Leader of global sisters’ group envisions Catholic nuns serving as deacons
Francis greets Sr. Carmen Sammut, president of the International Union of Superiors General, during an audience with the heads of women’s religious orders in Paul VI hall at the Vatican May 12.
[“The cat is out of the bag”]
by Joshua J. McElwee
May. 23, 2016
National un-Catholic Reporter
Rome, Italy – Catholic sisters could be of greater service to the church in various parts of the world were they able to “go a step further” and be ordained as deacons, says the leader of the global network of some 500,000 Catholic women religious.
“Very often in different parts of the world we are doing most of the work that needs to be done,” said Sr. Carmen Sammut, president of the International Union of Superiors General (UISG).
“We are living very much in the periphery . . . and priests are very rare in some of the places,” said Sammut, speaking in a GSR/NCR interview Friday. “There are services that we can give to the church, especially to the peripheral church where we are, which would be opened if we were women deacons.”
Sammut, whose organization comprises about 1,900 leaders of the world’s congregations of Catholic sisters and nuns, was answering a question in response to news that Pope Francis will be creating a commission to study the possibility of women serving as deacons in the Catholic church.
Her group had asked Francis to consider creation of such a commission in an audience between about 900 of their members and the pontiff at the Vatican on May 12.
As first reported in NCR, the pope welcomed the proposal, saying he was aware that historical scholarship suggests women served as deacons in the early centuries of the church. “I accept,” said Francis, adding: “It seems useful to me to have a commission that would clarify this well.”
Sammut said that in many places of the world Catholic sisters are “already doing quite a bit of what a deacon should be doing” but that there are certain services they cannot provide because they are not members of the church’s clergy, such as serving as ministers in marriage ceremonies or for baptizing children.
The women’s religious leader said ordination as deacons would “enable more service.”
“Some people have thought that what we want is an honorific title,” she said. “It is not. I don’t think we are looking for that.”
Sisters are often “the ones who are leading the prayer, or they are also preparing laity to the lead the prayer,” said Sammut. “They are the ones who are called when somebody is very sick, to listen to the person.”
“Very often, we are the ones to whom people come to tell us what they are living,” she said. “All this is happening already.”
“Of course, we don’t call ourselves deacons because we are not,” Sammut continued. “But I don’t think it would change very much. It would only enable, maybe, the person to go a step further with the people.”
Deacons are ordained members of the Catholic clergy who can conduct certain ministries in the church. Unlike priests, they cannot celebrate the Mass or hear confessions. Currently, the role is generally open to married men who are 35 or older.
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, a native of Malta who was reelected for a second three-year term in her UISG position at the end of the groups’ triennial plenary assembly in Rome last week, said she was “very surprised” by the international media attention that Francis’ decision to study the possibility of women deacons attracted.
“I didn’t think that is was like something that would make news because we were only asking to open up the study,” she said. “We’re not, for me, doing anything very sensational.”
“However, obviously I suppose it is that there is a thirst for this,” she continued. “Otherwise, why would people take it up?”
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