VATICAN CITY - Pope Francis said Thursday he is willing to create a commission to study whether women can be deacons in the Catholic Church, signaling an openness to letting women serve in ordained ministry currently reserved to men.
Francis agreed to the proposal 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.
Expanding opportunities for women in the Church has been debated for years.
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.
According to the National Catholic Reporter: "Many church historians have said however that there is abundant evidence that women served as deacons in the early centuries of the church. The apostle Paul mentions such a woman, Phoebe, in his letter to the Romans."
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 were 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."
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 Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit author, said the pope's willingness to create a study commission on the women's diaconate is significant in and of itself.
"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."