Pope Francis Signals Openness to Female Deacons

The pope said it was time to study the possibility of allowing women to become church deacons.

Pope Francis has signaled he may be open to ordaining women as deacons, breaking with the Roman Catholic Church tradition of all-male clergy.

The pontiff said he would create a commission a study to explore the possibility during a question-and-answer session on Thursday at a meeting in the Vatican with some 900 women religious of the International Union of Superiors General (UISG).

It is known that women had served as deacons in the early church. The apostle Paul mentioned such a woman, Phoebe, in his letter to the Romans.

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"I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me," Paul wrote.

However, according to Francis, the role of these early female deacons is "a bit obscure."

The Pope recalled having discussed these women with a "good, wise professor" but it remained unclear whether the female deacons were ordained or not.

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"Creating an official commission that might study the question?" Francis asked aloud. "I believe yes. It would do good for the church to clarify this point. I accept, it seems useful to me to have a commission that would clarify this well."

Deacons were reinstituted in the Catholic Church in the 1960s, following the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.

The ordination is open to married men over 35. While deacons cannot celebrate Mass, they can perform baptisms and preside at weddings and funerals.

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Francis's historic openness does not however pave the way for women to enter the full priesthood, as the pontiff firmly turned down the possibility last year at a press conference.

"Women priests - that cannot be done," he said.

The idea of women priests was also strongly rejected by Francis's conservative predecessors John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

According to the National Catholic Reporter, Francis, pressed by the women religious' strong questions, admitted that the integration of women into the life of the church has been "very weak."

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"We must go forward," he said.

Pope Francis said it's time to study the possibility of allowing women to become church deacons.

At least 200,000 people flocked to St. Peter's Square on Tuesday for the inauguration mass of Pope Francis. Pilgrims arrived in the first hours of the morning with welcome signs for the Argentine pope.

Known as "the Mass of the beginning of the Petrine ministry," the ceremony formally installed the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as the 266th pontiff in the history of the Roman Catholic Church.

Wearing his papal whites, Francis waved, smiled, kissed babies and gave an informal thumbs-up to the ecstatic crowds as he toured the sun-basked square.

Dozens of blue and white flags from Francis' native Argentina, as well as from countries all over the world fluttered above the crowd.

In a joyous atmosphere, pilgrims chanted the pope's name in Italian -- "Francesco, Francesco!" and cried "Viva il Papa"  -- long live the pope.

The former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was presented with the Fisherman's Ring and the pallium, a white wool stole embroidered with five silk crosses, symbols of his role and power as the new leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics.

The ring is made of gold-plated silver, in contrast with Benedict's chunky gold ring.

Pope Francis also chose his coat of arms -- the same that he used as the archbishop of Buenos Aires, but with the addition of the golden papal miter and the crossed keys that unlock the kingdom of God.

His motto will be “miserando atque eligendo” (Latin for “because he saw him through the eyes of mercy and chose him”).

For the Mass, Francis wore plain white vestments, trimmed with gold and brown, and simple black shoes, in contrast to Benedict's hand made red loafers.

Among the multitude of pilgrims, 130 delegations from around the world, including six sovereigns and 31 heads of state, took their seats for the open-air service.

The guest list included U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (front row, at right), German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Bishops (pictured), cardinals and priests attended the ceremony.

Religious leaders covered a broad range, and included 33 Christian churches, 16 Jewish leaders, and Muslim, Buddhist and Sikh leaders. The ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, also participated. It's the first time the spiritual head of Orthodox Christians attend a papal inauguration since the Great Schism between western and eastern Christianity in 1054.

“Don't be afraid of tenderness,” Francis said in the homily.

Although he has been winning hearts with his humble, warm and direct style, Pope Francis will have to face big challenges.

The path for the newly installed pontiff will be hard with issues such as a global crisis of faith, a dysfunctional church administration, the sex abuse and the Vatilieak corruption scandals.