During a meeting with an international group of nuns on Thursday, Pope Francis casually mentioned that he's open to making the biggest change to women's role in the Catholic Church in more than 1,000 years. When one of the sisters asked about the possibility of a commission to look into having women serve as deacons, the pontiff said it was a good idea and it would be useful for him to have the point clarified, the New York Times reports. In the church, deacons are clergy who are allowed to preach and carry out weddings and baptisms, the Washington Post reports. They were important in the early centuries of the church but the role gradually withered from around AD500 onward, though the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s brought back permanent deacons and made the role available to both married and single men.
"Many experts believe that women should also be able to serve in this role, since there is ample evidence of female deacons in the first centuries, including one named Phoebe who is cited by Saint Paul in his letter to the Romans," the Vatican press office explained after Francis made his remarks. The Wall Street Journal notes that rising numbers of deacons have helped the church cope with a shortage of priests. Women active in the church in the US say they're thrilled by the apparent shift in policy, which many of them did not expect to see in their lifetimes. "It's very hopeful," Catholic scholar Phyllis Zagano tells the National Catholic Reporter. "It displays Francis' openness to scholarship, to history, and, most importantly, to the needs of the church." (Last month, Francis released a landmark document on marriage, divorce, sex, and family life.)