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.