Pope Francis said Thursday he is willing to create a commission to study whether women can be deacons in the Catholic Church, signaling openness to letting women serve in ordained ministry currently reserved to men.
Francis agreed to a proposal to create an official study commission during a closed-door meeting with some 900 superiors of women's religious orders.
Deacons are ordained ministers but are not priests, though they can perform many of the same functions as priests: preside at weddings, baptisms and funerals, and preach. They cannot, however, celebrate Mass.
Currently, married men — who are also mostly excluded from the Roman Catholic priesthood — can serve as deacons. Women cannot, however, though historians say women served as deacons in the early Church.
The pope in no way signaled during a 75-minute conversation with the sisters that the church's longstanding prohibition on ordaining women priests will change. But asked during a question-and-answer session if he would be willing to create a commission to study whether women could serve as deacons, Francis said he was open to the idea, according to the National Catholic Reporter and Catholic News Service, which had reporters in the audience hall.
The publications quoted Francis as saying: "I accept. It would be useful for the church to clarify this question. I agree."
Vatican Radio also reported on the pope's comments.
Francis noted that the deaconesses of the early church weren't ordained as they are today. But he said he would ask the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to report back on studies that have been done on the issue, Catholic News Service said.
Francis also said he would ask another Vatican office that is in charge of the liturgy to report back on why women aren't allowed to give a homily at Mass.
The Women's Ordination Conference, which advocates for women priests, praised Francis' willingness to create a study commission as a "great step for the Vatican in recognizing its own history."
"Biblical evidence names several women deacons, working alongside men in the early Church including: Phoebe, St. Olympias, Dionysia, St. Radegund and St. Macrina," the group said in a statement.
The Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit author, said the move would benefit the whole church.
"The female diaconate is not only an idea whose time has come, but a reality recovered from history," he said in an email.
"Women preaching during Mass would mean that Catholics would finally be able to hear reflections on Scripture from women speaking from the pulpit, and thus the church would be immeasurably enriched. This is news of immense joy for the church."