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Women already minister; let them become deacons.

I'll admit it took me awhile to warm up to the idea of a female diaconate.

This is because 23 years ago, I was among the first in my home diocese to become a lay ecclesial minister. I feel strongly about the immense gift this ministry is to our parishes. Lay ecclesial ministers, and particularly female lay ministers, are the too-often-invisible glue holding parishes together.

And most priests agree with me. According to a 2015 report by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, more than 75 percent of priests said parish life would be aided by an increase in ? full-time lay ministers and that the church needs to move faster in empowering laypersons in ministry.

Today, there are more than 39,600 lay ministers--more than 31,700 of whom are women--serving the U.S. church. This blessed gift from the Spirit seems to be here to stay--another 22,700 people are enrolled in ministry training programs, and 58 percent (more than 13,200) are women.

Gifted ecclesial women are serving the church in diverse ministries such as religious education, sacramental preparation and formation, liturgical/ music ministries, hospital/hospice chaplaincy and parish administration.

But, sadly, their ministry often goes unseen by most Catholics. These women rarely serve in visible liturgical roles and are not permitted to give a homily at Sunday Mass. Our Catholic communities are deprived of the power and richness of the Gospel preached through a female lens. And we are the less for it.

But opening the diaconate to women would change all of that.

Now some, and perhaps many, among this huge cadre of experienced and spiritually gifted women are experiencing a call to become deacons.

Three of them shared their profound "stories of call" at an April 14 teleconference sponsored by Future-Church.

Connie Walsh says she has always felt a particular call to the permanent diaconate rather than to priesthood or religious life. Walsh served for eight years on the Commission on Women for the St. Paul-Minneapolis archdiocese and taught a domestic violence curriculum at St. Paul Seminary.

A retired manager of advocacy for United Family Medicine in St. Paul, Walsh relates, "As I matured in my faith, I felt the gentle nudge--and sometimes not-so-gentle nudge--of the Spirit to risk and do more. That nudge or call brought me to places I never dreamed possible"--serving people with addictions and people experiencing domestic violence, and taking mission trips to Guatemala.

Walsh's desire to become a deacon became clear after undertaking the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. She followed the advice of a Jesuit priest who told her to "pray and listen to the people of God."

Walsh did so and found the need is great. "After prayer and discernment, listening to the call of the Spirit and the people of God ... I would humbly ask for the grace of ordination to the office of deacon," she said.

Natalie Terry is the director of the Ignatian Spiritual Life Center and children's faith formation at St. Agnes Catholic Church in San Francisco and is currently writing her thesis for a Licentiate in Sacred Theology in the area of sacramental theology.

When she was around 16, a youth minister in her parish in Albany, N.Y., asked her if she would ever be a priest if she could. "Without blinking an eye, I responded yes to him.... At that point, I'm embarrassed to say I had never imagined a woman on the altar wearing vestments. It was after that question was raised to me that I started imagining it."

Terry went on to study theology in graduate school and eventually entered the Master of Divinity program at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkley In college, the question of "Why can't women be ordained?" kept coming up in her. "I couldn't find a good reason," she said.

The theologians and priests she studied with shared the same sentiment, she recalled. "Then I started to really say, well, something is wrong with this picture."

Terry relates that her experience in graduate school was "wildly painful" as she walked three years alongside Jesuits on their way to ordination when she could not receive the sacrament herself.

"My logic told me I should walk away from it, and God asked me to stay ... I had been begging God to share with me how as a woman I was supposed to enter into this call when the church is continually to tell me that the door was closed."

Eventually she concluded, "Our God is a God of open doors," and that priestly ordination is about service: "The pain and the beauty of my ministerial formation gave me some space and courage to really shed a desire for some of the pieces of priesthood that are coupled with power and prestige."

But she said, "The whole thing needs to change first. Priesthood is in desperate need of renewal," and it is in that place that she experiences a call to diaconate.

The female diaconate "is a place for the church to start its renewal," Terry said. "The church must recognize in this that women are too in persona Christi. It seems to me that the diaconate is a moment for our whole church to do this."

Cynthia "Sam" Bowns is a married mother of three who recognized her desire to serve as a deacon while accompanying her husband, Loren, through his diaconal formation program. Bowns holds a Master of Divinity and a certificate in spiritual formation from Chicago's Catholic Theological Union. Her pastor and mentor frequently sent people to her for counsel and encouraged her to pursue this course of study.

"Spiritual accompaniment became my trademark," Bowns said, noting that many longtime parishioners simply assumed that she had been ordained with her husband: "There came a time when, quite frankly, I quit correcting them. If they could see me as a deacon and were comfortable with that idea, perhaps it was the Spirit of God planting yet another seed in me."

When, on his deathbed, Bowns' pastor asked his best friend and fellow priest to pass her the chrism so she could anoint him as well, she felt deeply validated: "He left me with an affirmation that I have never forgotten. Never. He himself obviously envisioned me in the role I so desired."

She continued, "I very definitely have a vocation as a wife, mother, a grandmother.... I have no wish to give up those incredible vocations, but I would love to be ordained a deacon."

FutureChurch has created a dedicated website,, to encourage others to share their own diaconal call and to provide education, discernment and advocacy tools asking church leaders to open the discussion. The organization is also sponsoring a retreat for women called to the permanent diaconate Sept. 16-18.

Perhaps Terry says it best: "It's become more painful for me to be told behind closed doors by priests that women should be in full ministerial-leadership in the church than to hear that women shouldn't be in ministerial leadership at all. And so I call on, today, bishops and priests who have believed this for a long time, who have encountered women in their ministry who are called to serving the church, to speak up.

"We're speaking up--and so now it's time for our bishops to speak up on our behalf."

[A Sister of St. Joseph, Sr. Christine Schenk served urban families for 18 years as a nurse midwife before co-founding FutureChurch, where she served for 23 years. She holds master's degrees in nursing and theology.]

Caption: Connie Walsh

Caption: Natalie Terry

Caption: Sam Bown --Photos courtesy of FutureChurch


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Title Annotation:COLUMNS
Author:Schenk, Christine
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Column
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 20, 2016
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