Monday, September 6, 2010

Komonchak: "Shortage of Deacons"

My dissertation director, Fr. Joseph A. Komonchak, used to remark that "Vatican II didn't renew the diaconate because of a shortage of priests but because of a shortage of deacons."

This remains a wonderful insight! One of the great misunderstandings of the diaconate is that somehow, we exist because of the priest shortage, when in fact, that makes no sense at all. Deacons are not priests, nor are we intended to be "mini-priests" or "super-laity". I once had a wonderful person tell me that, while she loved the ministry the deacons in her diocese were contributing to the church, she couldn't wait for the priest shortage to be over. Then, she said, we wouldn't need "deacons and lay people doing all these things in church." The shortage of priests was not the primary reason the bishops at Vatican II renewed the diaconate.

Many people still think that the whole thing was an idea from the so-called "Third World" and mission territories, again because they lacked sufficient priests. Again, while some bishops thought like this, it is not the primary reason for the renewal. If the church needs more priests, DEACONS are not the answer! It also means that being a deacon is somehow a lesser grade of the priesthood. Theologian Dr. Richard Gaillardetz once described this approach as "priest, junior grade." The truth is, the majority of recommendations for a renewed diaconate came from the bishops of Europe, especially in the aftermath of World War II. We should talk about that in more detail in later posts, if people would like!

But what does it mean to say, with Komonchak, that there was (and is?) a shortage of deacons? Surely, all kinds of people were doing diaconal (servant) things. Monks, nuns, brothers, sisters, priests and countless lay persons over the centuries were caring for the poor, the sick, the disenfranchised. . . so why the need for a renewed order of deacons, if all of this service was already being done?

The answer is: GRACE. Several of the bishops at Vatican II, including the great Cardinal Suenens of Belgium, remarked that the Church was entitled to all of the graces given by the Holy Spirit, and that the diaconate itself is one of those gifts. Furthermore, he said that those people who were already doing diaconal things should be strengthened by the grace of the sacrament as well. That's why Vatican II's "Dogmatic Constitution on the Church" (Lumen gentium, #29) teaches that the deacon is "strengthened by sacramental grace."

We still have a shortage of deacons!


  1. I have seen you speak and if this blog is as inspiring and informative as your talks, the diaconate and the Church will be well served by your blog. Good luck in this endeavor.

  2. Thanks, John. Stay in touch and participate often!

    God bless,


  3. Greetings Bill

    I was sent here by my good e-friend, Deacon Greg, and look forward, as one passionate about the diaconate, to what you offer here and hope you will consider linking to my site.

    Your site begins with a surprising statement: “In 1967, there were no permanent deacons in the world”. This is patently false.

    A deacon’s primary ministry is leadership in sacrificial service in the world on behalf of Christ and the church. I’m interested that you list your academic qualifications but not what your particular diaconal ministry is.

    I totally agree that deacons are not “mini priests”. But I wonder about these 35,000 deacons you highlight. You mention that you were in the seminary and then left. Were you training for the priesthood? Are you married or celibate?

    What percentage of these 35,000 deacons are not in a religious order and have never been married? Or look at that question differently, if the Vatican brought the Latin Rite into line with the majority of its Rites and normalized married priests, what percentage of these 35,000 deacons would find they had a priestly vocation? My own suspicion is that, after some well-polished phrases, the majority would be ordained priests.

    IOW in the Latin Rite the so-called “renewal of the diaconate” is so tied to celibacy and the shortage of priests (as your posts already indicate) that might not a better place to look for this renewal be in Eastern Rites, Anglicanism, Methodism, etc.?



  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Deacon Bill,
    I have seen here and in your book 101 Questions (which is a great informative book by the way) that you state that the Diaconate was not restored because of a shortage of priests. However, do you think that it cannot be denied that a shortage of priests was an extremely influential reason for it's restoration? It states in the document: CONGREGATION FOR CATHOLIC EDUCATION CONGREGATION FOR THE CLERGY

    .....that one of the 3 reasons was because of a concern for areas in which there was a shortage of sacred ministers. On page 32 of your 101 Questions book, you state plainly that it was not restored because of a priest shortage in an end of fact manner without going into it being one of the reasons as stated by the Vatican. What is your take on this and the document I am attaching the link for that I cited. By no means is this challenging you. I am just curious as to why it is often left out or not mentioned as one of several reasons. Thank you and I look forward to your insight. Here is the link:

  6. Dear Bosco,

    Thanks for your input.

    First, on a personal note, I will not be sharing every personal detail of my life on the blog. I will share that I am married, and we have four children and eight grandchildren; I have been ordained for more than 20 years.

    Second, "leadership in sacrificial service" can take many forms, including teaching! I have served in many forms of ministry both before and after ordination, including prison ministry, religious education (with an emphasis on adult formation). I have also served in ministry to the aged and in hospital ministry.

    Third, in 1967, at least in the Latin Church, there were no deacons serving in a "permanent and stable" manner, as called for by Vatican II. There were, of course, deacons who were en route to ordination as presbyters and it was ordination as a priest which was their sacramental "end." It was in 1967 that Pope Paul VI implemented Vatican II's decision on a permanent diaconate in the Latin church by the motu proprio "Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem." The first five episcopal conferences requested authority to ordain permanent deacons that same year, and the first ordinations took place in 1968 in Germany and Africa. Remember, prior to "Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem" it was against Canon Law for a bishop to knowingly ordain a man as a deacon without the reasonable intention of eventually ordaining him to the presbyterate.

    You raise an interesting question about deacons and the presbyterate. We spend a lot of time in diaconate formation discerning whether the person has a specific vocation to the diaconate and not simply being a "frustrated priest" as some have called it. It might very well be that many deacons have vocations to the presbyterate as well; but that would be the subject of additional discernment should the possibility arise.

    Finally, yes, I was in the seminary for eight years (high school and college) preparing for service as a diocesan priest.

    God bless,


  7. Dear David,

    Thanks for your question.

    The problem is that far too many people in the United States (the same situation is not found to the same degree in other parts of the world) simply assume that THE reason we now have deacons is because of the shortage of priests.

    The problem is that the vast majority of the hundreds of bishops who supported a renewed diaconate were FIRST concerned about having a renewed diaconate because of its own unique charisms, and not simply as a backstop to deal with a shortage of priests. This is reflected in the work of several priests who were prisoners in Dachau and their later recommendations about the diaconate. They saw the diaconate as a offering a new, complementary form of ordained ministry that would offer a sacramental sign of Christ the Servant, while priests were signs of Christ the High Priest.

    Did the fact that some areas in the world were experiencing a shortage of priests enter into the conversation? Yes, but only later in this process. European bishops and theologians were discussing this during the late 1940s and 1950s; it was only in the late 1950s that bishops from mission areas began suggesting deacons as providing in a limited way for the shortage of priests.

    At Vatican II, you can read both sides of the argument, but the majority of the debates surrounded the diaconate in its own right, and not as a result of a priest shortage. The desire was for something far more profound.

    In the document you cite, you will also read in paragraph 40 that deacons are never to be assigned merely as substitutes for another's ministry (and that would include priests).

    So, what's the bottom line? The majority of bishops did not vote for the diaconate because of a priest shortage. I'm sure SOME did, but the overall thrust of the Council was much more fundamental.

    The reason that this is important is this: if we envision a diaconate that is primarily substitutionary in nature, then it becomes judged by its relationship to the priesthood, and not by its own sacramental identity.

    Does this help a bit?

    God bless,


  8. Great answer. Makes sense. Thanks for the clarification.

  9. Thanks Bill for your response. I respect and affirm your point that you not share all your personal life here. I also share with you in seeing your list of ministries as appropriate for a deacon. I'm interested in the parallel dialogue with David, and wonder, then, if in the areas of the world where there is no priest shortage has the same renewal of the diaconate proportionately and energetically as those parts where there is a priest shortage? Finally, I'm not sure that I would agree with your identification of what you term "the Latin Church" with "the world" :-)



  10. Dear Bosco,

    I take your point, and agree with it! So, I've changed the text.



  11. I think it is very interesting that the Book of Acts, which has been upheld consistently in the Tradition as showing us the first deacons (despite the novel theory of recent years debating this Tradition)shows their ministry to be more that of Word & Liturgy than Charity (while not negating any of the three munera). Charity is mentioned in passing as a reference to why the diaconate was begun (and not all contemporary Bible scholars Catholic and otherwise agree that "table" and "distribution" refer to material food). However, the sacred text then provides 2 chapters on the Ministry of the Word and Liturgy of Sts. Stephen and Philip (preaching, teaching, baptizing).

    I think that too often today we emphasize the charitable aspect to such an extent that one almost thinks it alone is synonymous with the diaconate. The US Bishops disagree and in their Directory state that all three ministries are equal and not every deacon should feel called to have each one of these as a formal ministry. Some may emphasize one more than the other two yet all three will find some level of presence in his life. I say this because an overemphasis on diaconal charitable work will eclipse the works of mercy of the religious and laity and distort our vocation, just as an overemphasis on priestly shortage with us as “fill-ins” eclipses our vocation. I also think this emphasis almost exclusively on charity shows a kind of fear of clericalism and a desire to emphasize the lay-world in which deacons live (but to which they no longer belong canonically).

    Perhaps it is in knee-jerk reaction to the “priest junior grade” idea but I have found a real hesitation bordering on fear for deacons to be taught, to know and to claim their true canonical status as clergy. I think this betrays on the part of those in charge of formation programs (that I have come to know) a real misunderstanding of the clerical state. But then again, so many of those in charge of program or on national and international leadership positions are themselves elderly men who recall a Church before Vatican II and perhaps there was a heavy clericalism then that they are reacting to now.

    But for those of us who have no conscious experience of a Church prior to the Council, I wish we would be allowed to embrace the Directory and our vocation as granted us in Canon Law and taught at Vatican II. Look at the reasons for restoring the permanent diaconate at the Council:
    “For, strengthened by sacramental grace they are dedicated to the People of God, in conjunction with the bishop and his body of priests, in the service of the liturgy, of the Gospel and of works of charity. It pertains to the office of a deacon, in so far as it may be assigned to him by the competent authority, to administer Baptism solemnly, to be a custodian and distributor of the Eucharist, in the name of the church to assist and to bless marriages, to bring Viaticum to the dying, to read the sacred Scripture to the faithful, to instruct and exhort the people, to preside over the worship and the prayer of the faithful, to administer sacramentals, and to officiate at funeral and burial services. Dedicated to works of charity and functions of administration, deacons should recall the admonition of St. Polycarp: "let them be merciful, and zealous, and let them walk according to the truth of the lord, who became the servant of all"
    Do we all see where the ministry of charity falls in this listing and who it is in proportion to ALL of our ordained work? And a look at the saint-deacons of the Church will show that most were known more for their preaching and teaching than for their social works (except St. Lawrence in his classic legend). I think this is something for deacons to reflect upon for a true and full appreciation of and renewal of our wonderful vocation for Christ and the Church.

  12. I think we need to see ourselves as missionaries to the secular world (What is now a real missiion field). In their preaching and teaching Deacons and saints Stephen and Phillip were missionaries.
    I have been a deacon for 30 years and over that time was a public high school history teacher. Within a few years of my ordination, from seeing my role at Mass, I became the "go to" guy for the students and teachers when they had a question or problem with religion or the Church. This was a situation no priest could match because few are going to knock on the rectory door to learn about the Faith. I found that "informal" missionary work at work--especially at lunch or break time can be most effective.
    Oddly fellow teachers and students took for granted I could answer their questions on anything to do with any religion. When a Jewish teacher died (and since we had few Jewish teachers on the faculty) many came to me expecting me to exoplain Jewish burial and "wake" customs and what they should do. Luckily, as a history teacher I had had a keen interest in all religions.
    One big problem our Church has is the lack of a "missionary" sense--even among our clergy, both priests and deacons.