Women deacons in the Catholic Church appear closer than ever, after a number of decisions this year by Pope Francis giving women a greater role in the faith. The change would mean a huge step forward for gender equality in the largest religious denomination.
"It's not about the gender, it's about the calling that you have," said Michelle Kraebel. "I think God chooses you."
Kraebel is a deacon at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Depew. She grew up Catholic, but left the faith 17 years ago because it doesn't allow female deacons.
"I wanted to do more, and I couldn't do more where I was. And it was a struggle. It was a big struggle for me to make that final decision. I felt guilty," she said. "But then I realized I'm not leaving anything. I'm bettering myself. I am answering the calling that I'm getting."
Kraebel also supports women deacons in the Catholic Church because it would free up thinly-stretched pastors to tend their flock and allow lay people to become more involved in their faith. Catholicism is the largest denomination in the world, the United States, New York State and Western New York, with some 3,000 Catholics for every priest.
She talked about what she's allowed to do as a Lutheran deacon that she couldn't do as a Catholic.
"We cannot marry. My catchphrase always is, 'I can't marry him, but I can bury him.' And I have done funerals," Kraebel said. "I can do pastoral visits if needed. I can do baptisms. I can preach and lead a worship service. The only thing that I cannot do within a service would be to distribute communion. The pastor has to do that."
Prince of Peace has a female pastor, by the way.
Who Are Catholics?
The number and diversity of Catholics and the varied community services they provide -- from schools and health care to charities and cemeteries -- are among the reasons why the Church yields such influence in family life and society. When Pope Francis gives half the population a greater role, both Catholics and non-Catholics take notice.
"As far as a movement towards the ordination of women as deacons, he'll experience a lot of resistance from a lot of camps," said Rev. Aidan Rooney.
Rooney is vice president for Mission Integration at Niagara University. He agreed women deacons would be a big deal, and one that may have to be made.
"I think the bottom line for Roman Catholics is that the Eucharist is the center of our lives, to celebrate the Eucharist. We say that all over the place and we say it clearly in some of the most fundamental teaching documents of the Church," Rooney said. "But when you don't have ordained ministers, you can't have Eucharist. So what do you do? And I think that's the theological push for looking at what we do about ordination."
The Catholic Church clearly states that men and women were made equal in the eyes of God, but ever since Eve, the first woman created by God, and Mary, the mother of Jesus, women had no official role in Church hierarchy -- until recently.
"Religious institutions, especially the Catholic Church is a conservative institution. I don't mean that politically. I mean that in its ability to change," Rooney said. "You must remember that it took all the major Protestant churches almost 90% of its time. Founded in the 15th and 16th centuries, it wasn't until the late 20th century that they admitted women to leadership positions. So these institutions don't move quickly."
So change often happens through a progressive divine representative on Earth.
Pope Francis Decisions
In January, Pope Francis changed church law to officially allow women lectors during services, and allow them to assist male priests during mass and Holy Communion. In February, he appointed two women to high posts within the Vatican that have always been held by men, and reconvened an international commission to study whether women should become deacons. (It hasn't been able to decide since first convened in 2016.) Just this month, he established the ministry of Catechist, to allow lay women -- and men -- help teach the gospel.
Allowing women to become deacons, women to become priests and priests to marry are the major ways being debated to help attract more tenders of the flock and revitalize the faith, but the international community is much farther apart on women priests and married priests than women deacons.
"The theological reason for it is the argument from tradition, an expression of the will of Christ mediated through the church," Rooney said. "If you admit a woman to holy orders as a deacon, then you've made a statement about the symbology involved and about the capacity to receive holy orders. The Catholic Church, especially, is very insistent that all of its developments be in continuity and not a rupture with the past."
Recent polls show some 80% of U.S. Catholic women support women deacons (compared to about a third of Catholic bishops.) Mooney said young people, in particular, lean toward inclusiveness.
"The backbone of almost all of the parishes are women, in leadership and in ministry for sure. One of the fundamental tasks of the church -- the education of the young -- is largely carried on by women's educational ministry," he said. "I think one of the biggest ones is in the leadership on the diocesan level, the number of women who are chancellors of diocese and archdiocese at this point. And the number of women who have moved into leadership roles in some of the Roman dicasteries now. I think that those are substantial moves."
There are many different ways to live a faith. Krabel said she feels like "a leader, not just a participant" since becoming Lutheran and a deacon.
"I find it very hypocritical for any faith to say, 'you can't do this because you're gay' or 'you can't do this because you're a woman' or 'you can't participate because you don't look like us,'" Krabel said. "I'm no expert, but I don't think when you go to heaven they're going to care what color you are, who you slept with or what gender you are. I think what kind of person you are and how you've lived and have you been a good person, you know? I think it matters more what's inside than what's outside."