Discerning Deacons: An Interview with Co-Directors Casey Stanton and Ellie Hidalgo
BY ISN STAFF | July 14, 2021
ISN spoke with Casey Stanton and Ellie Hidalgo, co-directors of Demanding deacons, a project launched in April 2021 committed to engaging Catholics in the Church’s active discernment on women and the diaconate.
In 2020, following the Synod of Bishops on the Amazon, where a majority of bishops were in favor of the ordination of women deacons, and where the Synod officially asked to share their “experiences and reflections” with a commission papal, Pope Francis has established a new commission that will begin meeting in the fall of 2021. The current work of Discerning Deacons supports educational opportunities and conversations in parishes and communities so that everyone can participate in discernment. Demanding deacons will bring the fruits of this discernment and the conversations that will take place across the country throughout the summer of 2021 directly to Pope Francis and members of the Papal Commission in October 2021..
The following is an edited version of ISN’s conversation with Casey and Ellie.
ISN: Can you tell us the story of the training of Discerning Deacons?
Casey: At the start of the pandemic, Luke Hansen and I hosted a virtual workshop called “Discern, Dream & Scheme”. The whole world was turned upside down, including our liturgical practice and our life in the Church. What if the Holy Spirit does something new about this crisis?
Ellie was one of nearly 50 people who answered yes to the invitation. She was mourning the sudden death of her younger brother in March and discerning if it was time to be closer to her family in Miami. It would mean leaving a place she had grown to love deeply, Dolores Mission Church in Los Angeles and the vibrant ministry there. It was a moment of discernment.
This is the origin story of Discerning Deacons. We did not start with the diaconate. We started with discernment. Listening. By telling our stories, reflecting on our experiences, noticing the movement of the Spirit through our lives and in the present moment.
And we dared to dream.
A number of the women in the workshop, holding their breath, had followed the conversation about women and the diaconate. They had read Dr. Phyllis Zagano’s books or attended his educational webinars. They knew that Pope Francis had decided to form another papal commission to discern the issue of women and the diaconate. He had resumed the conversation.
So a group emerged to plan a virtual prayer service for the feast of St. Phebe on September 3, 2020. The women in the workshop prepared to share their own testimonies of how they navigated a call to serve , to preach, to exercise ministry — in campus ministry, in chaplaincy, as physicians and retreat leaders, as lay church leaders in their dioceses. And we requested the intercession of Saint Phoebe for the discernment of the Church of Women Deacons and the papal commission formed to study the subject.
Ellie: Three months later, I joined the team to lead the next “Discerning, Dreaming & Schema” workshop during Advent.
Then, a few days before Christmas, we were invited to dream bigger than we thought. One person asked our hopes for sustaining the Church’s discernment around women and the diaconate – and what resources we would need.
So together, we went from discernment and dreaming to intrigue. Write a vision and make it clear. What if there was could to be a means of participating actively in the discernment of the Church? How could we do this without being pushed into ideological camps and reinforcing divisions? How can we remain rooted in our stories, our love for the Church and our fidelity to tradition and to the Holy Spirit?
NSI: Why you at the moment?
Ellie: Among the Co-Directors and an Assistant Director of Engagement (Lisa Amman), we have over 50 years of experience in ministry in churches and Catholic organizations at various times in our lives as a teacher, journalist, chaplain , campus minister, associate pastor, social justice advocate and adult faith educator.
The diaconate speaks to our own vocational desires to share the gospel and help advance our faith in the world. It is a testament to our desire to help our daughters and nieces to belong to a Church that recognizes and values their voices, so that children never again live our faith as “about the boys” as the girl declared. Lisa at the age of six.
Each of us has been inspired by the work taking place in the Amazon where bishops and laity have formed an ecclesial network to consult widely with their people and listen to the hopes, dreams, concerns and needs of the people. Over 87,000 men, women, clergy, laity, urban, rural, indigenous were consulted, with 90 percent of the region’s bishops participating in these listening sessions. With this type of consultative process, the issue of women’s leadership in the Church has become a priority issue for the Amazon Church.
ISN: Discerning Deacons has an impressive lineup of endorsers and advisers? How did these people connect to this work?
Casey: Relationships. We listened a lot. We were sometimes surprised that people opened up to share their own stories and hopes about what it might mean for women to be able to serve as deacons. And we realized we needed a way for people to publicly express these hopes, publicly express their prayers and encouragement for the discernment of the Church.
Ellie: We wanted to reach out and listen to those who led the way. We thought it was important to listen to deacons, especially deacons who are committed to growing up and educating the general public about the deacon’s vocation.
We wanted the guidance of a bishop to keep in touch with the pastors of the Church.
We wanted to honor those who led this dialogue, to seek their blessing, even as we try to develop the conversation and engage new people in discernment.
Casey: We know we’re a bit on a limb. We were not hired by the American Catholic Bishops to lead a formal process. But we also know that what we are doing is well within the tradition and the limits of our institutional church. We are living a question; we do not require a response.
We serve a process, with daring, courage and conviction, but also knowing that it is ultimately a decision that is beyond us and that we do not have a global vision.
ISN: Can you share any stories that illustrate the lived reality of the importance of this project?
Casey: In April, we conducted nearly 40 interviews with women in ministry in the United States today. We have heard deep stories of faithful commitment to the service of the Church.
One story that strikes me is that of a woman who had been formed by a religious community and who finally discerned a vocation to marriage. While raising her children, she occupied several “quarter-time” positions in her local parish: catechesis, sacramental formation, ministry at school. She was dedicated, even though she was underpaid.
Recently, a new priest arrived in his parish. She burst into tears as she remembered the impact it had on her: he is not interested in his experience or his wisdom, he ignores his training in theology and ministry, he comes pretending he knows the better, putting his voice largely out of the way. Every day she lives with that pain of not really being seen where she has served for decades.
We believe that this suffering can be alleviated by recognizing the gifts of women, listening to their stories of calling, discerning – and receiving them in the Lord – in the name of Jesus and as called by Jesus to serve the Church formally in as a deacon. It could have a huge effect on our Church.
Ellie: A woman told a painful story of accompanying her sister to meet a priest for spiritual support after her sister had a miscarriage. They met a busy priest who had some rote prayers over her and sent her on his way. Her sister left the Catholic Church after this experience because the priest did not have the pastoral capacity to care for her with the pastoral awareness and care she needed.
I empathize with priests who are stretched beyond their capabilities. What if our model of Church leadership was deeply collaborative and fully embraced the gifts of women?especially to meet the distinct pastoral needs of women. Imagine if the priest could have called in a woman deacon that the parishioner could meet to discuss the experience of her miscarriage. Instead, there is a lot of silent suffering. Some simply walk away and seek membership or care outside of the Church. Women called, trained and ordained deacons could be a fruitful response to the urgent needs of God’s people to be cared for, fed and to feel considered part of the ecclesial community.
Join with Demanding deacons by subscribing to their newsletter – and save the date of the next virtual liturgy to celebrate the feast of Saint Phoebe, diakonia, September 3 at 7 p.m.