Barbara Anderson is hopeful that a new commission appointed by Pope Francis to study women deacons could open up new opportunities in the Catholic Church.
But more important, she says, is the new perspective that ordained women could bring to the church.
"It's exciting that he has decided to explore what Scripture and history tell us about the role of women in the church, and that this opportunity could be open to women someday," said Anderson, one of the few women to have run a parish in the Archdiocese of Baltimore. "I think it says the role of women in the church is a very important one."
The Vatican announced the commission Tuesday. In a statement, officials said the panel would study the role female deacons played in Christianity's first few centuries.
Francis has long indicated that he will not consider the ordination of women as priests, but in cracking open the door to the possibility of ordaining women as deacons, he has given hope to those who have long pressed for fuller participation by women in the church.
Deacons form the lowest order of ordained clergy in the Roman Catholic Church, after bishops and priests. All are men.
Broadly, they come in two categories: transitional deacons, who are seminarians preparing for the priesthood, and permanent deacons. Permanent deacons may be married; they are often mature family men who assist parish priests or lead parishes themselves.
Deacons perform many of the functions of priests: They may preach the Gospel and deliver the homily at Mass, and they may perform some sacraments, including baptism and matrimony. They do not hear confessions or consecrate the bread and wine for the Holy Eucharist.
There are currently about 18,000 deacons in the United States, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Their number has nearly doubled over the past 20 years, as the population of priests has declined.
Francis' decision comes nearly three months after he met with the International Union of Superiors General, a global group of nuns. Asked about the ordination of women as deacons, he said the Vatican should consider the possibility.
The Vatican said Tuesday that the pontiff reached his decision after "intense prayer and mature reflection."
The question of women serving as deacons goes back to the earliest days of Christianity.
In his Epistle to the Romans, Paul described a woman named Phoebe as a deacon — and entrusted her with delivering the letter.
Advocates for the ordination of women also cite Dionysia, a fifth-century martyr; Radegund, the patron saint of several churches in Western Europe; and Macrina, a fourth-century ascetic, as female leaders who worked alongside men.
After Francis made his remarks in May, the Vatican released a statement outlining the history of the diaconate. The Vatican said deacons "flourished in the western Church" up to the fifth century, "but experienced a slow decline" in the following centuries and ultimately "surviving only as an intermediate stage for candidates preparing for priestly ordination."
The church revived the permanent diaconate after the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.
Scholars still debate the role women played in the early church. Some believe, for example, that women could minister only to other women. Francis himself echoed the uncertainty in May, when he said "understanding about their role in the early Church remains unclear."
It "would be useful to set up a commission" to explore the matter, he told the nuns.
He named a dozen members to the commission, including nuns, laywomen and priests.
History shows that such commissions tend to move slowly, toward recommendations that are nonbinding.
But Anderson is hopeful. She called Francis "someone who likes to get things done."
Advocates for women in the priesthood say the commission is a step in the right direction.
The Women's Ordination Conference said it "welcomes and is encouraged by Pope Francis' gender-balanced and lay-inclusiveappointmentsto study women deacons in the early church."
"The commission to study the diaconate for women is an important step for the Vatican in recognizing its own history of honoring women's leadership," the group said in a statement.
Anderson spent nine years as pastoral life director of St. Anthony's Shrine Parish in Emmitsburg and Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Roman Catholic Church in Thurmont.
The church created the role in 1983. Should a "dearth of priests" occur, according to the relevant canon law, a bishop may "entrust ... the exercise of the pastoral care of a parish ... to a deacon or to some other person who is not a priest," so long as such leadership took place under a priest's supervision.
This official — to be known as a pastoral life director or parish director — could be a man or a woman.
Cardinal William H. Keeler appointed the Baltimore Archdiocese's first few female pastoral life directors in the early 2000s.
Anderson said it was richly rewarding to partake in the fullness of the church.
"I worked with people at every stage of life, in good times and bad times," she said.
Anderson is now director of faith formation at St. Mary's Parish in Annapolis. She said the pope's commission "could open up some interesting opportunities."
If women are ordained, she said, they would be able to bring a new perspective to the pulpit, just as married men have as permanent deacons.
Anderson said women should realize that the church offers a variety of leadership roles for women today — the chancellor of the Archdiocese of Baltimore and its superintendent of schools are women, she pointed out — and if women were to become deacons, she's concerned that fewer might serve in lay positions.
Change in the church is always slow, she said, but with Francis at the helm, movement could come more quickly than some expect.
"It has been three months since he said he was considering this, and he has already formed a commission," she said. "I'm not sure we could do that at the diocesan level."