Women in Catholic ministry across the Cincinnati area react to pope's panel to study women deacons

Posted at 12:00 PM, Aug 23, 2016
and last updated 2016-08-23 12:10:16-04

As a pastoral associate for Mother of God Catholic Church in Covington, Sister Dorothy Schuette does a lot for the parish.

She helps provide social services to the elderly, directs training for aspiring Roman Catholics, does administrative work, sets up schedules, puts out the parish newsletter and advises the pastor.

Sister Dorothy Schuette is the pastoral associate for Mother of God Church in Covington. Photo provided

However, because she’s a woman, and women can’t be ordained as deacons or priests, she can’t celebrate Mass or preach.

That’s why she’s happy Pope Francis created a panel to study whether women could serve as deacons.

Deacons can preach and officiate at baptisms and weddings. They can assist at Mass, but only a priest can officiate.

“It’s really important to realize that in the Catholic Church, the only people authorized to preach the Gospel and preach about the word of God are men,” Schuette said. “Because ordination is restricted to men, women’s voices are not heard.”

That means women’s experiences of what the Bible means in their lives are not heard either, she added.

In the old days, lack of education might have been an obstacle to women preaching. But today, there are many women well educated in all areas of theology and philosophy, she said.

Schuette thinks women will be ordained as deacons in the church, but perhaps not in her lifetime -- she’s 73.

“I now believe the bishops are going to welcome ordination of women deacons,” she said. “They see that (women) have made great contributions to the church.”

Debbie Birck is the pastoral associate at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Anderson Township.

Other women serving in leadership roles in local Catholic churches don’t embrace the idea so eagerly.

It’s great that the pope is willing to study the issue, said Debbie Birck, pastoral associate at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Anderson Township.

But there are already many leadership roles available for women, she said. For example, the Archdiocese of Cincinnati’s director of worship, Karen Kane, is a woman.

“I love my role as director of religious education. It gives me a lot of influence and a lot of work,” Kane said. “I’ve always felt satisfied with the ways I’ve been able to give back to the church.”

Marta Misleh serves as pastoral associate at St. Cecilia Church in Oakley. Photo provided

Marta Misleh, a pastoral associate at St. Cecilia Church in Oakley, has never thought about becoming a deacon and is satisfied with her role now.

“I feel like it would almost be questioning my role to say I could do more,” she said. “If you could see my schedule daily … I don’t see how I can do more.”

Misleh sees her work as analogous to when she worked as a stay-at-home mother and constantly had to tell people she had a college degree to prove she was intelligent.

In the same way, people devalue the roles women play in the church now, she said.

Father David Endres is the academic dean of the Athenaeum of Ohio in Mount Washington. Photo provided

“We should never lose sight of the great work women are doing in the church, in parishes and schools and hospitals,” said Father David Endres, academic dean of the Athenaeum of Ohio in Mount Washington.

The Athenaeum trains priests and deacons for the archdiocese and for the Diocese of Covington. Presumably, it also would train women deacons if they were allowed to be ordained.

There are 28 candidates in the new deacon class that starts in August, Endres said. It normally takes three years of training at the Athenaeum to become ordained as a deacon, he said, but prerequisites can take another two to three.

In recent years, both the Diocese of Covington and the Archdiocese of Cincinnati have dealt with a shortage of priests by having priests pastor multiple parishes and giving more work to deacons.

“(Deacons) are certainly indispensable in the parishes,” Endres said.

It’s perhaps easier to sell a young man on becoming a deacon, rather than a priest, because a deacon can marry and a priest can’t.

Jerry Franzen has been a deacon for many years. Photo provided

Jerry Franzen has served as a deacon in the diocese of Covington for 17 years. He assists with Masses at the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption, and has conducted about 50 weddings in his career.

He also enjoys taking communion to shut-ins during the summer months.

If the church approves the ordination of women deacons, he said, he’d be for it.

But it’s not certain that women deacons would do the same things that male deacons do, Endres said.

It’s true that in the early days of Christianity, there were women called deacons, said Endres, who is also a church historian. But the job seemed to be more about women ministering to other women, he added.

Even if the panel recommends ordaining women as deacons, it will probably take years for it to become a reality, said Mary Ann Bressler, pastoral associate at St. Anthony Church in Madisonville.

Becoming a deacon is not something that she, at 55, would consider at this point in her life, she said.

She was glad to see that Phyllis Zagano, a senior research associate in the religion department at Hofstra University, was included on the panel.

Zagano has studied women deacons in the early church and advocates ordaining them today.

Bressler has heard Zagano speak on her research, she said, and was impressed with how thorough it was.

“I’m curious to see how this progresses,” she said.