Ask the average person in the pews to describe the primary role of a deacon and most will likely say that it involves serving alongside the priest during Sunday Mass. They may list such liturgical duties as proclaiming the Gospel or preaching a homily, or in some cases, taking on roles normally associated with a priest, like baptizing a child or witnessing a marriage.
But in reality, there’s much more to a permanent deacon than meets the eye.
While deacons do serve in liturgical roles, theirs is a ministry that extends well beyond the walls of the church. They are also husbands and fathers, employers and employees, members of a community. And as ordained ministers of the Church, they are charged with the responsibility of bringing the Gospel to the secular world in which they live.
“The deacon shares with bishops and priests in the responsibility of preserving the apostolic character of the Church,” said Father W. Shawn McKnight, executive director of the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat for Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations.
“The way a deacon uniquely fulfills that charge is by assisting bishops and priests in their ministry, but also assisting the laity in fulfilling their role in the Church,” he told Our Sunday Visitor. “So, it is a ministry that is completely about others.”
The permanent diaconate has its roots in the early days of the Church, as the Acts of the Apostles (6: 1-6) recounts the story of seven men “filled with the Spirit and wisdom” being chosen by the apostles as the first deacons. Permanent deacons are believed to have had a large role in the early Church, yet they essentially vanished during the Middle Ages. The role of deacon was then reserved only for those men who were preparing for eventual ordination to the priesthood, a stage known today as the transitional diaconate.
It was not until the Second Vatican Council that the Church identified a need for men to be ordained for service as permanent deacons. In 1967, Pope Paul VI officially reinstated the diaconate in his apostolic letter Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem, and the U.S. bishops received permission from the Holy See to institute the permanent diaconate on American soil the following year.
From there, the Church was quick to begin creating formation programs and calling men to consider the diaconate as a possible vocation. The first deacons were ordained and introduced to parishes in the early 1970s, and within a few years, there were nearly 1,000 deacons nationwide.
The diaconate continued to expand, and by the 1990s, the number of permanent deacons in the United States had surpassed 10,000. In 2010, Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) reported in a study for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that the total number of deacons in the country topped 17,000 — which is nearly half of all deacons in the world.
As a result, some dioceses have begun to re-evaluate their diaconate programs to determine if the continuing growth in the ranks of permanent deacons is truly necessary. Among them is the Diocese of Worcester, Mass., which currently has 82 active and 14 retired deacons. Joining their ranks are another eight who were ordained last month, and 25 more are in formation — in a diocese of only 110 parishes — leading to a temporary halt on accepting new candidates.
“For the classes of 2013, 2014 and 2015, I don’t know where I’m going to put them,” said Deacon Anthony Surozenski, director of the diaconate in the Worcester diocese. Changing demographics, he told OSV, have led to more deacons than the available parishes can handle.
“We have to look at what is happening in the diocese,” he said. “There are parishes merging, closings of parishes that have taken place, and we have to take those things that are happening into account.”
And compared with other dioceses, Worcester’s diaconate program is relatively small. CARA reports that 21 dioceses and archdioceses have more than 200 permanent deacons, with some well above that number.
All of which invites the question — why has the diaconate grown so large?
Father McKnight said that one reason for the high numbers in the U.S. compared with other parts of the world is the fact that American Church leaders were so quick to embrace the permanent diaconate when it was re-established.
“In the early stages of the restoration of the diaconate, the Church here in the United States seemed to have been more open to starting with the implementation and the encouragement of large numbers to come forward,” he said.
Deacon Thomas Dubois, executive director of the Columbus, Ohio-based National Association of Diaconate Directors, adds another reason for the booming interest in the diaconate — a rebellion against the expanding secularization of American culture.
“I think what we are seeing is that the Holy Spirit is really calling men forward because in this country we are becoming increasingly unchurched,” Deacon Dubois told OSV. “There are so many people who just don’t engage with religion or find the secular lifestyle is calling them away from any relationship with God. I think that really speaks to the idea that this is a time that we need to be evangelized … and that’s really the realm of the deacon.”
Though their large numbers may suggest otherwise, the process of becoming a deacon is anything but simple.
Candidates undergo an extensive formation process lasting at least four years, including academic study in areas such as Scripture, theology, canon law, homiletics and liturgy, as well as practical training for their ministry.
The basics of the formation process are defined by the USCCB’s National Directory for the Formation, Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons, which outlines the human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral dimensions of preparing for the diaconate. Each diocese is then responsible for crafting its program according to the national standards and its own local needs.
Deacon Dennis Colgan, associate director of the diaconate community for the Archdiocese of Chicago, said that as the role of the deacon has become more refined, so too have the formation programs that help prepare deacon candidates.
“I’ve been ordained 26 years and what I went through (in formation) was vastly different than what [candidates] go through now,” Deacon Colgan told OSV. “The whole formation process is much more intensive, much more complete and much more rounded. It gives them a better exposure to what being a deacon is all about.”
Ongoing formation after ordination, Deacon Colgan added, is also important in supporting deacons in their ministry. In the Chicago archdiocese — which, with a roster of more than 700 deacons, has the world’s largest diaconate program — ongoing formation includes refresher courses on topics such as preaching or sacramental procedures, as well as current topics of interest, such as the new Roman Missal translation or Christian-Muslim relations.
The archdiocese is also one of many where the diaconate reflects the diversity of the local Catholic population, as Chicago is home to large numbers of Polish and Hispanic deacons ministering in those ethnic communities. The diaconate formation program even includes a separate track specifically designed for Hispanic candidates, who comprise 25 percent of the archdiocese’s deacons, Deacon Colgan said.
Other dioceses, however, have found that blending ethnic diversity within a single program is itself a valuable formation experience for prospective deacons. Such is the case in the Diocese of Orange, Calif., which is home to large numbers of Hispanic, Vietnamese and Korean deacons.
“The men and their wives in formation say they have grown so much and learned so much from each other that they can’t see themselves not having that multicultural experience,” Deacon Frank Chavez, director of the diocese’s diaconate program, told OSV.
“Plus, it offers an appreciation of who we are as Church, and it gives them not just a knowledge of it but an experience of that by getting to know people well.”
In addition to academic studies and spiritual formation, deacon candidates in the Diocese of Orange also receive an opportunity to experience various areas of ministry through internships. Over the course of four years, deacon candidates serve in the areas of jail ministry, social service ministries to the poor and homeless, pastoral ministries such as hospice or bereavement and marriage preparation.
“They’ll find something they will click with,” Deacon Chavez said of the experience. “Not everybody is cut out for hospital work or for jail work. So they find their charism, and after ordination they can develop that even more.”
Spreading the Gospel
The ministries that deacons take on are often as varied and diverse as their formation and backgrounds.
Traditional ministries include baptismal and marriage preparation, leading the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults and serving as hospital chaplains. Others have taken on full-time jobs in parish administration or diocesan leadership. And in some dioceses, deacons have developed their own unique ministries that reach out to specialized populations and meet the needs of those who may otherwise be overlooked in society.
According to Deacon Surozenski of Worcester, perhaps the deacon’s most important role is serving as a representative of the Church in the secular world.
“To me, the diaconate is important because you are a deacon 24/7,” he said. “You are not living in a rectory. You are working in different jobs; people know who you are and they ask you questions about the Church.
“We don’t have all the answers,” he added, “but we can take people to a certain level and then we can refer them elsewhere.”
Deacon Dubois explained that what makes deacons so valuable is the fact that not only are they out in the world, but they also have shared in many of the same experiences as those they encounter.
“Deacons, for the most part, have done it all,” he said. “They’ve served in the military, they’ve worked their way up, they’ve gone to college, they have children.
“They know what it’s like to deal with dirty diapers and car repairs and fixing the roof and going on vacation. All the very normal things of life, deacons have been there, and so deacons can relate in a way that people can connect with.”
Yet for many in the Catholic population, Deacon Dubois added, there is still confusion about the role of the permanent deacon. Sometimes a parishioner will refer to a deacon as “Father,” or will have a hard time distinguishing what the deacon’s responsibilities are.
As the permanent diaconate nears the 50th anniversary of its reinstitution, however, Deacon Dubois feels that deacons are beginning to take on a more defined role as “servant leaders” who will be a key component of the Church’s future evangelization efforts.
“I think we are on the verge of something wonderful with regard to the diaconate,” he said.
“With the things that are happening in the Church [in evangelization] and the recognition by people that spirituality is something that they are missing in their lives, I think the deacons are going to play a huge role as we move forward,” Deacon Dubois said. “Then I think the diaconate will emerge as what it is really intended to be.”
Scott Alessi writes from New Jersey.
Growth of Diaconate in the U.S.