

Later in October we welcomed another discerning deacons delegation, and together with the Women and Ministeriality Thematic Core Group of the Ecclesial Conference of the Amazon (CEAMA) we hosted a “Symposium on a Synodal Diaconate” held at the Aula of the Jesuit Curia near the Vatican. Sixty-five people attended the symposium, including synod assembly delegates, religious sisters and theologians in Rome, Fordham students and others. It was our contribution to the vision of the renewal of the permanent diaconate that includes men and women for a synodal, missionary Church that goes out to the peripheries – a diaconate that shares the good news of the love of Christ and accompanies people in their struggles for abundant life.

Rosary at St. Peter’s Square

Tragically, when war broke out between Israel and Palestine in October, we were reminded how much is at stake in embracing this synodal process as we participated in the Synod rosary for peace at St. Peter’s Square. Pope Francis has often called on Catholics to become artisans of peace – capable of deep encounters with diverse people to engage in listening, dialogue, and discernment about the most complex and difficult problems we face in our faith communities and in our world.

Indeed, when the work of the Synod Assembly was published in the document, A Synodal Church in Mission Synthesis Report, it affirmed the important role women have played in the Church for generations. And more than two-thirds of synod voters support addressing the possibility of women deacons, affirming what we knew to be true – this topic is not as divisive as people would have us believe.

A proposal in the section on “Women in the Life and Mission of the Church” states: “Theological and pastoral research on the access of women to the diaconate should be continued, benefiting from consideration of the results of the commissions specially established by the Holy Father, and from the theological, historical and exegetical research already undertaken. If possible, the results of this research should be presented to the next Session of the Assembly.”

And in the section on “Deacons and Priests in a Synodal Church,” one proposal states: “The uncertainties surrounding the theology of the diaconate are related to the fact that is has only been restored to a distinct and permanent hierarchical ministry in the Latin Church since the Second Vatican Council. Deeper study will shed light on the question of the access of women to the diaconate.”

The question about ordaining women to the diaconate continues to be held and deepened with Synod delegates wanting to actively consider the research and the pastoral needs for our times at the 2024 Synod Assembly.

Support the Mission: Make a Gift to Discerning Deacons
In 2022 about 500 people attended our zoom prayer to celebrate the feast day of Deacon St. Phoebe. This year, 46,000 people participated in celebrations at 170 institutions to commemorate St. Phoebe. This extraordinary year of growing the conversation and the discernment would not have been possible without you and generous benefactors who have helped us to steward the question. During this season of giving, we invite you to participate by making a financial contribution.

Jennifer Kelly and Justin Countryman at Twin Rivers Correctional Unit. Photo by Stephen Brashear.

Your support enables Discerning Deacons to create educational materials and to reach more people. Every Catholic should know that there were women deacons in early Christianity; that the Church is conducting a historical Synod on Communion, Participation and Mission; and that ordaining women to the diaconate will be actively deliberated at the Synod Assembly in October 2024.

Your contribution helps us to tell the stories of women in ministry today and the difference they could make in our faith communities if the Church allowed bishops to ordain them to the permanent diaconate to meet urgent pastoral needs – in our prisons, hospitals, military bases, campus ministries, rural areas, on reservations, in faith communities and any place where she is bringing the light of Christ and standing with those on the margins and peripheries.

To make your year-end contribution today – donate here.

This link will take you to the discerning deacons blogs on our website. If during Christmas gatherings, friends and family ask you what has given you hope this year, share a favorite story with family and friends.

As we conclude 2023 with gratitude and look onward to 2024, we invite you to begin, as always, in prayer. Join Discerning Deacons on Wednesday, January 3 at 7 pm ET / 4 pm PT as our team offers the St. Phoebe Prayer for a Synodal Church and as we celebrate our baptismal call to be protagonists and creators of God’s kin-dom on earth. Register here.

The next issue of our newsletter, The Witness, will be published January 10. From everyone on the Discerning Deacons team – Anna, Carolina, Lisa, and Maureen – may the joy and peace of Christ be yours this Christmas,

Picture of Ellie & Casey

Ellie & Casey

Co-Directors of Discerning Deacons

P.S. Dr. Cynthia Bailey Manns offers a brief reflection on how she prepared for her experience as a Synod delegate and the meaning of the gift she gave to Pope Francis. Read here.

Share this Article

“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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