While priestly ordinations in the United States have decreased over the past three decades, there’s one ministerial order that’s seen a steady rise. The permanent diaconate has grown from zero in 1970 to 15,000 today. According to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the total number of permanent deacons increases by 10 to 15 percent every year. That bodes well for the Church, but it also raises important questions about the proper role of the deacon.
Although the diaconate as an order nearly disappeared at one point, it dates back to the New Testament. In Acts 6, the apostles appointed seven men, among them Stephen, to serve the poor. Over time, the deacons primarily served bishops—writing letters, assisting in proclaiming the gospel, representing the bishop, and serving the poor and needy on the bishop’s behalf.
“A deacon was a powerful figure in the early Church, as evidenced by deacons such as Sts. Lawrence and Ephraim,” said Owen Cummings, Regents Chair of Theology at Mount Angel Seminary in Oregon and author of Deacons and the Church. “Many were in charge of the treasury, and many became popes.”
Beginning in the third century, though, confusion between the role of the priest and the role of the deacon led to the decline of the diaconate. By the fourth century, bishops increasingly delegated priests to preside in their stead at the Sunday Eucharist, leading many to wonder why the deacons held so much power.
“The role an ordained minister played with respect to the Eucharist determined one’s place within the Church. The diaconate went into decline in the post-Nicene period as the Eucharist was delegated by the bishops to the presbyters,” said Cummings. “Prior to the fourth century there weren’t parishes, so as an increasing number of priests began to meet the pastoral needs, the deacons found themselves, in a way, supplanted by the role of the priests.”
As a result, deacons were relegated to assisting priests, primarily at the altar. In addition, the diaconate came to be seen as a step on the path to eventual ordination as a priest, giving rise to the transitional deacon. Scholars suggest that the failure to understand the role of the deacon in its own right led to the order’s collapse. By the Middle Ages the diaconate had nearly disappeared.
Idea Reborn in Death Camp
While the idea of restoring the permanent diaconate resurfaced momentarily at the Council of Trent, it went nowhere. Four hundred years elapsed before the idea again resurfaced—in the most unlikely of places. During World War II, a group of Catholic men imprisoned at Dachau, a Nazi concentration camp, wondered whether permanent deacons might be able to do positive work for the Church. Called “the Deacon Circle,” the group continued to meet after the war’s end, addressing the concept of justice through service and stewardship.
By 1959, an International Diaconate Circle was organized, and when the Second Vatican Council convened, many of the German Council fathers called for the restoration of the Church’s sacred order. The permanent diaconate was restored on October 30, 1963, and promulgated as part of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church on November 21, 1964.
The word deacon comes from the Greek word diakonos, meaning “servant” or “helper.” Officially, deacons are one of only three groups of ordained ministers within the Catholic Church, the others being bishops and presbyters. Deacons may be either single or married. In the United States, they are required to be at least thirty-five years old.
Deacons are ordained as a sacramental sign to the Church and the world that Christ came to serve and not to be served. Functionally, they are called to serve as ministers of the word, the sacraments, and charity.
As ministers of the word, deacons may proclaim the gospel, preach, and teach in the name of the Church. As ministers of the sacraments, deacons may baptize, lead prayer, witness marriages, and conduct wakes or funerals. Finally, as ministers of charity, deacons lead in identifying the needs of others and using the Church’s resources to meet those needs. This might include hospital or prison ministry, serving at a food bank, or a host of other social concerns.
“Their principal work is of charity and service,” said Fr. Robert Silva, president of the Chicago-based National Federation of Priests’ Councils. “Their focus is on justice issues.”
That’s certainly true for Deacon Carl Shelton of San Diego. Ordained twenty-five years ago, Shelton founded a $100 million self-help food assistance program called World Share. The non-profit agency allows individuals to provide voluntary community service through their parishes in exchange for $40 worth of groceries.
The work of a deacon can vary widely. In addition to assisting at Mass, Deacon Mike Medley, an organic poultry farmer on the outskirts of the archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis, brings Communion to the sick and elderly, teaches, works with a men’s ministry at a local crisis pregnancy center, and serves on the diocese’s rural life committee.
For others, such as Deacon Keith Fournier, who serves the diocese of Richmond, Virginia, social justice means working to end the “culture of death.” Fournier belongs to Deacons in the Service of Life, an outreach of Priests for Life that preaches and teaches on the sanctity of human life from conception to natural death.
Proper Formation Key—and Sometimes Lacking
One of the key concerns facing the modern permanent diaconate is proper formation.
“In the early years, following the Council, deacons were not as well educated as perhaps they should have been,” said Silva.
Medley, who was ordained just five years ago, received three years of training.
“That’s not enough,” he said. “You don’t get the chance to develop the humility that is required to be a servant.”
Shelton agreed. He started in Chicago but eventually received a total of six years of formation in San Diego.
“I felt it was the best training offered to deacons in the country,” said Shelton. “I knew it was far better than the two years deacons were getting in Chicago.”
That formation paid off for St. John the Evangelist parish, where Shelton preaches regularly. Parishioners find his homilies to be theologically solid and personally inspiring.
Deacon Bill Ditewig, executive director for the Secretariat for the Diaconate for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and author of 101 Questions and Answers on Deacons, is hopeful that standards set by the U.S. bishops in the National Directory for the Formation, Life and Ministry of Permanent Deacons will eliminate many of the discrepancies between dioceses. According to the Basic Norms for the Formation of Permanent Deacons by the Congregation for Catholic Education, all deacons should have at least three years of training.
Quality, Not Just Quantity
But the length of the training is not the only potential problem. While there is general agreement about the importance of training, some are questioning the kind of formation being offered.
Rich Scanlon is currently applying for the diaconate in the Midwest and discerning whether the calling is for him. He attended a recent information night for men interested in the diaconate. At that meeting, organizers handed out the book Called, Formed, Sent by Fr. Richard Rohr and Thomas Welch, director of the National Association of Diaconate Directors.
“I found the book extremely deficient theologically,” said Scanlon, who holds a master’s degree in theology. “It’s contrary to the teachings of the Church. It denies absolute truth, promotes moral relativism, advances proportionalism, and makes fun of papal authority. This is the book being handed out to men interested in the diaconate?”
Medley concurred that the education deacons get can be wanting.
“There was a lot of rubbish that you had to wade through,” said Medley of his own formation five years ago. “The teachers taught that Moses didn’t really part the Red Sea and that Christ didn’t really multiply the loaves and fishes.”
In a handful of dioceses the diaconate requires an advanced degree, making it a four- or five-year program.
“The bishops have discouraged that,” said Ditewig, “An academic degree does not guarantee ministerial competence.” He stressed that all diaconal training, no matter the length of time, should encompass “the human, the spiritual, and the pastoral.”
And the theological, argued Cummings. “I would place a high priority on the ongoing theological education of deacons,” he said. “There can’t be enough of it.”
Pettiness over Pecking Order, Feminist Issues
The growth in the number of deacons also presents challenges with regard to the deacons’ role in relation to other roles. Rivalry has yet to be worked out completely. Old tensions die hard.
“Tensions have been around a long time,” said Silva. “The role of the deacon is still new, and it’s evolving.” He added that “in the beginning, the lines of reporting were not clear.
“What are deacons doing that lay ministers can and can’t do? When I was pastor, the women on my staff wanted to know what the deacon’s role would mean in relation to their position. What is the role and the status of each within the Church, particularly those women who are pastoral associates and administrators? That has been a cloud over the development of the diaconate.
“Is the pecking order the bishop, the priest, and the deacon on the bottom?” he asked. “Who does the bishop work for?”
Ditewig downplayed the tensions.
“A lot of those things have been worked out. That’s something that we used to hear twenty to thirty years ago,” he said. “Certain things that are said are mythic, but they aren’t reflected in the national studies.” Citing the last national study, Ditewig says that 98 percent of lay ministers see no tension whatsoever between the role of the deacon and that of the lay minister.
There are indications that rivalries and tensions may be problems of the previous generation.
“Newly ordained priests are vigorously embracing deacons,” said Shelton. “The role of the deacons is becoming clarified.”
Deacons Can Play Role in Evangelization
Shelton said that one area where the deacon could be utilized more would be in evangelization.
“Here the deacon can be very powerful and instrumental, but they are not being utilized. The deacons are a whole class of people who have the wherewithal to offer these parallel services.”
Ditewig stressed that what deacons can do is secondary.
“If we approach ministry from a perfectly functional basis, that’s not adequate. We have to overcome the overly functional approach to ministry and get back to the sacramental nature of it.”
But what is that sacramental nature?
Cummings asks that question in Deacons and the Church: “Is there anything at all that is peculiar to the deacon? Is he given powers that are given to no one else? The answer is ‘No.’ There is nothing he can do that nobody else can do. But that is just what is distinctive about him. He has no power. He is a servant. He is entrusted with the ministry of Christ who washes his servants’ feet. He embodies the service of the Lord who has made himself the servant of all.”
No Substitutes for Priests
Some question whether the diaconate might be able to ease problems brought on by the shortage of priests. While visiting his parents in Florida, a deacon told Scanlon that the priest crisis will lead to greater responsibilities for deacons.
“He told me that the crisis was so bad that deacons might have to start doing the sacrifice of the Mass and hearing confessions,” said Scanlon.
While deacons may be able to assist priests, they won’t be substituting for priests.
“I don’t see deacons relieving the load of the priests,” said Shelton.
He said that the Church faces two sacramental bottlenecks that cannot be alleviated by deacons: the anointing of the sick and the consecration of the Eucharist.
“One man can do only so much,” said Medley. “The priests I’ve been associated with love the extra help. They have a lot of extra responsibilities, so it helps if I can take care of one-third of the marriages or baptisms on a given Sunday.” Medley officiates for mixed marriages where there is no wedding Mass.
Cummings cited three challenges facing the modern deacon. The first, he said, was the deacon’s accessibility to the bishop.
“The deacon is an agent of the bishop. He often is attached to a parish, but his job is to go and do what the bishop wants him to go and do and be.”
The second challenge is humility: The deacon must recognize his own gifts and weaknesses in diaconal ministry.
“That’s a real challenge,” said Cummings. “Deacons should excel in their gifts but try to ameliorate or improve the areas where they are weak.”
The third challenge, he said, is balancing his responsibilities and remembering that his priority is to his family.
“The number one problem that deacons face is developing the discipline within their own lives of having enough time for prayer, their work, their families, and their diaconal commitments,” said Shelton.
“Just before the liturgical procession our bishop told us not to forget that our responsibility was to our family, our job, and only then to the Church,” said Cummings. “If a deacon thinks that he is God’s gift to the Church, it prevents other people from being active and bringing their gifts.”
Given all of the issues facing the Church and the diaconate, it’s clear that deacons are here to stay.
“The theology of the priestly ministry is in a critical period,” said Cummings. “The renaissance of the diaconate may be one of the tools that the Holy Spirit is using to work that out.”