In 2018, the Church in the United States will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the renewal of the diaconate as a permanent ministry. The Church always has had deacons, but for a long time there were only transitional deacons on the path to the priesthood. In 1968, Pope Paul VI granted permission for the U.S. bishops to start formation programs for permanent deacons. In that time, the number of deacons has risen to more than 18,000 today in the United States alone — and more than 45,000 worldwide.
The parish hub
One place where the permanent diaconate is thriving is the Diocese of Honolulu. Deacon John Coughlin and his wife, Kathleen, are co-directors of permanent deacon formation and are in preparation for the recruitment of their fourth deacon class.
| Deacon Coughlin
“We have been blessed with a more than sufficient number of men — and, by extension, wives — stepping forward to be considered for entering formation,” Deacon Coughlin told Our Sunday Visitor. However, this does not mean they do not have to work hard at recruitment.
When the Coughlins stepped into the role 10 years ago, they discovered a recruitment model that primarily consisted of presentations at information sessions, which they called “ineffective and insufficient.” So they went about instituting a new model for succeeding classes.
“In our current model,” Deacon Coughlin said, “the parish is and will remain the nucleus for the identification and encouragement for men to seek further information. This is done through personal encounter with the pastor, an assigned deacon or other parish leader and assisted with ‘information sessions.’” Then there is an inquiry weekend at the formation center in Honolulu, consisting of liturgies, prayer time, orientations, theological overviews and an in-depth look at the formation process.
“It is our experience that only about 50 percent of those who attend the weekends move forward with the application process,” Deacon Coughlin said. “This can be due to many factors, including the time commitment, discovery of canonical impediments, initial misunderstanding of the diaconate in general, family issues and myriad other circumstances.”
One thing Deacon Coughlin has discovered is that the age of applicants is skewing younger and younger. “It appears the reason may lie in the fact that younger men have witnessed deacons in service throughout their life,” he said.
“Young men have had the benefit of many years of role modelling by permanent deacons. As a result, they are ready to commit their lives to ordained ministry at a much younger age than previously experienced in the United States.”
The grass-roots model of recruitment employed in Honolulu is similar to that practiced in the Archdiocese of St. Louis.
Deacon Christopher Ast, director of the Office of the Permanent Diaconate, insists that “everybody does some kind of recruiting.” He says that this may take the form of flyers or posters, informational meetings, or deacons talking to potential candidates. “Everybody is continually in a recruiting mode,” he said.
“We have informational meetings throughout the diocese, several of them in a year in which we are going to take a class,” Deacon Ast said. At the informational meetings, “you sit down and discuss with people whose only experience is maybe seeing a deacon on an altar, the kinds of things deacons do from a service perspective.” It is here that prospective deacons are provided basic information on the logistics of the formation program, admissions, academics, and where they can have questions answered.
| Deacon Dubois
Many dioceses have such a surfeit of applicants for the permanent diaconate that the concept of outreach or recruitment is almost foreign.
According to Deacon Thomas Dubois, executive director of the National Association of Diaconate Directors, “While there may be exceptions among particular dioceses, recruitment of applicants for the permanent diaconate is generally unnecessary because applicants are plentiful,” Dubois said. They still conduct information sessions, but they seldom suffer from a dearth of candidates.
What is it that draws men to this ministry of service?
Pope St. John Paul II said in 1993 that the diaconate responded to a deeper need “for a greater and more direct presence of Church ministers in the various spheres of the family, school, etc., in addition to existing pastoral structures.” Deacon Dubois sees this in men approaching the diaconate.
“The men who aspire to become deacons have experienced this same deep-felt need in their own lives as husbands, fathers, neighbors and employees,” he said. “For them, the diaconate becomes the means of finally answering this vocational call to serve others.”
Built upon love
A similar assessment comes from Deacon Brian Diehm, director of the Office of the Diaconate for the Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon. Not only do these men feel called to serve a life of diaconal service, but they have been touched and inspired by deacons they have known and worked with.
| Deacon Diehm
“There are probably as many motives impelling to the permanent diaconate as there are permanent deacons,” Deacon Diehm said. “I suspect that what draws men in may be slightly different from what, later, they find God has brought them to.”
“One of the things I am finding is that, often, men attracted to the permanent diaconate have the benefit and inspiration of a permanent deacon in their parish. The Church appears to have moved beyond those first years when we sought out brave souls who felt called to something new and relatively undefined, and now we are reaping the benefit of the good examples, hard work, spiritual wisdom and, dare I say, holiness of a generation of pioneering deacons.”
In light of this, what Deacon Diehm says is that, instead of simply giving information to older men who are already able to become deacons, the Church should strive to get the word out early.
“The sacramental must always be built upon the love, the caritas, or it will be empty, just as it would be empty for the deacon to serve at the altar without an offering of his own service to legitimize his presence there,” Deacon Diehm said.
|How the Diaconate Fits In
Central to the Second Vatican Council’s teaching on the Church is the service or ministry bestowed by Christ upon the apostles and their successors. The office of bishop “is a true service, which in sacred literature is significantly called a ‘diakonia’ or ministry.” The Council Fathers teach that the bishops, with priests and deacons as helpers, have by divine institution taken the place of the apostles as pastors of the Church. Priests and deacons are seen as complementary but subordinate participants in the one apostolic ministry bestowed by Christ upon the apostles, with Peter as their head, and continued through their successors, the bishops, in union with the Roman Pontiff. When discussing Holy Orders as one of the sacraments “at the service of communion” (along with Matrimony), the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that these two sacraments “are directed towards the salvation of others; if they contribute as well to personal salvation, it is through service to others that they do so. They confer a particular mission in the Church and serve to build up the People of God” (No. 1534).
— U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, “National Directory for the Formation, Ministry, and Life of Permanent Deacons in the United States” (2009)
“And so I think that we should call young men who are ‘interested in the priesthood’ to be, first, interested in the diaconate, interested in the service the Church is called by Jesus to give to the world.” In this way, not only can men be more prepared for the service that comes with ordained ministry, but perhaps this will lead to discernment of a vocation to the permanent diaconate.
Deacon Dubois sees a great potential in having permanent deacons living in the world. The visible presence of these servants and ministers allows for an integration of the faith into daily life.
“The deacon, by virtue of being in the workplace and the marketplace, has the great privilege of bringing ‘church’ to the people in the same way that Jesus charitably ministered among those who needed him,” he said.
“The Church today would not be the same without deacons,” Deacon Dubois said.
Paul Senz writes from Oregon.