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Phyllis Zagano, a senior research associate at Hofstra University, is keynote speaker at the University of St. Michael's College Faculty of Theology's May 6-7 conference, "Women, the Diaconate and the Future of Ministry." Her latest book is Women Deacons? Essays with Answers.

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The Catholic Church in Canada is no different from other churches in the developed West: It is declining.

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In a 1971 Pew Research Center study, nearly half the Canadian population self-identified as Catholic. There are now about 13 million Catholics in Canada, about 39 per cent of the population. According to the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, about 7,000 priests and deacons serve the country's Catholics, along with about 1,300 lay ministers. About 95 per cent of Canada's 14,000 religious brothers and sisters are over the age of 60.

Something has to give. The shortage of priests is felt most keenly away from the cities. Some argue for married priests, but Rome has not given the green light, at least for Roman Catholics. Others argue for female priests, but that door was barred shut two decades ago.

How about more deacons? Specifically, how about female deacons? The deacon serves the church in the word, the liturgy and charity. Symbolically, the deacon carries the book of the Gospels into the celebration of the mass and proclaims the gospel, and often preaches.

What does the deacon preach about? Charged with the church's ministry of charity, the preaching deacon will most probably speak about the soup kitchen, or the prison, or the school, or the hospital.

The ancient role of the deacon included – and still includes – funeral rites. A parish deacon can administer baptism solemnly and preside at weddings. The deacon is a cleric, and so can completely fulfill certain offices, such as chancellor and judge.

Which of these can a woman not do?

At the 2015 Synod of Bishops on the Family, Paul-André Durocher, Archbishop of Gatineau, called for the church to return to its ancient tradition of female deacons, recalling that the deacon is ordained not unto the priesthood, but unto the ministry. That is the big difference. The church does not believe it can ordain female priests, so why worry that ordaining women as deacons would be their toehold to priesthood?

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The Apostles realized they could not do everything, and so (as Pope Francis said to the assembled bishops in Philadelphia last fall) they essentially "invented" the diaconate. The early church needed deacons – male and female. In fact, the only person in Scripture with the actual job title of "deacon" is Phoebe, whom St. Paul introduces to the Romans as deacon of the church at Cenchreae (Romans 16:1-2).

Early Christian communities included both male and female deacons, and evidence for their ordinations and service abounds. Among other things, female deacons assisted at female baptisms, they catechized children and other women, they kept order in the women's part of the assembly and they visited ill women.

Several historical ordination liturgies are identical for both male and female deacons and, importantly, they all include the invocation of the Holy Spirit. Tombstones and literary evidence give the names of female deacons; conciliar documents and papal letters attest to both the fact of female deacons and permission to ordain them.

So where are the female deacons now?

As the priesthood grew in power, the diaconate faded and eventually died out. The Second Vatican Council restored the diaconate as a permanent order. One council father, Maronite Bishop Francis Mansour Zayek, tried to interest his brother bishops in restoring female deacons, and two Latin bishops did raise the idea, but the church only restored half the diaconate.

But why? Some say women cannot image Christ. That is scandalously incorrect. We are all made in the image and likeness of God. Women cannot image Jesus, but it is the risen Christ who is the sign and symbol present in every sacrament.

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Pope Francis has called for women to have "a more incisive presence" in the church. The simplest way to bring more women into pastoral and professional church service is through ordination to the diaconate, so they may join the other deacons, priests, religious, and lay ministers in service to God's people.

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