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Vatican City • Catholic sisters globally would be better-equipped to carry out their work if they could become deacons, the head of a global network of nuns has said, an important marker in the sharp debate over women deacons that Pope Francis opened last week.

"We are already doing so many things that resemble what a deacon would do, although it would help us to do a bit more service if we were ordained deacons," Sister Carmen Sammut, president of the International Union of Superiors General, or UISG, told Religion News Service.

Francis put a spring in the step of women religious Thursday when, in talking with Sammut and hundreds of UISG delegates, he agreed to set up a commission to examine whether women should be ordained as deacons — something that arguably hasn't been done since the early years of Christianity.

"I would like to constitute an official commission to study the question: I think it will be good for the church to clarify this point, I agree, and I will speak so as to do something of this type," the pope told the conference of sisters gathered in Rome to discuss key issues affecting their work.

In the days since the pontiff made those comments, the Vatican has tried to downplay expectations for the inquiry.

"The pope did not say he intends to introduce the ordination of female deacons and even less did he talk about the ordination of women as priests," the Rev. Federico Lombardi, the chief Vatican spokesman, said Friday.

The role of the deacon was created, as recounted in the New Testament, by the apostles so that they could deploy ministers specifically dedicated to doing charitable works and thus free themselves to focus on preaching.

In the Catholic tradition, the role of deacon was eventually subsumed into the priesthood and hierarchy, until the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s revived the diaconate as an ordained order open to "mature" men over 35, who can be married.

But many say that order should include women — who have never been ordained at any level in the Catholic Church — because women deacons are mentioned in early church sources. They also say ordaining women as deacons would not necessarily lead to overturning the ban on women priests.

It's not clear whether anything will come of a papal commission on deaconesses, or whether Francis would support an opening.

He has called for creativity in ministry but he has also warned against "clericalizing" women and laypeople by proposing ordination of some sort as the answer for every problem.

As pundits continue to debate whether Francis' decision will bear fruit, Sammut pushed for greater-than-usual diversity on any commission — even as she acknowledged that the Holy See is slow to change its ways.

The new body, the Maltese nun said in an interview Friday, should include both sexes and have a global perspective.

"Sometimes decisions are made here in Rome and it's not only that they're only men — no women — but also the other cultures are not very much included," Sammut said.

The UISG, she said, also aims to have more say in what goes on within the decision-making ranks of the Catholic Church, including challenging the way leadership is tied to being a cleric and therefore excluding women.

"It's not just a question of feminism, it's a question of our being baptized, that gives us the duty and the right to be part of the decision-making processes," said Sammut.

Women religious have felt empowered under the papacy of Francis, which the UISG head said has allowed them to "walk with more courage" in what can often be a dangerous job.

In March, four nuns in Yemen were killed in an attack on a Catholic nursing home, which was targeted by Islamist gunmen. The UISG meeting included prayers for the victims and for other nuns who have been raped or forced to leave their countries for violent conflicts or other reasons.

"We have a lot of sisters who are passing through a very hard time because the world has become a very hard place in which to live," Sammut said.

But she also said women religious did not want to abandon their communities during times of crisis:

"If you have been living in a country which is now at war, you don't want to leave the people just because you have the possibility to leave, while they have to continue living there."

The weeklong Rome meeting included testimony from UISG members living in countries hit by conflict, including Iraq and Syria, while other topics addressed included human trafficking and the U.N. goal for gender equality and female empowerment.

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