Last month I reviewed some important texts from St. John Paul II and from the U.S. bishops on the relationship of deacons and priests. I will develop those reflections a bit further in future columns, but first I want to review what the bishops have to say about the deacon’s relationship to the diocese itself, the local church. While most people quickly associate the deacon with his ministry at a particular parish — perhaps more readily than they do the ministry of the priest — it is important to remember that the deacon has a prior fundamental relationship with the bishop and the entire diocesan Church.
In the middle of the 1990s the bishops of the United States conducted a series of studies into the diaconate and its implementation throughout the country. After interviewing pastors, parochial vicars, lay leaders, and deacons and their wives, the bishops found that many people easily associated priests (even those serving in a parish) as “diocesan” ministers, while deacons were almost exclusively seen as “parish”-based ministers. The bishops quickly determined that this misperception needed to be addressed. Many began to implement various strategies, including giving deacons dual assignments: one to a parish for ministries of Word and sacrament, and a second assignment to an extraparochial ministry — for example, jail or hospital ministry.
This concern was still fresh in the bishops’ minds as they began work on the National Directory for the Formation, Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons in the United States. In a section entitled “Relationship with the Diocese” (Nos. 48-49), the bishops said: “While assuming different forms of diaconal ministry, a deacon exercises his service in both a diocesan setting and in an individual assignment. Therefore, he may be given specific responsibility, if he meets the necessary requirements, in an administrative position at a diocesan or parochial level.”
The bishops then highlight some examples of this broader extra-parochial ministry. Deacons with the requisite experience, talent and education “may be appointed members of the diocesan pastoral council, finance council or commissions. They may be assigned to diocesan pastoral work in specific social contexts … the pastoral care of the family or the pastoral needs of ethnic minorities. They may also participate in a diocesan synod. They may exercise the offices of chancellor, judge, assessor, auditor, promoter of justice, defender of the bond, and notary or may serve as the diocesan finance officer.
“On the other side of the coin, there are certain ministries which the deacon may not do: [Deacons] do not ‘act as members of the council of priests, since this body exclusively represents the presbyterate.’ Deacons may not ‘be constituted judicial vicars, adjunct judicial vicars, or vicars forane, since these offices are reserved for priests’” (No. 42).
The bishops remind us that deacons are to have a presence with diocesan structures, and for those who have the training and experience, they may serve, as Canon 517.2 explains, in providing pastoral leadership in parishes without the benefit of a resident pastor. The bishops even say, “In these extraordinary situations, deacons ‘always have precedence over the non-ordained faithful,’ and their authority and responsibility ‘should always be clearly specified in writing when they are assigned office’” (No. 21).
I recommend that priests and deacons talk about these opportunities for service, with priests actively supporting those deacons who may be recommended for such additional responsibilities. Deacons as well should prayerfully discern how the Lord might be calling them into such wider service for the common good of the Church.
DEACON DITEWIG, Ph.D., former executive director of the Secretariat for the Diaconate at the USCCB, now teaches and ministers in the Diocese of Monterey, Calif. He writes and consults extensively on the subject of the diaconate and contemporary ministry.