Whether Francis will address women deacons remains unknown, UISG president says

This story appears in the UISG 2019 plenary feature series. View the full series.

by Joshua J. McElwee

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Although Pope Francis will meet next week with the global organization of women religious who requested three years ago that he create a commission to study the history of women deacons in the Catholic Church, the group's leader said she does not know if he will address its work during their encounter.

"We might suppose that he would say something about it during the audience, but we are not sure," said Sr. Carmen Sammut, president of the International Union of Superiors General (UISG), which will meet with Francis at the end of its May 6-10 triennial assembly.

"He is free to say [something] or not," Sammut said to a group of journalists May 2 after a Vatican briefing on the assembly. "We have no big pretensions about what can happen. We will wait."

UISG is an umbrella organization that represents more than 450,000 Catholic women religious around the world. Approximately 850 of its members, who are leaders of the world's congregations of women religious, are expected in Rome for its weeklong meeting.

The group last met with Francis in May 2016, during its last plenary assembly. In that encounter, they took part in a question-and-answer session with the pope, during which they asked if he would consider creating a commission to study the church's earlier practice of having women serve as deacons.

The pope responded that he agreed with the idea and officially created the 13-member group in August 2016. Two members said earlier this year that the commission has given a report to Francis, but the pope himself has yet to speak publicly on the matter.

Unlike in 2016, Sammut said the group will not be asking Francis questions during their upcoming meeting.

"We did not ask for questions this time," she said. "We allow the pope to address us as he wants. But we suppose that he will take up the issues that are circling around."

Sammut, who is Maltese and also leads the Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Africa, said the wider issue behind the question of women deacons is the place of women in the church.

"What was behind that question is a question that keeps coming up ... What is the place of women in the church?" she said. "How can there be places where we can be more in decision-making?"

"I suppose that answer will come in some way or another," Sammut said. "That's my hope."

Pope John Paul II wrote in his 1994 apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis that "the Church has no authority whatsoever" to ordain woman as priests, citing Jesus' choosing of only men to serve as his 12 apostles.

Many church historians have said, however, that there is abundant evidence that women served as deacons in the early centuries of the church. The apostle Paul mentions such a woman, Phoebe, in his letter to the Romans.

Sammut also spoke May 2 about her group's February decision to apologize to clergy abuse survivors. In a rare joint statement with the umbrella group of the world's men religious, the Union of Superiors General, the two groups acknowledged that orders had habitually covered up for abusers in the past.

She said while the issue of clergy abuse is not officially on the assembly's program, she expects the members will speak about it during one of the meeting's closed sessions.

"It's not part of the official program, but there will be something about abuse which we will address among ourselves, because we want the superiors to be free to really speak," said Sammut.

The sister also said UISG's February statement had led to some women religious who are abuse victims reaching out to the organization for help.

"We have been doing this for a few cases," Sammut said. "We did not have a big number of cases, but ... there have been a few sisters who have reverted to us."

"We have accompanied these people according to where we thought they needed to be accompanied," she said.

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is jmcelwee@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter @joshjmac.]

Related: News from the last UISG plenary