The Pope recalled how the Syrian professor told him that "when there was a matrimonial judge because the husband beat the wife and she went to the bishop to complain, the deaconesses were in charge of looking at the bruises on the woman's body from her husband's beatings and informed the bishop."
"This, I remember," he said, noting that while the Church has already published documents on the topic of the permanent diaconate which touch on the topic of deaconesses, including a 2002 document from the International Theological Commission, the conclusion for modern times was still "unclear."
The document, which gave a thorough historical context of the role of the deaconess in the ancient Church, overwhelmingly concluded that female deacons in the early Church had not been equivalent to male deacons, and had "no liturgical function," nor a sacramental one.
It also maintained that even in the fourth century "the way of life of deaconesses was very similar to that of nuns."
However, given the lack of clarity on the issue today and due to the fact he was only speaking on the basis on his conversation with the Syrian professor, Francis said that "I think that I'll ask the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to refer me to the studies on the issue."
He also voiced his desire "to establish an official commission to clarify this point. I am in agreement, and I will speak to do something of this kind."
"To me it seems useful to have a commission that clarifies this well, above all regarding the ancient times of the Church."
In her question, the sister also asked the Pope to give an example of where he sees "the possibility of a better insertion of women and women consecrated in the life of the Church."
While concrete areas of insertion didn't immediately come to his mind, the Pope said that "consecrated women must participate" in consultations and assemblies with religious, "this is clear."
Women, he said, see things "with a different originality than that of men, and this enriches: both in consultations and in decisions, and in concreteness."
The work consecrated women carry out with the poor and marginalized, in teaching catechesis and accompanying the sick and the dying, "are very maternal works, where the maternity of the Church can be expressed more," he said.
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Updated May 13, 2016, 16:28 MDT to include Fr. Lombardi's comments.
Elise Harris was senior Rome correspondent for CNA from 2012 to 2018.