VATICAN CITY (AP) -- Pope Francis has set up a panel to study whether women could serve as deacons, a role now reserved for men.
The Vatican said Tuesday Francis "after intense prayer and mature reflection" decided to set up the commission, with 12 members including priests, nuns and laywomen.
It noted in May he told superiors of nuns' orders he intended to "set up an official commission to study the question" of the diaconate for women "above all regarding the early times of the church." Some historians say there were female deacons in the early church; Saint Phoebe, a woman mentioned in Saint Paul's epistle to the Romans, is referred to within the Biblical text as diakonon, or deacon, for her leadership role within the church of Kechries, Greece.
"It's about time we looked into the question historically," said Gillian Ahlgren, a professor of theology at Xavier University. She said she hopes the commission's findings could lead to structural changes that allow women to participate more fully in the church's clerical ranks. "Not only is it an important question within our tradition, but we have urgent and pressing needs in our world."
Father David Endres, who teaches church history at Mount Saint Mary Seminary, said the commission is not about reinventing the role of women within the church, but striving to make the living church a more accurate reflection of what it would have been when it was created.
"We're not looking to come up with new teachings," he said. "But we're trying to be faithful to the teachings of Christ as they developed in those early years."
In this sense, changes made as a result of the commission's findings would be a return to form in the long-run, even if they seemed startling to a modern-day faithful.
Speculation abounds, and the Vatican released a statement clarifying that the pope only stated that he meant for the commission to study the role of women deacons, not necessarily to make large-scale changes to the church. Still, it's a significant move.
"I think that this is going to give us a different imagination and a different understanding of our own past," said Ahlgren.