Thursday, October 7, 2010

Formation of Deacons -- US and Abroad

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.

Interesting, no?


  1. As Bill noted,"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 part of the formation is brilliant and makes a great deal of sense. We have spent 40 years training intra ecclesial lay ministers to "help' around the parish. The deacon needs to see more broadly, deeply and with an eye toward what has not been attended to as yet. I hope many formation programs take up this part of the european model.

    Jim Keating

  2. Bill:

    The issue of pre-requisites for any program in Diaconal formation has gone through a lot of transformations across the country over the years:

    --Once upon a time, way back in the beginnings of the diaconate movement in our country (early-mid 1970's), at least one diocese had as an admissions requirement that an applicant for the diaconate already had to have a Masters of Arts in Religious Studies or a Masters of Arts in Pastoral Ministry or even a Masters of Divinity. Needless to say, that diocese never saw a huge number of applicants.

    --Another approach was slightly more mellow. One diocese I know about had an extremely successful Lay Ministry Program open to everyone regardless of age or gender. Guys who were interested in becoming deacons, however, had to either (1) already have serious undergraduate or graduate coursework in Roman Catholic Theology (but not necessarily "earned" degrees); or (2) the applicants needed to complete at least two years of that five year Lay Ministry Program.

    My genuine concern in both of these examples was the issue of diaconal applicants from cultural minority communities. The number of African- American or Latin-American or even Native American ("First Nation" in Canada)potential applicants for the diaconate who have that kind of college-level theological training is slim or none.

    I really do not know how to solve this problem in the short-term -- but it is one continuing issue that is not going away.

    Deacon Norb in Ohio

  3. It is my understanding that in Germany in particular Permanant Deacons more than likely to be full time deacons paid by the church- through the chuch taxes. This puts an different emphasis on diaconal formation. Also the candidates are younger than in the States. (Topic for another post?)
    My comment however, is the following, does this emphasis on qualifications, degrees and such crowd out the vocation aspect of the diaconate. There are in the world very qualified professionals who do serve, in all sorts of ways. The diaconate becomes a profession and not a vocation. Would the patron of priests the Cure of Ars St John Vianney have qualified to be a Permannat Deacon, or even a Priest if the criteria were so vigorous then?
    God does not chose the qualified, he qualifies the chosen.

    Peace & Blessings
    Deacon Clayton Nickel

  4. I am really impressed that in all of the required training, the part that is characterized as "diaconal" is formation in serving human needs: "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." WOW!

    I hate to say it, but in the increased emphasis I see being placed on academic formation for candidates in the USA, this specifically diaconal formation seems to be diminishing in importance.

  5. Several comments.

    First, the desire for a more complete formation of deacons, across ALL FOUR DIMENSIONS of formation as outlined by JPII in "Pastores Dabo Vobis" is now being experienced in the formation of ALL ministers, clerical and lay. The human, spiritual, academic and pastoral must all be attended to, and that includes prospective deacons as well. It's helpful not to isolate deacons in this matter: the church is expecting all of her ministers to be competent across the board if we are to serve competently the diverse population of the world today. We have had, unfortunately, to many examples -- of priests, deacons and lay ecclesial ministers -- who, although overflowing with holiness and good intentions, are not always as well prepared as they ought to be, and wind up hurting more than they help.

    Second, in Germany, very few deacons are full-time PAID staff. Most deacons there, as with deacons in the US, are employed in secular occupations and essentially volunteer their time. The provision of paying parish clergy in Germany extends to priests, not to deacons, unless the deacon is actually living in the parish house with his family and administering the parish in the absence of a priest.

    In my travels, I have rarely, if ever, encountered a formation program for deacons which, even if high academic credentials were expected as a norm, were not willing to make exceptions in exceptional cases. I'm not aware of any diocese in which a certainl level of degree is an ABSOLUTE requirement. Certainly the church universal does not require it absolutely, nor does the USCCB. Such decisions are made appropriately at the level of the diocesan bishop, and what he holds as a norm, he can adapt!

    One more comment on the German formation program I mentioned. Notice how balanced it is in this regard: while it is particularly focused on the pastoral, practical meeting of needs, remember that all of this follows the attainment of either a graduate academic degree OR the national certification in theology (and it's challenging; I've examined their materials!). So, again, a BLEND of academic and pastoral, as well as human and spiritual dimensions, are essential.

    God bless,


  6. I am among the extremely rare few in our diocese (3 or 4 out of about 95) who possess advanced degrees in philosophy and/or theology. I have beent old over and over by the priests that they do not have confidence in the content and depth of the deacon's academic formation and this is the main reason why they do not give their parish deacons more preaching assignments or have them lead RCIA, etc.

    I think a deacon's academic formation should be minimally a Bachelor's Degree level, ideally a Master's Degree. Why should the Church/people expect less from us
    than from the priests? If we preach and teach as official clergy of the Church we must KNOW the content. This will also riase the level of respect among the pother clergy.

    If a candidate cannot attain a degree due to intellectual inability, he can always be a invaluable service to the Church as lay minister and would anyone doubnt the tremendous value of lay apostolic work? In my diocese at least there are many dedicated men in the diaconate who really cannot explain much even simply on the level of the Catechism. I think that's both an injustice to the men, who are naturally asked countless questions by parihsioners as well as to the people who have a right to an informed and educated clergy.

  7. I just noticed there is another "Diakonos" commenting. Just for clarification...we are not the same men.