CHANGES IN THE PERMANENT DIACONATE?
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.