Pope Francis told a gathering of about 900 heads of women's religious orders that he supports studying whether women can become deacons. The step is seen as a possible turning point for the Roman Catholic Church, which does not allow women to serve in ordained ministry.

At Thursday's meeting of the International Union of Superiors General, Francis was asked why women are not allowed to be deacons and whether he would form an official commission to look into the issue. He responded, "I accept; it would be useful for the church to clarify this question. I agree."

NPR's Sylvia Poggioli tells our Newscast unit that women served as deacons in the early centuries of Christianity. She adds:

"Throughout the Mediterranean, images on tombstones, frescoes and mosaics provide evidence that women held leadership and ministerial roles in the early church identical to those held by men as teachers of theology and deacons."That changed in the fourth century, when women started to be pushed out of the public arena and lost their role as officeholders. Today, male deacons are ordained ministers who can perform many of the same functions as priests — but cannot celebrate Mass."

Referring to early female deacons, the pope told the gathering that "understanding about their role in the early Church remained unclear," according to News.va, the official Vatican news network. It mentions "ample evidence" that there were female deacons in the early centuries of the church, including one named Phoebe mentioned in the Book of Romans.

Catholic News Service reports that Francis questioned whether the early female deacons were ordained and suggested that their primary role was assisting with baptizing other women.

More generally, Francis lamented that the "integration of women into the life of the Church has been 'very weak,' " according to the official news service. He said he hoped to see more women in decision-making roles.

At the same time, he appeared to rule out women preaching homilies, News.va reports:

"Asked about the possibility of women preaching the homilies during Mass, the Pope said it's important to distinguish between other types of liturgies, where the sermon can be preached by consecrated or lay women, and the Mass, where the homily is connected to the role of the priest serving 'in persona Christi'."

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