Pope Francis set up a committee on Tuesday to look into the historical role of female assistant priests, or deacons, in early Christianity, a highly controversial topic in the male-dominated Catholic Church.
Today's deacons are ordained men who perform some priestly functions, but are not full-fledged priests. For example, they can bless people, preach the Gospel and baptize. But they cannot celebrate Mass, take confessions or grant absolutions. They can be married.
"After intense prayer and mature reflection, His Holiness has decided to set up a Study Committee on the Female Diaconate," a Vatican statement said, giving the names of its 13 members.
The committee should look at whether women who helped priests in the first centuries of the Catholic Church can be considered deacons. If that were confirmed, the case for opening the role to both men and women - a historic reform - would receive a major boost.
Luis Francisco Ladaria Ferreri, a 72-year-old Spanish archbishop, was picked as chairman of the new panel. He is the secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican's watchdog on Catholic doctrine.
Ferreri will lead a group comprising six women and seven men, nine members of the Catholic clergy and four theology professors. The Vatican did not indicate when the committee is expected to finish its work.
In May, when he announced plans to call on experts to examine the issue, Francis said during a Vatican audience with an international nuns' organization that it would be "good for the church" to set the historical record straight on women deacons.
But in June, returning from a trip to Armenia, Francis said people had read too much into his words, and declared himself "a bit angry with the media" for suggesting that he had opened the door to women deacons.