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By Claudio Lavanga

ROME, Italy — Pope Francis has established a commission to study whether woman should be allowed to become deacons — one rank below a priest — in the Catholic Church, Vatican officials said Tuesday.

Although deacons cannot celebrate Mass, the move represents a potentially historic shift towards a more active role for women in the church.

The change was signaled by Francis during a meeting with the International Union of Superiors General (UISG) on May 12 when a nun reminded him that women are believed to have served as deacons in the early years of the church, and asked him: “Why not construct an official commission that might study the question?"

Pope Francis meets volunteers in Poland on Sunday for World Youth Day 2016.MACIEJ KULCZYNSKI / EPA

He agreed, replying: “Yes, It would be good for the Church to clarify this point.”

The Vatican confirmed Tuesday that the commission has been created. “After intense prayer and mature reflection, Pope Francis has decided to institute the Commission for the Study of the Diaconate of Women,” it said in a statement.

The commission will be composed of “six women and six men from academic institutions around the world,” including Phyllis Zagano, an American Catholic scholar based in New York and lecturer on contemporary spirituality and women's issues in the church, the statement said.

The Women's Ordination Conference advocacy group said the creation of the commission was “an important step for the Vatican in recognizing its own history of honoring women’s leadership,” citing Biblical and historical evidence for women leaders in the early years of the church.

“Only when women are equally included in all ordination rites — as deacons, priests, and bishops — and at all Church decision-making tables, can we begin to restore our Gospel values of equality and justice.”

Catholic deacons can teach, baptize and conduct funeral services.

Alastair Jamieson contributed.