Pope Francis has created a special commission to examine the role of women deacons in the Catholic Church.
"After intense prayer and mature reflection, His Holiness has decided to institute the Commission for the Study of the Diaconate of Women," the Vatican press office said in a statement Tuesday.
The pope has appointed Archbishop Luis Francisco Ladaria Ferrer, the secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith as president of the 13-member commission. In addition to Ladaria, six women and six men from academic institutions around the world will serve on the commission, the statement said.
The Vatican did not set a date for the commission to begin work or a deadline for it to reach conclusions.
Francis accepted a proposal to create the official study commission during a closed-door meeting with some 900 superiors of women's religious orders, gathered in Rome for their triennial assembly on May 12, 2016.
Francis' move however, did not suggest that the church would permit women to become priests. One of his predecessors, Pope John Paul Two, categorically rejected that option, following a 1994 study.
The rank of deacon is one below a priest, and, as every other ordained Catholic ministry, is reserved for men.
Deacons are ordained ministers but not priests. They can perform many functions of the priesthood, such as preside at weddings, baptisms and funerals, and preach, but not celebrate Mass or hear confessions.
Currently, married men, who are excluded from the Roman Catholic priesthood, can serve as deacons.
Historians say women served as deacons in the early Christian church, but Francis has noted that the deaconesses of the early Church were not ordained as they are today.