Changes in the Permanent Diaconate?

Author: Kristen West McGuire


by Kristen West McGuire

Last week, you took a true-false quiz on the basics of the permanent diaconate. This week, we have the essay portion of the test. Your question is, "What changes are likely in the permanent diaconate as the Church approaches the year 2000?" (Limit your focus to the U.S.!) The following "Cliff Notes" will help you prepare your response:

The United States bishops received permission from Rome to ordain permanent deacons in 1968, with the first ordinations in 1971. The first deacons in the U.S. are now reaching retirement age. The diaconate has grown and changed. Deacons now have a stronger sense of identity and purpose than they did in those early years.

The difficulty of the early years stemmed from the "newness" of the office of permanent deacon. Identity necessarily began with what deacons were not-- not priests and not lay persons. Today, most deacons identify themselves positively, in terms of service: service to the altar, service to the Gospel, service to the poor and needy.

However, there are still issues facing the worldwide diaconate. (Rome was not built in a day!) In November of this year, the Congregation for the Clergy will devote a plenary session to these questions. Documents produced from this meeting will help clarify some difficult questions. We will look at some of the issues to be covered, and their potential impact on U.S. deacons.

1) How can the formation process be improved?

The implicit observation is that it needs improvement. In remarks to the National Catholic Diaconate Conference last summer in New Orleans, Archbishop Crescenzio Sepe, Secretary of the Congregation for the Clergy, raised this question. He outlined formation deficiencies gleaned the dispensation requests of deacons seeking a dismissal from the clerical state. "During the period of formation...there is a lack of genuine education regarding chastity in one's own state in life...Frequently, there is a lack of information about authentic aspects of the sacrament of Orders...Sometimes there is excessive reliance on desired future growth and improvement which is uncertain at best."

To be fair, the majority of these deacons probably received their formation in the early years of the diaconate. Formation has vastly changed since then. According to Deacon John Pistone, director of the National Association of Permanent Diaconate Directors, "There is a renewed emphasis on the spiritual life of the deacon candidate. The candidate brings his vocation to the formation process. We try to add onto that foundation the skills and knowledge to apply the power of the ministry of service to the man's life and work." Formation today engages the deacon candidate spiritually, intellectually and emotionally.

"Formation programs across dioceses are voluntarily developing a standard curriculum," says Deacon Samuel Taub, director of the office of the permanent diaconate at NCCB. He points to the lack of a structured catechesis after Vatican II as a major factor in the difficulties the diaconate has had in some dioceses. "There is a wide disparity of views as to who deacons are for the life of the Church. Where there was adequate catechesis, the diaconate was successful."

Archbishop Sepe also criticized post-ordination education that was "not in effective communion with the mind of the Church." It would appear that there is a vocal minority of deacons who openly question the doctrines of the Church. Could this be the result of inadequate catechesis? From his Orlando office, Deacon Henry Libersat, Editor and General Manager of The Florida Catholic, noted, "The deacons in my diocese are respectful of the pope and the college of bishops." He said the majority would agree with the Magisterium on all matters of faith and morals. "While some may have personal questions about certain teachings and disciplines, most of these deacons would still defer to the Church in decisions of doctrine, especially in preaching and teaching. The majority of faithful deacons in any diocese should never be judged on the actions of a minority."

The restoration of the permanent diaconate within the reforms of Vatican II has its difficulties. Deacons tend to be viewed by more conservative Catholics as an innovation of post-conciliar American liberals, whereas they are seen by more liberal Catholics as heralds of a "progressive" era in the Church. Both views raise unfair expectations of the deacon, who owes allegiance to Christ and His Church first and foremost. Formation programs are designed to help deacons find balance in every way. It should be no surprise that this is a difficult task.

2) Do the real ecclesial needs of each diocese correspond to the number of deacons and deacon candidates?

Deacon Pistone tells the following story. There was a priest on the advisory board for the permanent diaconate in his diocese. He noted the large numbers of deacons already ordained, and asked the permanent diaconate director, "Are there enough deacons?" The director responded, "Are all the needs of the poor and the marginalized in our diocese being met?"

Still, with over 11,000 deacons (out of a world-wide diaconate of 20,000), American dioceses must assess ecclesial needs carefully. The shortage of priests may mean that deacons will serve where priests are usually placed. There are dioceses with waiting lists of parishes who have requested a deacon to assist their priest. This development is a threat to the Church's vision and primary calling of the deacon to service. Deacons ideally devote equal time to the altar and the Gospel, but emphasize service of justice and charity. Many deacons interviewed for this story were concerned that the diaconate might become too "liturgical" as the shortage of priests intensifies.

Sometimes, placement in a local parish can prove less fulfilling than a direct placement into a service role. Deacon Frank Lukovits of the Diocese of Albany (NY) has served as a deacon in a rural church, as director of the permanent diaconate in his diocese, and as a hospital chaplain. He relates, "Deacons who are placed in a parish where they are not fully utilized often become frustrated. In recent years as a hospital chaplain, I have experienced the most fulfillment in my eighteen years as a deacon. I believe the reason is that the needs of the sick and dying are generally greater than those I encounter in the parish setting." He also noted that there were more opportunities for deacons and their wives to serve as a couple in a hospital setting. "My wife, Anne, and I are able to minister together more easily than in the parish."

Clearly, bishops, priests, deacons and laity will all have to work together to serve the needs of the Church.

3) Should deacons be classed as part of the presbyterate of the diocese, or of the hierarchical ministry of the Church?

Like diocesan priests, deacons are incardinated in ("belong" to) the diocese in which they are ordained. Unlike priests, however, most deacons hold down a full-time job outside of their service ministry. The average American family will experience more than one move over the course of a lifetime. When a deacon is transfered, the new diocese is under no obligation to incardinate him, or even to grant him faculties to minister. This is a particularly thorny issue as some dioceses do not have a permanent diaconate.

Deacon Bill Vivio was ordained in the Phoenix diocese in 1977. When he and his family relocated to San Diego in 1987, it was an easy transition, but it might not have been. "God was looking out for me, " he said. "I was befriended by a deacon in our new parish. He took me under his wing and walked me through the incardination process, which took over three years. I know of some deacons who were refused incardination."

A protocol for the incardination and excardination of deacons has just been published by the NCCB Committee on the Permanent Diaconate. This document should provide some guidance to deacons and bishops alike. There are still questions it cannot answer, however.

If deacons were classed within the hierarchical ministry of the Church (i.e. incardinated through the National Conference of Catholic Bishops? the Vatican?), it might solve several problems. First, formation would be standardized. Real ecclesial needs could be determined on a national basis. Finally, deacons transferring to a diocese without a permanent diaconate would have an easier time finding a place to serve the Church.

Those benefits may not outweigh the liabilities of such a change. Deacons within a diocese have a direct line of support in the diocesan office for the permanent diaconate. The bishop of a diocese serves as a shepherd to both the priests and the deacons of a diocese. Furthermore, the bishop of a local diocese is in a much better position to assign deacons where they are needed.

4) Should deacons administer the sacrament of anointing of the sick?

Many deacons in the U.S. are involved in some form of pastoral care to the sick and dying. Thus, the answer to this question will affect them directly.

Deacons involved in pastoral ministry usually have access to a back-up priest for the sacraments of penance and anointing of the sick. Of course, they are able to bring communion to the sick, and Viaticum to the dying. Usually, the deacon has been praying with and counseling the patient and his/her family. It seems only natural that the hospital minister who began the initial pastoral care should be the one who follows through with the anointing.

At the same time, the general concern over balance in diaconal service shows up in this area as well. Deacons do not want to appear as "mini-priests". Their identity is centered on service, not the sacraments. "It may not be absolutely essential for the deacon to have the faculty to anoint the sick to do good hospital ministry," stated Deacon Lukovits.

Sacraments administered by an outside priest might be "set apart" in the mind of the patient. This reliance on the priest can lead patients to question the validity of holy orders held by a deacon. Further, Deacon Lukovits noted that there are times and situations in which a priest is just not available. "After spending hours with a critical patient, I find it awkward and perhaps inappropriate to call in someone else. It seems to me that deacons should be allowed to anoint the sick."

5) Should women be ordained as deacons?

There are wives of deacons who resent the fact that their service is not officially recognized in the same way as the service of a deacon. They often undergo the same formation and serve the Church in lay positions. Citing Romans 16:1, some believe that deaconesses were part of the early Church ministry. Why not today?

Several of the early Church councils, including the Council of Nicea, condemn the ordination of "deaconesses". In addition, the Bible itself clearly prohibits women from preaching the gospel in the mass. (cf. ICor. 14:34-36) Deacon Taub said, "In the early years after Vatican II, this question was regularly an agenda item for the bishops who served on the Committee for the Permanent Diaconate. Over the years, interest in the diaconate abated as women's interest in presbyteral ordination became more evident. In any case, it is clear that deaconesses in the early Church were not ordained in the sense we understand ordination today." Archbishop Sepe made much the same point in a recent interview in St. Anthony Messenger. It is unlikely that women will be ordained as deacons or priests in the Catholic Church.

"Most wives find a way of making peace with this issue," said Anne Lukovits. "One wife I know came to our support group meeting and said, 'I preached yesterday, and it felt great!' We were silent, until she clarified that her audience was the second grade catechism class at her parish. She had found great meaning in her work, and an outlet for her speaking talents. In many ways, her ministry to those children is just as important as the deacon preaching a homily in the mass."

* * *

All deacons will benefit from a clear statement of the Church's expectations and support for the permanent diaconate. The need of the world for Christ remains acute. The Church must respond with all of the power open to her. Deacons are an instrumental element of the Church's response.

In many ways, the deacon brings the needs of the parish and local community into sharp relief. He lives as a bridge between the Church and the world. His family, friends, co-workers and local parish benefit from the power of the Holy Spirit in his life. Deacons bring to the Church a wealth of service and humility - the very richness of the gospel itself.

As sign and sacrament of the service of Christ, deacons lead others to be His hands and feet in the world. All Christians, lay or religious, are obligated to service in some way. Deacons witness to the gospel by modeling this humble service daily. "It could happen that the diaconate will fulfill the mission for which the Spirit raised it. In that case, we shouldn't be afraid for the diaconate to disappear again," observes Deacon Taub.

The End.

Taken from the May 21, 1995 issue of "Catholic Twin Circle." For subscriptions contact: Catholic Twin Circle, P.O. Box 260380, Encino, CA 91426-0380, (800) 421-3230.