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.