Phyllis Zagano was close to the altar as Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass in Central Park in 1995 when she realized she was the only woman near him. "It was just a sea of men," she recalled.
It was a metaphor for the church and its hierarchy, she said, but she hopes that will soon change. She is advocating for women to be made deacons -- ordained ministers who perform some of the same duties as priests, including preaching at Mass, witnessing marriages and conducting baptisms.
"It is within the tradition of the church. It is within the scope of reason," said Zagano, a Hofstra University research associate and co-author of a new book pushing the idea of female deacons. "People look a little askance, I think, at the Catholic Church when you look up at a major celebration and it's all male, all the time. It just looks funny these days."
Permanent deacons -- male and female -- were common in the early Christian church, but were largely phased out more than 800 years ago as the priesthood grew stronger, said Gary Macy, a professor of theology at Santa Clara University and a co-author with Zagano of "Women Deacons: Past, Present, Future."
They were restored in the 1960s as part of the Vatican II reforms. Today, there are about 36,000 worldwide, half of them in the United States, all of them men.
While there is some overlap in their functions, clear differences separate priests and deacons, Zagano said. Married men, with rare exception, cannot become priests but can become deacons and typically hold down full-time jobs outside the church as they support their families. Deacons cannot preside over Mass, hear confession or administer last rites as priests do.
Deacons go through several years of part-time study in theology, pastoral counseling and other areas before they are ordained. One Catholic advocacy group, Cleveland-based FutureChurch, has launched a postcard campaign to pressure the Vatican to approve female deacons and received 3,000 responses since May, said the group's executive director, Sister Christine Schenk. "It's a scandal we don't integrate the gifts of women into church leadership," she said.
The Rev. W. Shawn McKnight, head of the office that oversees the deacon topic for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the bishops' main umbrella group, said the question of female deacons "is not as definitively closed as is the question of women priests. But that isn't to say that it's a likely happening, either."
One key Vatican document -- the 1994 apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis from Pope John Paul II -- expressly prohibits female priests but "does not address specifically the diaconate," McKnight said. "It carefully avoids that."
The Rev. Thomas Reese, a senior fellow at Georgetown University's Woodstock Theological Center, said it is unlikely the Vatican will approve female deacons. "In the practical sense, I don't think the Vatican is open to talking about this," he said. "They would see it as opening up the door for women priests."
William Donohue of the conservative Manhattan-based Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights believes that is precisely what advocates of female deacons are seeking to do. "Do they really want to get to third base knowing they can't get home?" Donohue said.
But Zagano said priests and deacons are two entirely separate vocations. While the Vatican has definitively ruled out female priests, the book's authors said, it has left the question of female deacons open.
"It's certainly much more possible than women priests. I think it's quite possible in our lifetime that we will have permanent women deacons," Macy said.
In the early Christian church, deacons were "right-hand men" -- and women -- to bishops, serving as their eyes, ears, heart and soul out among the population, and engaging in social ministry such as feeding the hungry and tending to the sick, Macy said. The church had deacons long before it had priests.
Female deacons were especially needed for such functions as baptisms of women, who were fully immersed in water and had to change their clothes, he said.
Zagano, Macy and their other co-author, William Ditewig, a former head of the U.S. bishops office for deacons, want the church to go back to its past. "I think the church is growing up and I think it's growing up to return to its roots to recognize women are capable of doing what clergy can," Zagano said.
"This is not a radical idea," she added. "We're a bunch of academics. We're not bomb throwers."
Comparing Roman Catholic priests and deacons
Both deacons and priests can preach at Mass, witness marriages and conduct baptisms.
Only priests can hear confessions, preside over Mass and perform last rites.
Married men can become deacons, but in general they cannot become priests (one exception is married priests from the Anglican Communion transferring to the Catholic Church). Once ordained, neither priests nor deacons can marry.
Deacons typically hold down full-time jobs outside their work with the church. Part of their assignment also often includes a social ministry outside their parish such as serving as a chaplain at a hospital or prison, as well as counseling parishioners and instructing people in the faith.