Marquette: Pastoral Letter on Permanent Diaconate

Bishop Alexander K. Sample of the Diocese of Marquette, MI has issued the pastoral letter: “The Deacon: Icon of Jesus Christ, the Servant.”

Here is the bishops’ newspaper column on the letter.

Story summarizing the letter, a brochure for parishes, and the bishop’s audio message – all here.

Pray Tell comment: As the priesthood shortage becomes quite dire in coming years, it will be interesting to observe the effects upon the permanent diaconate. Of course, the permanent diaconate is an order in its own right, not a stop-gap because of the shortage or priests. But as the shortage worsens, I’m sure the guys in the diaconate will be ready to serve any way they can.  –  awr

H/T: Deacon’s Bench.


  1. This should excite some commentary:
    The permanent deacon may be entrusted with the homily at Mass on
    certain occasions, in other words from time to time, as circumstances
    suggest. This should not occur, however, on a routine or regularly
    scheduled basis

    I wonder if this will also be enforced in the case of transitional deacons. For some reason, I suspect not.

    1. I’m curious why permanent deacons should not be “routine” homilists. Do they not receive the same level of training and education in this area as a transitional deacon?

      1. …and in my experience, the homilies they give are usually of well-above-average quality for the parish!

    2. I wonder how St. Stephen would have responded to a restriction placed on his preaching…

      Though I do get the argument that the celebrant and presider at the Table should ideally be the same person. In the Reformed tradition that is why we call them “Ministers of Word and Sacrament.”

      1. But in pontifical Masses, it is not the bishop who reads the Gospel, but a deacon. The bishop is usually the one to give the homily, but not the one who reads the Word.

  2. But the quote you cite concerns permanent deacons. A transitional deacon is not a permanent deacon, so why would this directive be enforced in their case? The directive seems to be pretty specific to make the distinction.

    1. Because few take that argument seriously, that’s why. On this point, Mr Peters is good at illustrating the American inability to appreciate the Roman art of having laws that are not intended to be implemented with the mindset of the Anglosphere. And he and his son are also good at making sure these opinions get resuscitated flogged about in the usual quarters of blogdom….

    2. I myself have no opinion to express on this particular matter, it being a matter of law and not opinion, while I am no canon lawyer.

      However, more generally, I wonder whether the Church is not entering an era in which there is more emphasis on living by its law, following an era of selective implementation (as of the canon law requiring that seminarians be well-instructed in Latin before ordination).

      1. Selective implementation is much more customary in Roman law than in the law of the Anglosphere. Roman legal culture gives a great deal of deference in practice to discretionary non-enforcement. Given that there has been no significant effort in 3 decades to apply the applicable canon in the way that Dr Peters suggests, one can argue that such application is at the very least in doubt and thus does not necessarily bind. Et cet. To now try to apply it in that way might itself face a sticky canonical wicket.

      2. It is my understanding that the permanent deacons must vow not to remarry should their wives pre-decease them – sort of a law-away vow of celibacy! It’s rather insulting to the deacons, their wives and their marriages!

        Any society that allows for “selective implementation” is a society not ruled by law but by men.

  3. Jay Taylor :

    …and in my experience, the homilies they give are usually of well-above-average quality for the parish!

    My experience has been quite the opposite, both home and away dioceses. Rambling, poor projection and enunciation, self-centered, pietistic, weakest of links to a word or line from Liturgy of the Word as leverage to speak on unrelated subjects.

    I have heard of no diocese having pubic speaking training for deacons. StL had restricted preaching faculties at one point pending further training, but I have not seen results.

    This talk of deacons taking up slack in priest shortage bothers me. It was made quite clear by USCCB that diaconate was its own ministry when opened to married men and should not be sought as a leg up to the possibility of becoming a married priest.

    In StL, there seem to be many who went for those motives anyway. I have heard some say so. What they actually do in the way of diaconal ministry seems no different from what men like my father have done for decades via VdP, Holy Name, etc. or they are professionals such as psychologists who have specialized within church institutions or who manage church orgs. Nevertheless, they are very insistent on their “rights” to very visible places at Sunday Mass with few apparent skills in speaking, singing, or presiding.

    Some of this seems unjust to those who may have felt a call to priestly ministry and abstained from the diaconate as not being their call.

    1. This talk of deacons taking up slack in priest shortage bothers me. It was made quite clear by USCCB that diaconate was its own ministry when opened to married men and should not be sought as a leg up to the possibility of becoming a married priest.

      Tom, I think you have misunderstood the “taking up slack” talk. It is not that permanent deacons would be ordained as priests, but that they could serve as pastoral life directors of parishes without priests as well as take on some of the burden of doing baptisms, weddings, wakes, etc. I don’t think this is a particularly good way to think about the diaconate, but I don’t know of any serious talk about ordaining permanent deacons to the priesthood. In fact, I don’t know of anyone who has been ordained to the permanent diaconate who has entertained any fantasies about it being some sort of prelude to priestly ordination.

      Also, I am sorry that you experience of deacons has led you to have such a low opinion of us.

      1. I was a transitional deacon for 29 months which has inclined me to be a great supporter of permanent deacons. Sadly, I know many priests and some bishops who denigrate deacons or who don’t give them enough credit for their ministry. I presently work with two deacons who preach on every 3rd and 5th Sundays of the month. One is a superb homilist and the other is more challenged in terms of articulation but is warmly admired and respected.

        Both of them would be effective priests but our bishops are committed to a going out of business plan that keeps their heads firmly buried in the sand. They will go to their graves boldly defending mandatory priestly celibacy while seeming to care less about parish after parish being closed.

    2. My experience varies – some deacons are good homilists, some are not. Some priests are good homilists, some are not. I knew one man who was a fine priest in every other way who was a terrible public speaker, and he knew it. He did wonderful work on an individual basis, but he and everyone else would have been much happier had he been able to designate an alternate to deliver the homily.

  4. The emphasis upon specific services and needy persons as well as the deacon as a model for the apostolate of the laity are very welcome aspects of this pastoral letter. I would go further than the bishop in these directions.

    Service to the poor and needy is an essential aspect of worship. As Isaiah Ch. 1 says, our liturgies are loathsome if we are unjust and do not take care of the least of society. The prominent role of deacons in the Roman liturgy (gospel) and Byzantine liturgy (litanies) are reminders of this essential characteristic of our liturgies. I would go further and give priority to choosing readers, Eucharistic ministers, and servers from among those involved in service ministries not only of parish but also of the community. (keeping with the deacon as a model for the apostolate of the laity).

    Social service needs to be as important if not more important than religious education in the life of our parishes. Historically it was more important in the early church, given the extensive number of deacons. I particularly welcome the bishop’s idea of commissioning deacons to particular service ministries rather than allowing them to become another general pastoral minister catering to the sacramental and education ministries of the parish. Not only deacons but also laity are drawn into helping priests in these ministries focused on the interior life of the church rather than becoming models of the laity serving others, especially in the community.

    The opportunities to “become the servant of all” are endless. Let me mention two.

    Many elderly in their eighties live alone and need help and companionship. Their peers have died or become disabled, their children not yet retired. Our parishes need to organize as retirement communities who care for those in their eighties.

    People with mental illness need parish based support systems that integrate them into the life of the larger community.

    We could use many, many more deacons in these and other areas.

  5. I would caution against construing diakonia too narrowly. Historically, deacons have engaged in a pretty wide variety of ministries, not all of which have fallen under our modern notion of “social service.”

    1. Fritz,

      For both presbyters and deacons, there have been a wide variety of historical tasks. So while drawing upon historical examples, none of them tell us how we should or must do ministry today.

      However our present problem is that we have only pastors and pastoral ministers. Deacon has become just a title for an “ordained” pastoral associate.

      I am strongly in favor of commissioning people for specific ministries, like preaching, counseling, teaching, etc. I am strongly in favor of not allowing priests and deacons to preach, counsel or teach if they are not talented or even competent in those areas.

      1. Jack,

        I think this might be the case with deacons who are older and retired from secular employment. This is admittedly a disproportionate number of deacons. But in my experience younger deacons see their ministry much more as “in the world.”

  6. One of the obstacles to rethinking the diaconate has been the issue of ordaining women deacons.

    This document’s explanation of the deaconate (service not priesthood) provides a rationale consistent with ordaining women to the deaconate without seeing it as a step to the priesthood.

    We need to attract more men to parish ministry; the deaconate provides a way. Often we emphasize virtues in ministry, e.g. being a good listener and caring, that are seen as being more characteristic of women than of men. There is not much emphasis on being a Mr. Fixit as a way of serving others.

    In the 1980s when I was a member of a mostly voluntary pastoral staff, another member organized the men of the parish to be a Mr. Fixit group for the parish plant. They diagnosed and fixed small problems as well as locating proper professional help when needed. Many of the elderly people of a parish, especially the widows, could use such a team to take care of small problems as well as to protect them against exploitation from businesses selling them more than they need. Some have modest needs such as lawn mowing, weeding and cleaning that need the help of neighbors rather than professional specialists. Then there are larger projects such as Habitat for Humanity that can use a lot of male help.

    The service oriented model of the deaconate proposed by this document seems ideal for organizing many of the existing talents of men of the parish to serve the needs not only of the parish but also of the community.

    We should view our inability to ordain women as deacons as an opportunity to solve both the lesser participation of men in parish ministries as well as the lack of community service by many parishes.

    1. Well, let’s remember that, for a few centuries, we did have the functional equivalent of deaconesses for service: the sisterhoods that engaged in service of myriad kinds in public, probably first made widespread by the Ursulines in the wake of Trent. Indeed, for a few generations in the US, the experience of the Church by laity was largely mediated through such women, not clerics.

      1. Yes, and of course for a long time Rome would not acknowledge that they were religious much less clerics.

        What in some ways is even more interesting is the order of widows which seems to have vanished from clerical consciousness not long after the NT but is alive and well wherever I look. Certainly present at most of the daily parish masses that I have attended in various places. When I was an adolescent my pastor’s mother came to live with him. She was held in great love and reverence by most of us, we treated her more like an abbess at morning Mass.

        The spiritual women of my family have taken their functions of widows such leading the family at grace when the time came. Although they have often offered me the opportunity to lead the grace I have always declined. I am not about to get presumptuous about intellectual gifts outranking their gifts in the eyes of heaven.

        The Holy Spirit has a mind of her own in these matters.

  7. Only comments with a full name will be approved.


    It is my understanding that the permanent deacons must vow not to remarry should their wives pre-decease them – sort of a law-away vow of celibacy! It’s rather insulting to the deacons, their wives and their marriages!
    Any society that allows for “selective implementation” is a society not ruled by law but by men.

    Why “insulting”? It’s ancient practice in the East for married men to be ordained deacons and priests; but a deacon or priest cannot marry. Eastern bishops are always celibate, taken either from monks or widowers.

    As for “selective implementation”, I am not sure what that refers to. But the power of dispensation in canon law, something not available in common law, can be a humane and merciful option.

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