Parishioner leads charge for women in church

Illinois woman wants to become Catholic Deacon

By Manya A. Brachear

Chicago Tribune

Published: Sunday, Aug. 26 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

Lynne Mapes-Riordan, left, wants the opportunity to enter the Catholic Church's deacon formation program, which does not allow women.

Chuck Berman, Mct

Enlarge photo»

CHICAGO — Lynne Mapes-Riordan of Evanston, Ill., hopes women will one day serve as Roman Catholic deacons. After 800 years, she could be one of the first.

Growing up, she never gave ordination a second thought. But then she learned that, unlike the church's verdict barring women priests, the question of women deacons has never been resolved.

That open question has led Mapes-Riordan, 49, and her fellow parishioners at St. Nicholas Catholic Church in Evanston to seek an answer. If the church finds in favor of female deacons, she could become one of the first women ordained since the 12th century. After meeting last winter with members of the parish, including Mapes-Riordan, Chicago's Cardinal Francis George reportedly promised to raise the question in Rome during his visit earlier this year.

Scholars say women deacons wouldn't be a novel or new idea, but the restoration of a tradition abandoned centuries ago.

The idea of female deacons "is being talked about very slowly," George said earlier this year during a forum at the Union League Club in response to a question about the future likelihood of women priests. "The diaconate is a more open question. At this place, at this time, it is not a possibility."

Mapes-Riordan, a lawyer, wife, mother of two and longtime parishioner at St. Nicholas, does not take a position on whether women should become priests. The church has made it clear that's not permitted. Ordaining women as deacons is not the same, she said.

"In a strange way, I don't see this being about women," Mapes-Riordan said during a recent interview inside St. Nicholas. "I see it as being about church and mission. We have this part of a puzzle, this piece, that I'm not going to say is missing, but we could have a fuller picture if this (letting women become deacons) was added. I don't see it as a women's issue. I see it as a matter for our church."

At a time when critics have accused Catholic church leaders of declaring a war on women by restricting insurance coverage for contraceptives, rebuking American nuns and maintaining an all-male priesthood, a renewed discussion about ordaining women as deacons indicates high-profile church leaders such as George want to give women more opportunities for church leadership.

"It's a message of hope. It's a way to stay within the boundaries of Catholic teachings and have women with real preaching authority within the system," said Phyllis Zagano, one of the American church's leading researchers on the subject of women deacons. "I think the bishops need to address this issue directly."

In the Catholic Church, there are three levels of ordained clergy: bishops, priests and deacons. Deacons can't say mass, hear confessions or anoint the sick, but they can baptize, officiate at weddings or funerals and preach.

For St. Nicholas, a well-known progressive parish in the Chicago Archdiocese, nominating a deacon of any gender has been a breakthrough.

Since 1988, the parish has had only one deacon to help serve Latino worshipers. Lay people — both men and women — have done most of what deacons typically do, including preach. The Rev. Robert Oldershaw, the parish's former longtime pastor who retired in 2006, admits he sometimes bent the rules. But he always told the faithful they should listen to what God is asking of them. When they felt called to preach, he honored that.

"I didn't have a real positive view of the diaconate simply because it was another way of separating the clerical establishment from the laity and men from women," Oldershaw said. "We've spent so much time separating the clergy from the laity, and yet we're called in our faith to be a community of equal disciples. So that was certainly my approach."

When the Rev. Bill Tkachuk eventually took over in 2010, he intended to introduce the idea of deacons there in his second year. But six months into his tenure, a male parishioner expressed interest.

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