MB recently asked:
"I would be interested in hearing about the differences in the way deacons are trained in the US as well as in other parts of the world. Seeing that your are headed to Rome, this may be something you could elaborate on."
It is frequently noted that there are roughly half of the world's deacons serving in the United States (we have approximately 17,500 deacons out of about 36,000 worldwide). I am asked frequently why the diaconate has been so warmly received here. Well, the first thing to keep in mind is that we have to remember just how big the United States is: we have 196 dioceses and eparchies in the US, and nearly all of them have deacons. By comparison, I believe that there are only 22 dioceses in Germany. When you look at things this way, you quickly realize that there are many countries who have "received" the renewed diaconate with just as much vigor as the United States: Brazil, Germany, Italy, France, most of the countries of Eastern Europe (with the exception of Poland, which is just beginning its renewal of the diaconate; that's a whole other story!): ALL have thriving diaconates.
So, how does formation differ, as MB asks? Well, let's take a look at Germany as an example. In Germany, anyone who wishes to pursue official ministry (whether as a lay person or a deacon) must FIRST complete either a degree in Theology or, if that's not possible, a nationally-approved certificate program in Theology (approved by the German Bishops' Conference). The theory is simple: theology is the language of ministry, and all who would minister in any capacity is expected to be competent in it. Then, after the degree or certificate is completed, there is a discernment process to see who should be invited to the diaconate, and who might be called to some form of lay ecclesial ministry.
Those who go into diaconate formation then go through a four year or so program, much like the US. However, the big difference is that it is usually divided into three stages. First is the "diaconal stage"; more about that later. Second is the "homiletic stage", in which all deacon candidates must attain competence as preachers; the same standards are used for deacons as for priests; outside of the US, I find very little reluctance over deacons preaching: since we are clerics, we preach. End of story. Third, there is the "sacramental stage" in which the candidates practice how to do baptisms, weddings, prayer services, and the like. Again, remember that there's no need to spend a lot of time on the theological basis for all of this since they've already completed a theology degree/certificate; so the formation is very practical in nature.
Now, back to the "diaconal stage". Here, each candidate is sent back to his home town (note: NOT just to his home parish, but to his home town/city). There, he is to identify a need that is currently not being met and do whatever it takes to meet it. This is not a hypothetical project: the candidate is expect actually to DO it. For example, a friend of mine went home and realized that there was nothing available for day care/ early childhood education for the children of single parents, especially single mothers. Now, he knew nothing about how to proceed, but he put together a team of experts who did: people who understood insurance, construction, fund raising, licensing for child care providers, education, and so on. Under his leadership, the bought land, built a building, held a capital campaign, trained professional staff and volunteers and launched the school. Last time I checked it was still going strong, 20 years later.
To be a deacon, one has to demonstrate the ability to "see" diaconally, and to be able to identify the gifts and skills needed to meet the needs of the situation. Notice how this approach focuses on collegiality and collaboration, as well as moving beyond simple parish boundaries. This is not a "parish" school whatsoever; it's a community school, run by this deacon and his staff.
In the past, I have shared this model with deacon formation directors in the US. About half of them loved it and wanted more information on it; the other half said people would kill them if they tried to introduce this system in their own dioceses! I rather like it, though, both for its foundational appreciation of theology as prerequisite for ministry in general, and for its practical applicability for the diaconate.