ASK FATHER: Are permanent deacons necessary?

From a permanent deacon…

QUAERITUR:

What is your take on the state of the permanent diaconate? Permanent deacons don’t seem to have a “home” in the Church. Many in the traditional community bemoan permanent deacons as a Vatican II oddity, while many in the liberal community reject the permanent diaconate as an unnecessary form of clericalism. In my own diocese, permanent deacons seem to be only tolerated, and not utilized or appreciated. I write this as a newly ordained permanent deacon. Do we need permanent deacons? Are they necessary? What is your take on the state of the permanent diaconate today?

A couple things as an introduction.

A deacon is a deacon is a deacon.  Whether the intention is that diaconate be a step to priestly ordination or not, diaconate is the diaconate. A man is not more of a deacon because he is a transitional deacon.

Also, keep in mind that, in the traditional sphere, priests function as deacons all the time.  All deacons are permanent deacons, even if later they are ordained to the priesthood.  Bishops quite properly wear dalmatics beneath their chasubles.  They didn’t stop being deacons with priesthood.

My entrance into the Catholic Church was facilitated in part by a terrific permanent deacon, an Englishman who had immigrated and had a distinguished career teaching and as an executive is a world-famous, Minnesota-based company.  He was in the Westminster school, in London, and he formed all the altar boys at the great St. Agnes in St. Paul, back in the day of Msgr. Schuler, according to the liturgical style of Westminster Cathedral of the 1930’s.   He knew everything about liturgy, gave great help to the pastor by way of sick calls and catechesis, and was a man of parts.   He is missed.

Therefore, my default position is to be favorable toward permanent deacons.

That said, I have encountered over the years super competent permanent deacons, edifying and praiseworthy, and also cringe worthy incompetents.  More of the later, alas, than the former.   Not that a lot of priests are great shakes.

The problem is terribly uneven formation.   I don’t question in the least the good motives or piety of the men involved.  I only hope that programs can sniff out the guys who just want to be “up there” on Sunday.

Do we need a permanent diaconate?   Are they necessary?  This feels like the third rail.

We didn’t have them for a loooong time and we got along just fine.  However, that also was in the day when convents were jammed and there were several priests in every rectory.   Work got done.

I’ll leave aside the issue of mission countries as being too complicated.

With the shortage of priests in these USA at least, one can see how having deacons who can help with Communion calls and so forth, sacramental prep, service at the altar for solemn worship is desirable.  Frankly, I wish I had a couple of permanent deacons around whom I could train up for Solemn Masses.  That would make my life a lot easier.

It seem to me that, while priests are existentially necessary for the life of the Church (e.g. Mass, confessions, anointing), and permanent deacons are not in the same way necessary (e.g. they do none of those), having them in service depends a great deal on both the urgency of the need and the quality of formation.   That isn’t very definite, I know.  First, every cleric ought to be well-formed.

We can’t do without priests, and so we can get on with priests who aren’t so sharp.  But we can get along very well without deacons who aren’t so sharp.

Are they necessary?   Well… it depends.  It depends on if you want to work priests into their early graves and it depends on the level of formation.

Lastly, reception of Holy Orders means that there was a vocation from God to be ordained.   We humans can and do get in the middle of that through formation programs, etc.  However, God’s involvement means that if permanent deacons are necessary, then they are going, somehow, to be ordained, just as a flower finds purchase and manages to spring up in the crack of a sidewalk.  I cannot pass any sort of judgment on God’s role in this matter of the permanent diaconate.

One of the first things that the Apostles did was choose men for the diaconate.  That tells us something.

If the same conditions pertain in our day, deacons will be necessary for us just as for the Apostles.   Circumstances play a role, and we can discern something of God’s will in the circumstances, as the Apostles did.

What we read after the choosing of the seven deacons is:

And the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith.

Pretty good.

In the ancient Church there were deacons with understood roles.  Then that order faded out (sort of).  There were reasons for that, too.  So, the fruits of the Church’s mission and previous practice both tell us something.

Diaconate is a vocation.  We should treat diaconate with the seriousness it deserves and give men excellent formation if we are going to go down that road at all.  Otherwise, let’s stop pretending.  If we aren’t willing to make them great, then shut the programs down.

 

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19 Responses to ASK FATHER: Are permanent deacons necessary?

  1. Amerikaner says:

    Deacons are clerics. Does the Church have an obligation to financially/other support deacons? I ask as I believe it has to for priests, right? But most permanent deacons seem to have to support themselves.

  2. CasaSanBruno says:

    Recently, I had to give some talks in Manila and was interested to learn that the Filipino Bishops’ Conference opted out of the new permanent deacons program from the get-go, saying we need capable men catechizing and proselytizing and not more people in the sanctuary.

  3. Sue says:

    What about acolytes, Father? We have a small parish, maybe 100 families. Two Masses available, Novus Ordo only, on Saturday evening and Sunday morning. I do like seeing the men helping serve at the altar, but they also stand beside the priest and give Holy Communion. I see pictures of the traditional Mass with a lot of men in the sanctuary but only the priest giving Holy Communion so I’m wondering why these acolytes are.

  4. Eric says:

    Our diocese allows them to wear clerical dress. Unfortunately in my experience, I have found “clericalism” in the permanent diaconate rampant. The N.O. liturgy when they are present seems more often than not an attempt to find “space” for them, not a true integral part like you see in the TLM or Eastern Rites, and I often find them overemphasizing their role that breaks up any natural flow.

  5. Geoffrey says:

    “What about acolytes, Father?”

    Are they instituted acolytes or adult altar servers? Instituted ministers (acolytes and lectors) are supposed to be the norm, rather than the exception, though this has never really “caught on” like the “permanent” diaconate has. Instituted acolytes are also extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion by right of their institution.

  6. APX says:

    Amerikaner,

    According to Canon Law, yes. The reality is that this doesn’t happen.

  7. maternalView says:

    There’s a parish near me that lists “deacon couples” in their bulletin. I don’t think that’s the only parish that does that. I was told by one man he couldn’t become a deacon because his wife wasn’t interested in going through the program with him. Apparently in Chicago the wife has to participate also. Not sure when that was instituted.

  8. Red_Shirt_Hero says:

    Eric, could I ask how, in your experience, the NO makes attempts to make space for deacons? [full disclosure – I’m a deacon, of the permanent variety] The rubrics are clear as to the deacon’s role, which doesn’t differ much from that at a solemn TLM, other than bidding prayers, albeit even at a spoken ‘low’ NO Mass. Any attempt to give a deacon a role other than that permitted by liturgical law would be an abuse.

  9. jlduskey says:

    Bishop Alfred Mendez, C.S.C., retired bishop of Arecebo, Puerto Rico, and a traditionalist, was one of the bishops who proposed the permanent diacoanate during the Second Vatican Council. I had the opportunity to speak with him in July 1988. He indicated that the purpose was to care for the reserved Blessed Sacrament in chapels and churches that were located in towns where the priest can only visit once or twice a month. (Apparently there were parts of the world that suffer from a priest shortage even back then.) The local deacon was responsible for the safety and security of the Blessed Sacrament, but he could also distribute Communion and conduct Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament and other devotions outside of Mass, in the (prolonged) absence of a priest. Deacons, in general, do not rely on the Church for their financial support. If there are enough priests in a diocese, deacons might not be needed. But if they are needed, they should be very well trained, educated, and able to serve the Church in a number of roles.
    It was not in his original vision to add to the number of people in the sanctuary during Mass. However, during Mass, the deacon’s proper place may be in the sanctuary. If it appears there are too many people in the sanctuary, they should reduce the number of non-ordained (lectors, acolytes, and other lay people), The deacon is capable of serving in these other ministries.

  10. TonyO says:

    Father Z, can you comment on the theory that universal Church teaching and legislative direction is that deacons (all of them, including the permanent variety) are bound to the constant practice of continence? (I.E. not having conjugal relations with their wives, at all.) If I recall correctly, I believe that Dr. Ed Peters affirms that this has always been the Church’s position, and that nothing after Vatican II changed it. On the other hand, as far as I know there is no diocese in the US that teaches its permanent deacons that this is teaching and legislative rule of the Church. I know of permanent deacons who have had children after being ordained, without any apparent concern or doubt that this presented a problem.

    Instituted acolytes are also extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion by right of their institution.

    Geoffrey, I think that “by right of their institution” means that they are ordinary ministers of Holy Communion, not extraordinary. I had thought that the required level was higher than that of instituted acolyte, (i.e. required ordination to the diaconate) but I could be mistaken. It would be great if you could point me to a source, thanks.

    [I am inclined to agree with Dr. Peters. And the Church can always change the wording to make the situation clear.]

  11. APX says:

    There’s a parish near me that lists “deacon couples” in their bulletin. I don’t think that’s the only parish that does that. I was told by one man he couldn’t become a deacon because his wife wasn’t interested in going through the program with him. Apparently in Chicago the wife has to participate also. Not sure when that was instituted.

    Married men who seek ordination (be it the deaconate or the Priesthood) must have their wife’s permission. It makes sense for wives to go through the program as well so they understand what their husband is getting into. This doesn’t surprise me. What would surprise me is if someone wasn’t allowed to become a permanent deacon because they weren’t married, which in such case would be bound to a life of celibacy such as a transitional deacon.

  12. JabbaPapa says:

    Saint Francis of Assisi was a Deacon.

    [Maybe. I don’t think that has ever been substantiated.]

  13. A Transitional Deacon says:

    TonyO,

    Canon 910 states that acolytes are extraordinary ministers of holy communion. This is also stated in GIRM 98. GIRM 100 makes it clear, though, that instituted acolytes are to be preferred over other lay extraordinary ministers.

  14. JabbaPapa says:

    maternalView :

    There’s a parish near me that lists “deacon couples” in their bulletin. I don’t think that’s the only parish that does that. I was told by one man he couldn’t become a deacon because his wife wasn’t interested in going through the program with him. Apparently in Chicago the wife has to participate also. Not sure when that was instituted.

    Well this “deacon couples” thing is obviously dodgy — but as to your other point, without not just consent by his spouse but also some actual active participation, no married man may receive ordination.

    To be the wife of a deacon or priest is a vocation in itself (supplemental to the vocation of Matrimony) which needs to be Catholic, honest, and freely given.

  15. “If it appears there are too many people in the sanctuary, they should reduce the number of non-ordained (lectors, acolytes, and other lay people), The deacon is capable of serving in these other ministries.”

    Depends on the occasion. And aside from altar servers (two, maybe?) and one lay reader, when are there “too many people in the sanctuary” at Mass, aside from the use of extraordinary ministers, which we probably don’t need anyway?

  16. mike cliffson says:

    I pass on as an ignorant old fuddy, FWIW, :a knowledgeable Spanish Layman I know middle-aged married with kids some years in the states told me that in the United States of America the permanent diaconate*’ ,s being a right disaster in general and that the original intention of the council fathers in the second Vatican Council was not for the Deacons to be in the parishes but rather to be the Bishop’s sidekicks …not quite curia as I understood it.
    BTW he calls the” spirit of Vatican II “what council fathers not that periti intended , like the apostolic origin, as opposed to what is usually understood in English by the spirit of Vatican II
    * Still few permanent deacons in Spain ,I only know one , excelkent long formation, wife into it, and is directly under his Bishops authority as to where he goes and when to do what….my intuition is that he is extremely deferential outwardly and inwardly to priests.

  17. tzabiega says:

    I agree that the main problem with permanent deacons is their incompetent formation. Working in a hospital, I am grateful for the wonderful pastoral assistance the deacons provide when a priest is not always available (especially when it is not in regards to administering the Anointing of the Sick, but spiritual guidance). But, though I have seen many goofy priests, the intellectual formation of the many priests I have met is at a much higher level than that of even the most wonderful permanent deacons I have known (and that includes some that were also physicians). With the ability these days to provide good training in philosophy and theology through internet based programs, those wishing to become permanent deacons need to be required to attain the equivalent of a master’s in theology through a rigorous, competent program. This is especially important since often they are the ones who offer pre-baptismal and pre-marriage preparation at a parish. So they need to know and understand what they are teaching equivalent to that of the priests, because after all, it is to the deacons that the responsibility of transmitting the teaching of the Gospel is given to at their ordination. That is another problem with allowing permanent deacons to become priests in places like the Amazon: the intellectual quality of priests will decline even further.

  18. Dcn PB says:

    The term “deacon couple” has to go as there is no such thing. We don’t refer to married priests and their wives as “priest couples.” This is terribly theologically inaccurate.

    With regard to the wife not being interested, in order for a man to receive the Sacrament of Holy Orders his wife must make a clear assent to the bishop and she needs to know what she is assenting to. If she doesn’t want her husband to be a deacon, the bishop will not ordain him.

  19. Deacon Pat O says:

    The question on continence has been asked of the competent authorities in Rome and answered:

    “the Pontifical Council’s observations on the matter (Prot. N. 13095/2011). The observations, which were formulated in consultation with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, clarify that married permanent deacons are not bound to observe perfect and perpetual continence, as long as their marriage lasts.”