The following are excerpts from an interview between WOC executive director, Kate McElwee (KM) and Cindi “Sam” Bowns (SB) first published in the Spring 2017 issue of New Women, New Church. Sam has discerned a vocation to the diaconate and advocates for the restoration of ordained women deacons in the Roman Catholic Church. A PDF version of the full interview is available to current WOC members in the “Members'” section of this website.
KM: Why the diaconate? What about this vocation speaks to your gifts or heart?
SB: I was raised United Methodist because my grandparents had left the Catholic Church due to mistreatment by a parish priest. They were poor immigrants from Italy and after my grandfather died and my grandmother could no longer make the stipends for memorial masses, the priest refused to do any more for my grandfather. This threw the family into an uproar about Catholicism. When I returned to the Catholic Church two generations later, there was quite an upheaval in the immediate and extended family. No one in the family attended the baptism of our last child who is the first “cradle Catholic” in two generations. (Let me add, everyone within our family has returned to the Catholic Church, but that’s another story…)
Diakonos, the Greek word for deacon, means “service” and I fell in love with the concept during my husband’s diaconal formation, an education and training on which I accompanied him. There was a “rightness” to the notion that mirrored something deep in my soul—something I had felt called to since I was a kid. I was called to service in our Methodist Youth Ministry and did much as from eleven years on up: teaching younger children in Bible Camp, volunteering in a Senior Center weekly, helping in art and environment as a young teen, singing in the choir, etc. I loved altar calls—when you come forward to the altar and dedicate your life to Jesus—and I was one of the few pre-teens to ever come forward.
Ministering together with my husband has also been one of the high points of our marriage. Just this past weekend, my husband and I had been invited to a local parish to jointly preach a homily and I was once again affirmed by people’s comments that I was answering a call from God as deacon. Time and time again, this vocation has been affirmed by the people in our community, as well as my friends and family. Circumstances constantly arise in my life giving me opportunity to serve and be affirmed as a deacon.
KM: In your personal discernment and with your community, did you ever consider or discern a call to the priesthood?
SB: Being a strong advocate for women’s restoration to the diaconate, I have thought about this question, because “women in ordained ministry” is a justice issue for me. Women were part of the diaconate from the first moments of the fledgling Christian community. We have Scriptural evidence to support this and an abundance of archeological and written evidence outside of canon as well. We have the same evidence that women were called to priesthood by their communities in the early Christian communities. The burying of our response to women’s ministry repeatedly throughout the centuries is personally bothersome, painful, and sinful, in my opinion. In our world, in almost every endeavor, we see what women can bring to the table and to waste the gifts sent by the Spirit for the entire spiritual and religious community is poor stewardship, even if you left the justice issue out. Jesus must weep over this. He was surrounded by women and called on them on many occasions to inform others of the Good News.
KM: What are your hopes for Pope Francis’ Commission on studying the diaconate?
SB: I hope they will acknowledge the historical fact that women were called forth by their various communities to act in diaconal ministry until the 12th century in the West and in some churches in the East, until this very day. We have historians, church fathers and theologians throughout the centuries that affirm this, not to mention ordination rites still in existence, that confirm this as well. I often laugh at the folks who say this wasn’t valid ordination, but the fact of the matter is that the bishops laid hands on the men in proximity of the altar and followed the very same action for the women called to the diaconate in the early years. So if one was ordained (even though ordination has evolved through the ages to mean something else entirely different than the ancient understanding of ordo, “a calling” to now “a conferral upon”) then the other was ordained.
I am particularly hopeful, since the last two commissions on this subject found no Scriptural or traditional prohibition against women’s return, that this commission will do the same but have enough publicity to perhaps gain meaningful traction for women’s restoration to this time honored ministry. The fact that Dr. Phyllis Zagano is on the commission is a hopeful sign to me. She is renown for her historical and theological research on the matter and her appointment will provide wisdom and cogent arguments in favor of women in this ministry. The Pope certainly knew who she was and what she has stood for before he appointed her, so I’m hopeful that that means he is willing to have an open mind on the situation. Restoring women to the diaconate would be a practical way to include women in more prominent positions of authority and to promote ministerial collaboration between men and women to become better disciples of Christ.
My prayer is that the people in institutional power (the hierarchy) will listen to the Spirit of God and reflect on how women played such an important part in this ministry, historically. They also need to reflect on Jesus’ ministry and St. Paul’s, both who used women in significant missions of spreading the Good News, i.e., the Samaritan Woman was a perfect example. Not to mention Phoebe of Cenchrae and then Mary of Magdala who is first in all four Canonical Gospels to witness the Risen One.
WOC delivered dozens of “Valentines For Equality” to the CDF in Rome February 14, 2017.
KM: How do you see the role of deacons for the future?
SB: I see the need for deacons to be able to continue to serve the people sacramentally and that will not change in the near future. In fact I think the diaconate will continue to expand more quickly as priests become more scarce, but I wish their training focused more on the Greek interpretation of “diaconos” as “service” and less on altar duty. All too frequently, in my experience, deacons love their altar work more than their service work. That’s not to say that there aren’t wonderfully committed men devoted to good works but there are also a number of the men, who consider themselves “mini-priests” because they believe that gives them more authority and standing in the community. I dislike that attitude and think it adds to the rampant clericalism out there. I also wish their training was more standardized—it varies so from diocese to diocese and having a Masters of Divinity myself, I see some big holes in their formation, theologically. I’m not saying that they should have the same education as required for the priesthood, because these are two separate ministries, asking different charisms to shine forth, but there needs to be some kind of standardization in formation and perhaps a better understanding of the Church’s history and theology.
KM: What don’t most people know about the diaconate, or what would you want more people to know?
SB: I think it’s sad that the folks in the pew have been deprived of learning about the history of women in the diaconate throughout many centuries. When the diaconate died out, many of the service duties naturally fell to religious orders, primarily women’s religious orders and those services have been carried out by women all over the world up to the present time.
Most people don’t know that there have been two Vatican commissions on women in ministry already. Neither have found Biblical or traditional prohibitions against women in the diaconate. I hope that the current commission will not just be window-dressing but will be an instrument in the Spirit’s hands to change some of the things that need to be changed in our church. Many women have suggested over the years that if women stopped what they were doing for the church for even a month, that the consequences would be dramatic. Eighty percent of the church’s ministries are held by women. That would be very telling to the people in the pews.
There are so many women in the Catholic Church who possess phenomenal gifts that are just waiting in the wings to flower in diaconal ministry. While I may never be ordained in my lifetime, I am hopeful that young women of spiritual beauty and passion will be given the opportunity to serve the community from incredible gifts and love. Everyone has a piece of the wisdom and a gift to give —it is time for the church to become a better steward of the great gifts that are not being shared among the people of god. Paraphrasing from Lumen Gentium, it is time for the church to judge the affairs of the day in the light of the Gospel.