Vienna archbishop and Amazon Synod participant by special papal invitation Cardinal Christoph Schönborn has admitted giving women permission to preside at funerals, a ministry usually reserved to ordained men.

Driving the news

Schönborn made the admission in an interview with Vatican News, one of the Holy See’s official news outlets.

“I have certainly in the last years given a decree for presiding [over] funerals to women: at least thirty if not more women in the diocese of Vienna have the faculty of presiding funerals”, the cardinal explained.

“In our traditional Austrian Catholicism, a woman coming with the liturgical dress to preside [over] the funeral… It’s well-accepted”.

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The big picture

Schönborn was comparing the valuable contribution of Austrian Catholic women to that of their sisters in the Amazon, which the cardinal said he had come to better understand and appreciate from Synod discussions.

“What impressed me very much was what was said about the women there [in the Amazon], in the villages”, the cardinal explained.

“The women have a decisive role: they already do what is possible, what is not even an instituted ministry, but they do it, in fact. They baptise, they preside [over] funerals, they try to arrange who’ll bless marriages… These ministries we have in our diocese in Vienna”.

On the first day of Synod discussions, a missionary nun in Colombia, Sister Alba Teresa Cediel Castillo, said women Catholics in the Amazon perform baptisms, “witness” marriages and hear confessions, even if in this last case they do not give the absolutions reserved to priests.

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Go deeper

One of the proposals that came out of discussions in a majority of the Synod small working groups Friday was that of ordaining women to the diaconate, or of instituting some other new ministry for them to recognise their contribution to the Church.

But while Schönborn expressed some support for women deacons, he was less positive on the other majority Synod proposal: that of ordaining to the priesthood married men of proven virtue (viri probati).

The cardinal said he “voiced my surprise that the permanent diaconate is not so much present in Amazonia, while there is much discussion about the viri probati“.

The reforming Second Vatican Council “gave us the permission to ordain married men who have given a good witness of their family life, or their professional life, of their Christian faith, to be permanent deacons”, Schönborn recalled.

“So why not start with viri probati deacons in the villages? Prepare them as catechists, as deacons, before asking whether they can become priests?”, he continued, noting that “for every priestly ordination the first stage is to become a deacon”.

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Why it matters

Last Thursday, by special personal appointment, Pope Francis named Cardinal Schönborn to the group who will draft the final report of the Amazon Synod, along with Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, the chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences; Archbishop Edmundo Ponciano Valenzuela Mallid of Paraguay; and the Italian Father Rossano Sala.

On the editorial committee, Schönborn, Sorondo, Valenzuela and Sala will join the men elected by Synod participants on the first day of proceedings: Bishop Mário Antônio Da Silva from Brazil; Bishop Héctor Miguel Cabrejos Vidarte of Peru, the head of the Latin American Bishops Council (CELAM); Bishop Nelson Jair Cardona Ramírez of Colombia; and the Italian-born Archbishop Sergio Alfredo Gualberti Calandrina from Bolivia.

The remaining members of the editorial committee are German-Brazilian Synod General Relator Cardinal Clàudio Hummes, Synod General Secretary Lorenzo Baldisseri, the Maltese Pro-Secretary General Bishop Mario Grech, and two Special Secretaries: Cardinal Michael Czerny, S.J. of Canada and Spanish-born Bishop David Mártinez de Aguirre Guinea of Peru.

In terms of Schönborn’s involvement on the Synod editorial committee, it’s worth remembering that the cardinal in April last year appeared to go against the Church’s veto on ordaining women, explaining that “the question of the ordination [of women] is a question which clearly can only be clarified by a council”.

“That cannot be decided upon by a pope alone. That is a question too big that it could be decided from the desk of a pope”, Schönborn said.

In October last year, too, the cardinal expressed his hope that “one day” he will be able to ordain women to the diaconate.

“This is fundamentally possible”, he insisted.

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