Discerning Deacons is Received in Chicago!

Members of the "discerning deacons teen team" share their witness in Chicago. Photo by Rebecca Healy.

Members of the "discerning deacons teen team" share their witness in Chicago. Photo by Rebecca Healy.

Nearly all of Discerning Deacon’s work has emerged in the context of the pandemic, taking shape over zoom meetings and virtual liturgies and listening circles and relational meetings. 

The last few weeks have marked a welcome turn as we emerge to gather in person: at St. Catherine’s in St. Paul MN, at the Religious Education Congress in Los Angeles. I’m excited to share about our most recent invitation to speak on the South Side of Chicago at St. Barnabas Parish. 7 parishes, nine high schools in partnership ith Catholic Theological Union, and several local peace and restorative justice ministries all gathered in a packed church under one banner: “Change, Hope and the Catholic Church.” 

Lisa and I were graciously hosted by “Grandma Gainer” a widow and matriarch of the parish, who shared that it was the fullest she’d seen the Church since the pandemic! This was largely thanks to her daughter, Maureen Gainer Reilly, who ensured the word got out that Discerning Deacons was coming to town. Thanks to Maureen and the inspired leadership of the pastoral team, Lisa and I were able to share the good news with over 700 people! 

One attendee remarked: 

“I live about a mile from St. Barnabas,  and it was such a joy to see all those folks from surrounding parishes and the teens from High Schools around the south side…. It was great to have people coming together to talk about the Spirit, and it was lovely to have members of the clergy from multiple parishes join in.”

That alone was a sign of living hope, as well as indicative of the interest and hunger people have to be part of conversations about women, the diaconate, and the renewal of the Church.

We were warmly greeted by the deacons and deacon couples of the parish. Andy, Bill Chris, along with Rosemary, Noreen, Kitty, Maureen, and Maria. Pastor Jim Donovan offered generous hospitality while we chatted over coffee between the 8 am and 10 am masses. He was a kind listener, curious to know about my own path to come into this mission with Discerning Deacons, and I appreciated his genuine concern as he said, “I hope you don’t get hurt.” I trusted this was spoken from a place of practical wisdom and experience. I shared in response: I have long prayed to God to be my shield, and I do sense God protecting me and the work of this project. 

It meant a lot for a priest to have the courage to invite me into the space to share about our mission with his own parish community. We need more clergy ready to step up and open up space for this conversation to unfold. 

We were thrilled to get to talk about the Synod, about Pope Francis’ reform of the Curia, and about the changes that are happening right now in the Catholic Church. We invited everyone to be attentive to what the Holy Spirit wants to say to them and through their deep listening within and across their communities:  

What is the Word that God has poured out like rain and which will not return empty, but will achieve the end for which it was sent? (Isaiah 55) How might the restoration of women as deacons further the prophetic charism of the  diaconate and unleash gifts of the Spirit at the service of the people of God? 

Kitty Ryan and the full choir (young and old, with every instrument you can imagine!)  lifted us to the heavens as we joined together “Sing a New Church into Being” and a finale of “Let There Be Peace On Earth.”  

The highlight of the night was the profound witness of high school students. 

Promoting the event on instagram as the discerning deacons teen team, over 40 high schoolers served as ambassadors to the event, greeting people as they arrived and sharing their prophetic responses to an essay prompt: “If you had 60 seconds to talk with Pope Francis, what would you say”

Here are a few excerpts from their witness: 

“If I had 60 seconds to tell Pope Francis what I think about female deacons, I’d say why not?  It’s important for people to see representation of themselves, especially young women, and having female deacons present in the church would offer that. With the presence of female deacons at church, more women and girls would feel included and valued.…. What would the point of this synod be if no change is made? Nothing that lasts forever doesn’t change.” 

“Every time I picture the church, I first picture God, then Jesus, and then a priest. Every time I picture the church I see men. When I pictured the church and saw only men, I never really thought much of it. However, after learning of the synod taking place, I started to imagine a different church, one with women deacons.”

“I have seen the women in my family, especially my Grandmother Mary at Christ the King, give themselves fully to their parish and work tirelessly for the church.  Women like these, if they feel so called, should be able to be Deacons in the Catholic Church.”

We continued to gather the wisdom and input of parishioners as we came together on a second night for a participatory synodal session. We asked everyone to “ego down, Spirit up,” and to live the question together about how the Church can continue to journey with and alongside people in their lives. This one response captures the emerging sentiment: 

“I think women have been ready to answer the call for a long time, and if the Church listens faithfully, they/we might just realize that God has been preparing what is needed for the church’s journey toward healing.”

The journey continues…How do you feel drawn in to help St. Phoebe “in whatever she may require of you” (Romans 16:2)? We’re not exactly sure what’s unfolding, but we are humbled to be drawn up in this mission of St. Phoebe to serve as animators for our synodal Church.

Sending Peace,


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“Our St. Phoebe Day celebration was a Catholic mass at its best—coming together, unified at the Eucharistic table, getting nourished through meaningful ritual, prayerful and relevant songs, a challenging message on synodality from scripture, and engaging and honest testimonies from two women in our community. St. Joan of Arc parish today did what Jesus did years ago—fed souls and gave people hope.”
St. Joan of Arc Catholic Community
Minneapolis, MN
“Together, we are grateful that the ministry and example of St. Phoebe enlivens our community to participate in exploring the unique gifts of women in our faith community. Here at Cranaleith, we feel strongly about creating space for all those seeking wholeness and transformation for themselves, their communities and society. This retreat was an opportunity for us to do just that.”
Cranaleith Spiritual Center
Philadelphia, PA
“The icon of St. Phoebe is still present in our Chapel today, where we are able to remember her witness and ask her to intercede on our behalf.”
Rosemont College
Rosemont, PA

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