Musings on the Permanent Diaconate 

The Catholic Star Herald recently reported on a change in attire for deacons in the Diocese of Camden. No norms governing the attire of deacons were established after the restoration of the permanent diaconate after Vatican II:

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops chose not to establish a nationwide law regarding the attire of deacons. Instead the USCCB chose to allow diocesan bishops to determine the best practice for his own diocese.

Bishop Dennis Sullivan of the Diocese of Camden recently announced that permanent deacons may now wear “grey clerical attire, with a lapel pin, signifying them as permanent deacons.” While Bishop Sullivan’s decision might seem like an inconsequential move, it shows how mainstream the diaconate has become and shows the seriousness with which Bishop Sullivan approaches this ordained ministry.

The permanent diaconate is a wonderful resource for the Church and has the possibility to become even more beneficial given the decline in the number of vocations to the priesthood in recent years. Of course the permanent diaconate was not restored because of a shortage of priests, but because it is an order in its own right. Some fifty years after Vatican II’s call for its restoration, a reshaping of the diaconate would be beneficial. Historical work on the diaconate since the council along with the demands of the modern world provide an incentive for critical reflection on the successes and failures of this valuable ministry.

Several things come to mind:

  • More national guidelines clarifying that deacons are members of the clergy
  • The possibility of allowing deacons to be ministers of the Sacrament of Anointing
  • Exploring whether deacons could be ministers of the Sacrament of Penance (at least in emergency situations)
  • Expanding the number of deacons who are “parish administrators”
  • Opening up the diaconate to women
  • Better catechesis on the diaconate in parishes to prevent a “blurring” between the priesthood and the diaconate
  • A willingness to delegate more responsibilities to deacons
  • Viewing preaching as a ministry par excellence of deacons, instead of the recent move in some places to view diaconal preaching as an exception
  • Training in singing so that deacons can sing their parts of the liturgy, perhaps the Gospel reading on festive occasions, and of course the Exsultet at the Easter Vigil
  • In the spirit of Pope Francis, a renewed emphasis on diaconia, with more deacons working in social ministry, works of charity, and working for social justice

The diaconate is a ministry of service and the Church is in desperate need of the service of permanent deacons today. We have much more to lose by continuing to underutilize our permanent deacons than by being willing to delegate to them roles once under the sole purview of the priesthood. Historical scholarship and modern demands call for a creative rethink of the diaconate which is not bound only by the “ideal,” but led also by the practical needs of the Church. This will require us to analyze the history and development of specific sacraments, the role of the ancient diaconate, and the role of deacons and deaconesses in the Eastern churches today.

Times are changing and the diaconate should change along with them. After all, is that not the point of a ministry of service? A true ministry of service must respond to the needs of people and the Church in the here and the now today.

18 comments

  1. The diaconate as the New Testament Church conceived it, has been open to women for centuries: the Beguines in medieval times, then the countless apostolic orders certainly have served in the ways Stephen, Nicanor, and other five did: serving the material needs of the Christian community and proclaiming the Word of God.

    If one considers lay ecclesial ministers, we have the equivalent of Stephen, Nicanor, and the others serving in the tens of thousands in North America.

    My sense is that maybe history has passed by the permanent diaconate. Gray clergy shirts are window dressing.

  2. Todd Flowerday : My sense is that maybe history has passed by the permanent diaconate.

    I’m not sure what this means, but there are 15,000 permanent deacons currently in active ministry.

    Myself, I see no need for grey clerical shirts. If a deacon wants to wear clerics, let him wear black (just like a seminarian). I’m happy with my non-clerical attire, but I suppose there might be contexts where I’d feel differently.

    1. @Fritz Bauerschmidt – comment #3:
      Most of those deacons would be serving without ordination, and most likely were serving long before the bishop presided at a rite. In many ways, the discernment process for priests is more impoverished. Especially that much of the discernment for seminarians is tragically incomplete by the time they are scooted away into classes. Most deacons have cred before they even enter the chancery diaconate office for the first time.

      I think part of the challenge is that over the centuries the diaconate evolved from its origins. I don’t think bishops and clergy have figured it out for today yet. It varies so much parish to parish. I know more people who serve the Church faithfully and fruitfully who were turned away from the diaconate than who were ordained.

      Service is service.

  3. Apropos Todd’s point, it may be argued that the functional (rather than clerical) diaconate blossomed in the wake of Trent in a special way with the advent of the Ursulines and then other “working” orders of religious women.

  4. Acting as devil’s advocate, I am aware of reviews of the permanent diaconate that have posed the question “What can a deacon do that a lay person cannot do?” (Of course, if they were allowed to anoint, which I view as a very desirable step, that question would be answered.)

    In other words, do we need to stop promoting the permanent diaconate? Is promoting the permanent diaconate just adding another layer of clericalism? The first bishop in England to ordain a permanent deacon (Derek Worlock, as long ago as 2 June 1974) was fond of reminding him (and those ordained subsequently) that his primary role was to promote and encourage the apostolate of the laity, and that if he did this effectively he would eventually become no longer necessary.

    1. @Paul Inwood – comment #5:
      Apropos Paul’s point, if lay ecclesial ministers were primarily about promoting the lay apostolate, we would be working ourselves out of our jobs as well. It’s not a bad thing. But as was true with bishops and priests, Vatican II and its aftermath simply did nothing to seriously examine Holy Orders and what that meant or means. No significant reform. One might say that the switch-out of minor orders for a permanent diaconate was the only thing. But even that seems dependent on local whim.

  5. Todd and Paul (at least in your role as devil’s advocate), you seem to be supposing a purely functional account of ministry. At least as I understand the Catholic tradition, the sacrament of Orders is about more than function, it is about being configured to Christ so as to have an iconic role in the Church.

    Funny enough, the functional understanding of ordination, though usually associated with Protestants, actually betrays the same mindset as late medieval and post-Tridentine views of ordination: it is about receiving sacramental “powers.” Even posing the question “what can a deacon do that a lay person cannot do” presupposes that deacons are only significant to the life of the Church if they possess some power that a lay person does not. Who knows, perhaps the real importance of the diaconate for the Church is to remind us that ordination is not first of all about having the power to do things, but to sacramentally represent Christ in the Church. I think the very existence of a permanent diaconate shows that the Church has done more rethinking of Orders than Todd give it credit for.

  6. The bishops have made great efforts to de-clericalize permanent deacons. Wouldn’t want anyone to mistake them as priests, would we? These men and their families have become an important part of parish life for which we should all be enormously grateful. I’ve heard priests accuse them of making too much of their role in the liturgy. Isn’t that rich? Never met a priest who downplayed the importance of his liturgical role. Deacons are icons of publicly committed service to the people of God. Many of them should be encouraged to consider a call to priestly ministry not just because of the great need but because they would make good servant leaders. In the meantime we should consider extending to deacons the authority to anoint the sick. They anoint infants with sacred chrism in baptism but are denied the use of the oil for the infirm. This is no longer “extreme unction” when the priest was called to the side of the dead or the nearly dead to give them absolution. I believe only a fundamentalistic reading of the “elders” in the letter of James justifies restricting this anointing to bishops and priests. I pray that Francis will boldly appoint an ombudsman with the authority to sweep aside various restrictions on the basis of common sense. BTW, aside from deacon’s anointing, here’ same ruling such an individual could make: Since any priest may use the 1962 RM without recourse to the bishop, any priest may use the 1973 RM without such recourse as long as the people’s parts are left untouched.

  7. “Since any priest may use the 1962 RM without recourse to the bishop, any priest may use the 1973 RM without such recourse as long as the people’s parts are left untouched.”

    Since any priest may use the 1973 RM without recourse to the bishop, any priest may use the 1939 RM without such recourse as long as the people’s parts are left untouched.

    That was easy…

  8. The OP seems conflicted about the diaconate: one the one hand we find expressed a need for catechesis that prevents blurring of priesthood and diaconate, on the other hand a desire to place deacons in roles long considered priestly. If you ask me, we will get far nearer the essence of the diaconate by focusing on its biblical roles (preaching and service) than by shanghai-ing it into priestly service.

  9. A few random comments:

    During the VII conciliar debates about the restored permanent diaconate, some bishops did express concern that a path to a stable diaconal ordination would divert some men needed for priestly ministry. I believe this concern was expressed primarily by bishops in so-called “mission lands” where priests were (and still are) relatively few and far between.

    I see that the comments here have (rightly) focused on the diaconate vis a vis the priesthood, and the diaconate vis a vis the laity. I would like to add another “vis a vis”: how the diaconate relates to full-time, professional lay parish staff. In my own case, I work with parish staff as much as or more than priests. Even though I am ordained, I am very much part-time in my formal ministerial work (which, I should add, encompasses both parish- and non-parish-based ministry). The laypersons on our staff, who are excellent servants of the church, do what they do all day every day for a living. They are the “go-to” parish ministers for a variety of things, much more so than I would be. The reality of diaconal ministry is working fraternally with all of these different groups.

    Regarding the clerical attire: I do have a single clerical shirt and a sort of clip-on collar (sort of the equivalent of a clip-on tie) which I wore during a stint of prison ministry. In my diocese (Chicago), deacons wear clerical attire only when doing prison ministry or airport ministry; it is thought that those are two settings where being able to be identified as a member of the clergy is helpful for everyone. It’s not difficult to think of other settings where clerical attire would be advantageous; for many deacons, hospitals would be at the top of the list. I have heard many deacons who long to be able to anoint the patients to whom they minister in hospitals and nursing homes. It would require, not only an executive act by the legitimate authority, but also a theological warrant.

    Finally, I’m glad the bishops said “may” rather than “must”.

    1. @Jim Pauwels – comment #11:

      I would like to add another “vis a vis”: how the diaconate relates to full-time, professional lay parish staff.

      You have raised an important point. Far too many times have I seen deacons “move in” and take over RCIA/First Communion/Confirmation/etc programs because it is assumed that, since they are ordained, they are qualified to lead and teach in these settings. But not only do they often not have the requisite detailed knowledge, more importantly they have no formation in being catechists, unlike the lay people that they oust. To be fair, it can be the pastor who insists that the deacon now takes over, but sometimes it is the deacon himself.

      In my book, the ministry of charity is the primary role of the deacon, as others have indicated further up this thread, and certainly much of that work is unseen and unsung.

  10. Among Nathan’s suggestions for further directions for the permanent diaconate was this:

    “* More national guidelines clarifying that deacons are members of the clergy”

    … and I just wanted to call out, for those who may not be aware, that national (US) guidelines for the permanent diaconate do exist: the “National Directory for the Formation, Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons in the United States.” It is accessible in .pdf format here at the USCCB website, where other valuable resources on the diaconate may also be found:

    http://www.usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/vocations/diaconate/

    Its first chapter, “Doctrinal Understanding of the Diaconate” is a pretty strong section, and does explain that the diaconate is a holy order.

    (To give credit where it is well-deserved, the preparation of this document was overseen by Dr. (and Deacon) William Diteweg when he was on the USCCB staff.)

  11. “* Viewing preaching as a ministry par excellence of deacons, instead of the recent move in some places to view diaconal preaching as an exception”

    My view is that bishops and pastors are wrong to prevent deacons from engaging in liturgical preaching. Preaching is intrinsic to holy orders; it does not require a faculty which the bishop grants.

    The other side of the coin, again in my view, is that we deacons need to raise our game when it comes to preaching. If our homilies are not even as good as those of parish priests, then we’ve set the bar entirely too low :-). (In truth, I think that Catholic priests get a bum rap when it comes to preaching; many of them are outstanding preachers.) My observation is that we deacons could use additional continuing formation in all aspects of preaching: the prayer/contemplation reflection; the preparation, drafting, revision and practice delivering the text; and the actual delivery of the homily itself. For some of these areas, formal classroom training could be effective; in others, 1:1 feedback from a pastor or another mentor is a great idea. I strongly believe that we’re never “done” in our development as preachers; we can always do better.

  12. When I was director of the diaconate program in our diocese (1989-1996) the emphasis was on the deacon as the Church’s minister of charity par excellence. Now I see deacons doing their liturgical ministry every Sunday (sometimes the same deacon 3 or 4 times each weekend), and I wonder how things could have changed so over 20 years. Preaching at Eucharist is a presidential ministry. And the deacon’s ministry of the Word was as a catechist, or one who preached the word by charity and justice ministries, and only sometimes used words (liturgical preaching).

    While “the times they are a changin'” regarding deacons, I am not so sure those changes are good ones, especially with Francis’ emphasis on a church for the poor.

    1. @Lee Bacchi – comment #14:

      “Preaching at Eucharist is a presidential ministry.”

      With respect, that unqualified statement may give comfort to bishops and pastors who wrongly bar deacons from preaching at the Eucharist. GIRM 66 positions those who give homilies as follows: “The Homily should ordinarily be given by the Priest Celebrant himself or be entrusted by him to a concelebrating Priest, or from time to time and, if appropriate, to the Deacon…”

      The National Directory to which I referred in a previous comment identifies three primary areas for diaconal activity:

      * The church’s ministry of the Word, which for the deacon encompasses proclaiming the Gospel and preaching at the Eucharist, as well as many other types of service in both liturgical and non-liturgical settings;

      * The church’s ministry of Liturgy

      * The church’s ministry of Charity and Justice (nos. 31-38).

      The Directory goes on to note that these three areas of church life should constitute an intrinsic unity in a deacon’s ministry, and although some deacons will have more ability in one area or another, a deacon should be prepared to serve in all three (no. 39).

      I take your concern to be that service in liturgy may somehow be “crowding out” a deacon’s service to charity and justice. I agree with you that this would be an imbalance that should be corrected. I’d just add that a lot of what deacons do isn’t visible to much of the community. If the only place we see a deacon is at mass, we may not have the full picture of his ministry. (As you are a former diaconate director, no need to mention this to you, but I’m just calling it out for the sake of other readers who may be interested.)

  13. Fr. Jack — I respectfully disagree. Rome and the U.S bishops have done much to clericalize permanent deacons. I find myself very much in agreement with Aaron’s comments above, as long as preaching is not understood as liturgical preaching.

  14. My point was that over the last several decades, national and Vatican directories on the permanent diaconate have changed significantly the original and the Vatican II reestablishment of the permanent diaconate.

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