Yesterday, Pope Francis made headlines when he agreed to set up a commission to study opening the diaconate to women. The unexpected news brought much joy to the many women who are called to serve as deacons in the Church. Maria Angelika Fromm is one of those women. Upon hearing the news, Angelika wrote to WOC:
My first reaction was joy. There is movement. My second reaction was that women need ordination too, not simply a blessing, and not something separate or different from men. The permanent diaconate should be the same for men and women, and together they can minister for the special needs of the people. This would be a step toward ministries without hierarchy. Lastly, the Commission should include theological, pastoral, and historical specialists, men and women, who have worked for decades on this issue.
This is Maria Angelika Fromm’s story about her call to serve in the diaconate.
I was born into a very Catholic family in the German Democratic Republic, known as East Germany, in 1951. In those days, everyone who disapproved of Communism could mainly chose between fleeing the country or retiring to a private life. For my family, living the Catholic faith and having a close bond with our church community was radical in the political climate. My naive-pious grandmother in particular gave me the foundation for a deep faith. Instead of joining the youth organization “Junge Pioniere,” I went to religious education classes in the afternoons and realized that politically, this was not approved of by the teachers. This made me stand up for my faith and live with the negative consequences from an early age.
When the political pressure increased, my family decided to risk the flight. As poor refugees, we moved to a Protestant neighborhood of Lower Saxony in former West Germany. Again, I found myself in the position of being an outsider, as the daughter of poor refugees and as a Catholic in a Protestant community. I continued to stand up for Catholicism, in a very traditional way, before the Second Vatican Council. My faith gave me strength in this position as an outsider.
I started reflecting on my faith in my teenage years, and, caught in the spirit of Vatican II, started studying the bible intensely. I soon discovered the question of women’s rights in the church. I asked myself, why are women so irrelevant in the Roman Catholic Church when Jesus of Nazareth had no problem including them in his circle of disciples and as leaders in his ministry? I also became aware of the fact that in the early church, women were deacons.
Full of enthusiasm, I decided to study theology in Münster, where many important theologians of Vatican II were teaching. In their traditional way of thinking, my family could not understand this decision and I had no financial support. Regardless, I knew being in charge of a parish was my vocation. Following Vatican II, I was full of hope that the church would allow women to hold office. At that time, a feminist approach to theology was not known in Germany. However, I wrote my thesis on the role of women in the New Testament. This thought was new and had to be approved by the University.
I completed my studies in 1973 and took a position as a middle-school teacher for German and religious education. The office of pastoral associate had not yet been established, but I was volunteering for pastoral care at my school and in the parish. Regardless of my title, I was in charge of my parish’s liturgy without a problem, and I could feel the spirit of change within the German church. With my own family growing, I continued teaching and developed children’s and family church services. I was happy whenever I could read books about feminist theology, which was established in Germany in the late seventies. I lived my visions of holding an office through my volunteer work developing liturgies, and as a teacher for children and youth catechesis. The longer I established myself within my parish, the more I began to win over many of the parishioners with my new findings concerning feminist theology and women’s rights.
Then in 1994 I was hit by disappointment when women were officially excluded from clerical office by the Roman bulletin Ordinatio sacerdotalis, despite all the beautiful words about women’s dignity from John Paul II. It was now obvious that the unjust canon – Canon 1024—was going to remain untouched and that the gaps within the hierarchy of the church were going to increase. I had reached a dead end.
Hope emerged in 1995, when the We Are Church movement started in Austria and Germany. It seemed like a new chance to get the rigid church moving again together with like-minded people. From its beginning, I enthusiastically participated within the movement, pushing for equal rights for women within the church.
In 1996, I was one of the co-founders of Women’s Ordination Worldwide (WOW) at the European Women’s Synod in Gmunden, Austria. It was here that I noticed the purple stole on Myra Poole and Valerie Strout, women’s ordination advocates from the UK. Inspired by the idea, I brought purple stoles to Germany and together with other women of the We are Church movement, we expanded its meaning to be a visible symbol of demonstration for the equality of women in a changed and renewed Roman Catholic Church. Since the hierarchy denied feminist theologians from even discussing women’s ordination, the only thing left to do was to protest, in a public display of the truth.
During our demonstrations in the ensuing years, we have had hundreds of conversations with members of many parishes who do not have a problem picturing a woman pastor in today’s Germany.
In addition to my activism for women in the church, I continued to be committed to pastoral care and service to people on a volunteer basis. How I live and what I do is based on my vocation to be a deacon. The service of a deacon, the way of life, exemplified by Jesus, is a basic function of the church and is a viable option for women. Furthermore, a number of German theologians agree that administering the sacraments is part of liturgy—that women are already functioning as deacons. I do not believe that the 2000-year-old office of the priest, embossed by men, with exceptions in the early church, is desirable for women. Today, we need an office based on partnership. The permanent diaconate brought into being after Vatican II, has unfortunately not been opened for women yet. I believe opening the diaconate for women, based in partnership, would be a trend-setting way for the church to further develop this office and furnish it with new powers.
There is also a spiritual reason for my vocation. The phrase “scars are eyes” can be applied to my life. Many obstacles in my life, including flight from East Germany, divorce, and illness have opened my eyes to the misery of others. I consider it my obligation as a woman deacon to minister to those pushed to the margins and to meet them at eye level. After being pushed out of the parishes in my diocese because of my criticizing the church, I went back to university to study Islam and I have been participating in interreligious/intercultural dialogue for some years now. I have a vision of being a woman deacon who serves as mediator and bridge builder between the religions and cultures.
The continual unfolding of the healing feminine influence and the commitment to a joint understanding of peace and justice in our societies, despite crisis, are sources of energy for me, which let me prophetically live and endure in the Roman Catholic church.
Maria Angelika Fromm writes to us from Mainz, Germany.