From a permanent deacon…
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.
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.