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Advocate for the Ordination of Women as Deacons, St. John’s Alumna Phyllis Zagano Awarded Prestigious Social Justice Award

Phyllis Zagano ’90G has made women’s issues in the Catholic Church her life’s work. Now the acclaimed Catholic scholar has added the 2014 Isaac Hecker Award for Social Justice to her long list of lifetime achievements.

Zagano joins social reformer Dorothy Day and civil rights activist Cesar Chavez as recipients of the award, which is named after Paulist Fathers’ founder Servant of God Rev. Isaac T. Hecker.”Her life and her work have consistently echoed the cry of the poorest of our society for dignity and for justice both inside and outside the church. This award honors Dr. Zagano’s exceptional efforts and lifelong commitment to the goals of Isaac Hecker,” says Susan Rutkowski spokesperson for the Boston Paulist Center, which made the award.

“It’s quite daunting to be in that company, and it’s an amazing experience to be chosen as an exemplar of a charism that’s been lived for over 100 years,” said Zagano, senior research associate-in-residence and adjunct professor of religion at Hofstra University. “It’s an honor that I’ll certainly carry with me throughout my life.”

A Paulist Press author for over 20 years, Zagano is the first Paulist writer to win the Hecker award. Her books for the press include Mysticism and the Spiritual Quest and Women in Ministry: Emerging Questions about the Diaconate. She is also author of the best-selling On Prayer: A Letter for My Godchild (Liguori) and the award-winning Holy Saturday: An Argument for the Restoration of the Female Diaconate in the Catholic Church (Crossroad).

While working as a researcher for the Archdiocese of New York, Zagano attended St. John’s University’s Queens campus, earning her master’s degree in theology. “The studies that I completed at St. John’s are the concluding studies for priesthood,” she said. “I wasn’t asking to be a priest—they were the only studies in theology available for me at the time.” 

Zagano advocates for having women join the diaconate of the Catholic Church. “There are 40,000 men—most of them married—ordained and ministering as deacons,” she said. “It seems to me that there’s an opening for women to serve.  With faculties, an ordained woman could legally preach at a Mass. If she had obtained the office of chancellor, she would be able to sign those documents, which as a non-cleric she cannot.  If she were a parish minister, she would be able to be the ordinary minster of baptism and marriage on behalf of the pastor.”

In June, Zagano will lead a free Massive Online Open Seminar (MOOS) through Hofstra University to talk about the diaconate for women. “It will be based on two of my books, Women Deacons: Past, Present, and Future (Paulist Press) and Ordination of Women to the Diaconate in the Eastern Churches (Liturgical Press),” she said. “We will discuss things like, ‘who were the women deacons in the early church?’ ‘What are the obstacles to women in the diaconate?’ and ‘What would it mean for women to be ordained?’”

In addition to the MOOS, Zagano often lectures on various topics relating to the Catholic Church. In September, she will deliver the Bishop Imesch Women in the Church Lecture at University of St. Francis, Joliet, Illinois.  Her book of daily meditations for Lent will be available in 2015 from Franciscan Media. She is continuing her work on women in the diaconate. “There’s a lot of discussion about the subject in the Church,” she said. “I am just trying to continue the discussion.”