Pope Francis met with an international conference of nuns on Thursday, where he agreed to take a second look at the rules preventing women from acting in the role of deacon in the Roman Catholic Church.
The move could result in a historic opening of more prestigious religious positions within the church to women, who currently have only a limited range of positions from which to choose.
And typical for "the People's Pontiff," known for his candor, he agreed to the request spontaneously during a question and answer meeting with a group of nuns. One of the nuns from the group asked the pope if he would be willing to construct a commission to examine the rules behind the exclusion of women from being deacons.
"Constituting an official commission that might study the question?" the pontiff asked aloud at the meeting, reported the National Catholic Reporter. "I believe yes. It would do good for the church to clarify this point. I am in agreement."
Deacons are ordained members of the clergy in the Roman Catholic Church and rank below priests. They work beside bishops, priests, and other staff members of churches and are capable of preaching during worship services, baptizing, witnessing marriages, and conducting funeral services, according to the Diocese of Manchester. Currently the position is only open to men over the age of 35, who are allowed to marry.
The current version of the deacon role is a result of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, which sought to restore the diaconate after centuries of decline. After the 5th century, the diaconate became a stopping ground for men preparing to be priests, according to the Vatican Radio. Prior to that, in the early centuries of the church, women were likely welcomed alongside men as deacons.
"Many experts believe that women should also be able to serve in this role, since there is ample evidence of female deacons in the first centuries, including one named Phoebe who is cited by St. Paul in his letter to the Romans," the Vatican Radio stated in a broadcast following Pope Francis’s remarks.
The pope himself reflected on a meeting in the past with a "good, wise professor" who had studied the role of early female deacons, according to the Reporter.
"It was a bit obscure," said Francis. "What was the role of the deaconess in that time?"
The potential commission Pope Francis agreed to create does not necessarily mean women will be allowed to become deacons, but it points to a willingness to open the Catholic church, at least partially, to more women. The point was echoed throughout Thursday's meeting with the international group of nuns and many of his actions as pope.
In September 2015, Francis advocated for equal pay, calling the gender wage gap "pure scandal." The comments came weeks after he authorized Catholic priests to grant forgiveness to women who had had abortions, a controversial topic within the church. Early in 2016, the pope also upset conservative members by overturning a century of tradition that banned women from a foot-washing service during Lent.
The decisions have largely been welcome by pro-women activists, but have not shielded the pope from criticism that he has not done enough to advance the role of women within the church.
During the meeting the pope admitted the church needed to offer religious female workers more respect.
"Your vocation is for service, service to the church … but not of servitude,” said Francis.