SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Pope Francis has opened the door to the possibility of female deacons in the Roman Catholic Church. But women are already working in ministry - some officially and some without permission from the church. St. Louis Public Radio's Shahla Farzan has the story.
SHAHLA FARZAN, BYLINE: In a dimly lit living room, Marie Andrews leans forward, takes the hand of Mary Bohley, and begins to pray.
MARIE ANDREWS: Light divine, remind us, in spite of all of our weakness...
FARZAN: Every week for the past two years, Andrews has visited Bohley at her home in St. Louis. Bohley is 93, and she's not able to make it to church anymore. She calls Andrews' visits a blessing, a lifeline to the outside world. And she prays for her.
MARY BOHLEY: Thank you, dear Jesus, for coming to me in this special way today through Marie.
FARZAN: As an officially sanctioned Eucharistic minister, Andrews carries a small wooden cross wrapped in cloth, along with a wafer. In addition to praying together, Andrews brings communion to Bohley. The bread was consecrated by a priest, something Andrews can't do because she's not ordained. She's not ordained because she's a woman.
ANDREWS: I have six brothers, and I am the only girl. And their saying was always, oh, with all these boys, surely one of them will be a priest. I am the only one who has consistently wanted to be a priest.
FARZAN: Andrews points out that while the Catholic Church doesn't ordain women as priests or deacons...
ANDREWS: I think it's important to know that women are doing this ministry without the orders. Edward Schillebeeckx, who's a huge Catholic theologian, says there is no lacking in ministry. There is only a lacking in orders.
FARZAN: In October, Pope Francis said he would reopen a commission to study the possibility of women deacons in the church. Deacons are allowed to oversee marriages and baptisms. But unlike priests, they cannot hear confession.
DAVID MECONI: The word deacon can mean simply servant, one who lays down his or her life for others in terms of whatever service is at hand.
FARZAN: Father David Meconi teaches theology at St. Louis University. He says the Bible mentions women deacons, but...
MECONI: There's no evidence whatsoever that the deaconate was open to men and women in terms of an ordained order.
FARZAN: Meconi points to the many roles open to women in the Catholic Church today, like campus ministers and pastoral associates. But he says restricting ordination to men is an essential part of the faith.
MECONI: We do belong to a religion in which God himself chose to become a man, and we believe that as God, he didn't participate in any kind of misogyny. And when he picked those 12 apostles, that's a divine, free act.
FARZAN: But some people who describe themselves as Catholics disagree, including Elsie McGrath. She says barring women from the clergy is a manmade rule, not a divine one. In fact, the 81-year-old feels so strongly about women in ministry, she did something radical in 2007. McGrath became an ordained priest.
ELSIE MCGRATH: This had nothing to do with me personally. This was what the spirit within me was leading me to, and I would find out along the way why.
FARZAN: For being ordained, McGrath was excommunicated. She now leads what she calls an inclusive Roman Catholic community in St. Louis.
(SOUNDBITE OF SERVICE)
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: This is the cup of the covenant in my blood, poured out for you.
FARZAN: The Archdiocese of St. Louis doesn't officially recognize the congregation, which meets at a Unitarian church. There are more than 200 women priests and deacons in the U.S. today, according to the Roman Catholic Women Priests association. McGrath says they're trying to show people what the church can be.
MCGRATH: Our choice is to remain in the church and effect change from the bottom up because that's the only way change ever happens anywhere.
FARZAN: McGrath believes the church will eventually accept female clergy, just not in her lifetime. For NPR News, I'm Shahla Farzan in St. Louis.
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