Thursday, November 4, 2010

"Doing the Diaconate Right"

Sometimes when a bishop dies or retires, certain things are put on hold until the new bishop takes over.  Often, this includes a decision about the diaconate: should we start another formation class, or wait until the new bishop is here?  (Obviously, in my own opinion, there should be no question that things should continue, just as seminarians are not pulled from seminaries to see if the new bishop wants priests.  But that's a different post!)

I once served on a diocesan staff where this situation took place.  Well, the new bishop took over and announced to us that "if we're going to do the diaconate in this diocese, we're going to do it right, or not at all."  Well that stirred things up!  What does it mean to "do diaconate right"?

In a recent essay I wrote for a book released in Ireland on the diaconate, as they prepare for their first-ever ordinations of "permanent" deacons, I list five factors that I think are important to "doing diaconate right."  There are probably many more, but I thought I'd post these five here and see what people think of them.

1) Select only those applicants who have the gifts and abilities to be servant-leaders across the whole range of diaconal ministry.

2) Approach the diaconate with the same energy and commitment given to the presbyterate.

3) Recognition by all that the deacon is not a part-time minister.

4) Deacons must be correctly perceived as being ordained for service to the entire diocese, not simply to a parish.

5) There needs to be a solid framework of human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral dimensions from the moment an applicant enters formation throughout his active ministerial career.

Is your diocese "doing it right"?  What do you think?  What would you add, substract or modify?


  1. Dear Deacon Bill,

    Can you explain what you mean by a deacon not being a part time minister? Isn't the thought that most deacons work full time secular jobs?

  2. Dear Michael,

    Once a person is ordained, they are ordained; the diaconate is not something you can put on and take off, like a suit or something.

    One of the main reasons for the renewal of a permanently-exercised diaconate was that deacons would be present -- as ordained ministers of the church -- even in secular environments, such as their workplaces.

    So, my statement is a theological one, not an employment one. Yes, we would hope most deacons would still be working in full-time "secular" occupations; but they do so as deacons. In other words, he's ALWAYS ministering.

    Does that help?


  3. Good post. Excellent topic. I would say:

    Applicants need to have a sufficent intellectual capacity as part of your "abilities to be servant-leaders across the whole range of diaconal ministry." There were guys in my class and in now who cannot handle even the most basic theological studies. IF deacons are to be credible and desirable ministers of the Word they must be able to accurately and intelligently preach and teach on a level equal to the priests.

    This doesn't mean every deacon must be an intellectual at all but there should be the capacity to study on a college level. Many pastors I know here and have known in other dioceses hesitate to let the deacon preach because they say the formation was so poor and the knowledge so minimal. I think this compromises our vocation and ministry in the minds of many clergy.

    I would also say deacons need to ne seen as ORDAINED period, let alone diocese vs. parish (though I fo agree with that 100%). I think much of the fault for out lack of perception as ordained clergy is our own fault by having an atittude of emphsaizing identification with laity more than clergy, especially in clercial garb when/where appropriate. Collar does NOT mean "I want to be a priest" or a desire to be seen as such. In the eyes of people (not just the faithful) a collar means one thing: ORDAINED. As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words.


  4. Hmmm:

    In my mind, accepting the deacon as clergy has little to do with wearing a collar. (BTW: I've been a deacon for 32 years; I do own a collar but only bought it prior to my 2007 pilgrimage to Rome. I have not worn it since.)

    I do wear -- almost all the time when in public -- a small "Deacons' Cross" on my shirt/sweater/blazer. I prefer the style created by the deacons of Ogdensburg NY (even though my own diocese has their own design) because Ogdensburg has variants which list the years in service (mine says "30").

    Now:I have argued for some time against a required use of the "collar" in my diocese and will continue to do so.

    And, yes, I do have an earned doctorate and preach on a regular basis.

    Deacon Norb in Ohio

  5. I agree with Diakonos.
    It is my opinion that anyone entering the Diaconate should have a college degree of some sort. We are taking college credit courses accredited by our local seminary and receive grades every semester. One needs to be able to handle a college workload. Priests get their Master's degree and I think deacons should at least be on a close educated playing field. This topic has been brought up in our diocese but St. Jean Vianney always seems to come up.

  6. The theological study needs to be on-going, even if one has already attained an MA. As one of my professors has pointed out, there are 2000 years of Chruch tradition, and most of us at best will comprehend 50 years! From my own studies I have come to understand that it is an essential, on going part of my deeper journey of faith, essential to sharing with others

  7. I agree with Diakonas, especially with regard to the wearing of a collar. If Deacons are of the caliber described and sought after in other posts the ability to wear or not wear a collar should be something a Deacon could handle. While I agree it doesn't have to be mandatory but it shouldn't be discouraged or outlawed. I will admit to being somewhat split on the educational element of this discussion. I am disappointed that my diocese doesn't attach academic credit for the studies there are men in my class that don't have as much formal education that have a better grasp and understanding on a human level of dealing with parishoners. By the way I am in my second year of formation so my perspective may be a little different from those who are already ordained.

  8. I have just re-reread my last post. Please excuse the grammatical and punctuation errors. I must be more tired than I realize.

  9. Norbert wrote:

    "I have argued for some time against a required use of the "collar" in my diocese and will continue to do so."

    Good for you Norbert. Of course the problematical word here is "required." There are times when wearing the collar is very helpful in ministry as there are examples of when it is worn inappropriately. You would think that we deacons were old enough at 35+ to be able to make that judgement for ourselves, and so words like "required" and "forbidden" would be unnecessary.
    In my archdiocese some years ago there was an edict of "forbidden." After dozens of letters to the archbishop saying "so are you ashamed of us?" that was lifted. In our case there were two or three men whom we all knew were wearing the collar inappropriately but, of course it was much easier for the authority to issue a blanket "forbidden" than to confront and counsel the offending parties.

  10. Dcn Norbert: Congratulations on 32 years in ordained ministry! WOW. May God grant me such a grace.

    Re the Collar/Deacon Cross: I am assuming that you are in your late 60s or early 70s and so I think your generation sees this issue differently from mine (under 50 crowd who do not much if any memory of a pre-Vatican II Church).

    Your generation of nuns, for example, abandoned religious dress choosing lay clothes with a cross or "identification pin". In hindsight we now see that this well intentioned experiement was an utter failure in serving as public witness and attracting vocations. The nuns who retained recognizable public religious dress are today trying to find more space for recruits while the other sisters are amalgamating their religious congregagtions in order to survive.

    I think the same can be said about deacons. I think the cross/pin is great and should be used when in layt clothes but in ministry the collar serves as witness, serves as public presence of the Church, and also shows the younger men in our parish that a deacon is not just "the guy who helps Father at Mass and reads the Gospel". Collar-wearing deacons in ministry will result in more younger men SEEING US in action and at least considering our vocation as an option while young and not just when in retirement.

    Also, I firmly believe from my experience on the Pacific Coast that the collar is really more of a turf issue. For example, seminarians can wear it at will and so can transitional deacons and no one worries about either being confused with a priest or questions them as to why they are dressing that way. Funny, huh?

  11. Mr Diakonos, i am sorry but your argument does not follow. as far as i understand, the numbers of deacon has been growing in the past 30 years yet the common practice in most all dioceses has been to restrict the use of deacons using the collar. your logic does not follow, one could also say that if it is not broke don't fix it

  12. Anthony - my post was on YOUNGER men becoming deacons, seeing it as a viable vocation, attracted to an active ministerial vocation as deacon at home,at work, in the parish or diocese, in charitable works. I am very well aware that retired/older men join up and that's cool, too. No way do I mean to put them down.

    As far as restricting the use of the collar, you are wrong to assume a bishop has this authority, He can only tell a deacon when he MUST wear the collar, not when he may not. It is a canonical right to wear clerical garb granted to ALL deacons (transitional or permanent)as well of course as to the other clerics - bishops and priests. Perhaps I should let someone else state the facts. Here is an excerpt from an well researched and footnoted article by Duane Galles, Homiletic & Pastoral Review magazine, 1997. He is a doctor of both canon and civil law. Nothing has changed in canon law since this article:

    "But for canon 288, these considerations would argue in favor of the requirement that permanent deacons must ordinarily wear clerical dress and use the clerical style of address. This canon recognizes that, as clerics, permanent deacons have a right to clerical dress but at the same time permits them not to make use of their privilege of clerical dress and style of address, unless particular law makes a contrary provision and requires that permanent deacons wear clerical dress. Thus, unless the diocesan bishop has decreed that permanent deacons wear clerical dress, they are not required-by virtue of canon 288-to avail themselves of the privilege of clerical dress. At the same time since the regulation of clerical dress and address is given to the conference (and not to the diocesan bishops as in canon 136 of the 1917 Code), it is ultra vires of the legislative competence of the diocesan bishop to legislate on what consists of proper clerical dress and style of address in his diocese.

    While the bishop can require the permanent deacon to wear clerical dress, he cannot forbid him to do so. Canon 1336 tells us that to deprive one of his right, privilege or title is to inflict a penalty. At the same time canon 1342(2) forbids an ordinary perpetually to impose a penalty merely by administrative decree in a penal case. It follows that an ordinary cannot perpetually deprive a permanent deacon of the privilege of clerical dress merely by administrative process. By the same token all deacons by virtue of their ordination have the right to their clerical style of address and cannot, absent judicial process, be perpetually deprived of it.

    Thus, all deacons, permanent as well as transitional, as clerics remain free to make use of what has long been a clerical privilege and wear the black cassock, the black biretta, the black clerical suit with Roman collar. They also have a right to the clerical style of address "The Rev. Mr." These they may use or not use on their own initiative. They may not, however, be deprived of these privileges without due canonical process in judicial form."

    The entire articel can be found here:

  13. Sorry, link got cut off. Here it is

  14. PLEASE ADD: "_deacons.htm" to the link. Don't know why it cuts off.

  15. Mr Diakonos,
    your first post made a comparison with Sisters no longer wearing a habit and drop in vocations, and that the same would happen with deacons if they did not wear the collar. but the diaconate in the US has continued to grow the past 30 years with the majority following the practice of Deacon Norb. that is why i said your logic does not follow.

  16. Anthony - I see what you are saying about my post. I should have been clearer in expressing that I was referring to younger vocations. The Sisters communities that are dying out are filled with the elderly (average age of 72). The tradiional communities are vibrant and filling up (average age of 32). I guess I was thinking of an larger, more active and visible presence of deacons. Sorry for the confusion.

  17. Dear Friends,

    We always get lots of "play" when the subject turns to deacons in collars. Maybe some background will be helpful; much of what I'm going to share is based on my 20+ years as a deacon, and even more on my years of service at the USCCB, so I can give a bit of insight into how the US bishops see some of these things.

    First, the pros and cons of wearing collars have been discusssed and debated for the whole 42 years that the "permanent" diaconate has been around here in the US. EVERY argument -- pro and con -- that could be made HAS been made. And the bishops get it. There is sign value to having deacons in collars that cannot, and is not, denied. But for every reason FOR a deacon to wear a collar, there are counter reasons NOT to. Some of the most passionate proponents of the "no collar for deacons" perspective are deacons themselves.

    Second, the reason that the US bishops have never promulgated particular law on this subject is that they wish to keep this decision at the diocesan bishop level. In some dioceses, NO CLERIC wears clericals; if there was a national policy on this that REQUIRED collars, the deacons would be the ONLY people in collars. If there was a national policy that DENIED the collar altogether, and an individual bishop wanted his deacons in collars, he wouldn't be able to direct that. So, the bishops, after significant discussion, have left the issue up to individual diocesan bishop discretion.

    Diakonos, you cite the article by Duane Galles; however, most canonists disagree with this analysis. In the language of canon law, the "learned doctors" are split on the question. So, your observation: "As far as restricting the use of the collar, you are wrong to assume a bishop has this authority, He can only tell a deacon when he MUST wear the collar, not when he may not. It is a canonical right to wear clerical garb granted to ALL deacons (transitional or permanent)as well of course as to the other clerics - bishops and priests" is not accurate. The bishop, under canon law, has full authority in his diocese to restrict any and all aspects of clerical ministry and life. He can direct, for example, that a priest not wear clerical garb while he's suspended for some reason, and he's fully within his canonical rights to tell deacons when the can or cannot wear clerical garb. The bishop has "full, proper and ordinary power" over the diocese. I'm afraid that Galles' analysis, while it sounds convincing on one level, has not been persuasive on other levels -- primarily because he does not seem to take the bishop's authority into account. Of course, I'm a theologian, not a canonist, so if Duane sees this and wants to correct me, I'd welcome it!

    More in the next comment. . . .

  18. Part Two:

    "Clerical garb" is whatever the diocesan bishop says it is. There's no international or national "description" of what constitutes clerical garb for anyone. As we all know, "clerical garb" into the 20th century was a plan frock coat: no collars, etc. What we see as standard now is a fairly recent innovation.

    Finally, while I certainly agree that there are times when wearing a collar can be helpful (I've worn the collar on many occasions during my years as a deacon), I think there are other things we should be thinking about as well.

    For example, like it or not, people associate the collar with the priesthood. Sometimes that gives us a lot of NEGATIVE baggage to lug around, too! It's not just a question of the positive dimension of being recognized as clergy; there can be negative ramifications as well.

    Also, we deacons are SUPPOSED to be "clergy with a difference." Maybe we should be focused more on being identified, not with existing clerical structures, but with new and more creative ways of being visible. As Anthony observed, in a very astute point, is that the diaconate has grown from zero in 1965 to now over 36,000 largely without being associated with the collar, and there's absolutely not factual data to suggest that those dioceses that put their deacons in collars have any greater number of diaconal vocations than any other.

    Just some reflections on the wonderful comments posted.

    What do you think?


  19. Deacon Bill - thank you for all your comments. I can see this is a very emotional issue for you. Though obviously younger than you, I also have postgraduate theology, canon law and a decent number of years of ministry in parish and diocese.

    Those of us of the younger, more traditional "JPII" generation, like our counterparts in religious life will assume the collar as wisdom and common sense in ministry tell us. We know we stand firmly on this canonical right unless it is clearly revoked by canon law which is above any local/diocesan regulations. And I am sure than many deacons of the Pius XII-Paul VI generation will continue in their lay clothes.


  20. Dear Diakonos,

    No, actually, it's not a very emotional issue for me. It's just that I've had a lot of experience dealing with this question from a variety of perspectives because of my duties with the bishops. And, as I said, I have worn the collar in the past, and may do so again in the future as pastoral need suggests. So this is not personally a very emotional issue for me.

    But I think you have a real weakness in your stance that a bishop cannot apply a practice in his diocese such as determining the use of clerical garb. As I said, you are certainly free to follow Duane's argument if you wish; however, it is -- in the judgment of most other canonists and especially bishop-canonists, that he is incorrect in his conclusion.

    I also hope you're able to move beyond a generational attitude here. It's NOT just "older" guys who like to wear "lay clothes" and "younger" guys who like the collar. Wow, is that both judgmental and simplistic at the same time! Maybe it's you that is dealing with an emotional response to this whole issue, my brother. Believe me, around the country, there are plenty of younger deacons who prefer not to wear clericals and older guys who do. This really is not a generational issue.

    And I do get emotional about that generational thing. When I was in the seminary, you never heard anyone say, "I'm a John XXIII priest"; that kind of personality cult business started during JPII's papacy, and it's dangerous. We are priests and deacons OF CHRIST AND THE CHURCH and not of any one pope. It implies a kind of "taking of sides" when we're supposed to be signs of communion.

    I mean no offense here at all. I value your comments. But it's getting late and I'm teaching a graduate seminar all day tomorrow so I need to shut down for the night. Let's talk again soon.

    God bless,


  21. Deacon Bill - absolutely no hard feelings here at all. I love debate and discussion. If we stick to canon law which is what all are bound to, then we see that Canon 288 in regard to permanent deacons gives the Ordinary/Conference the option of stating when their deacons may NOT claim the exemption from clerical clothing (or the other canons listed therein). It gives no authority or option for what some dioceses have done in stating when the deacon MAY wear the collar or may not. I believe it is this action which is at the heart of the debate.

    Of course I believe that a bishop is the ultimate authority in his diocese for whatever areas the universal Church grants this to him. He has this authority from his apostolic office and it is exercised in obedient communionwith the See of Peter.

    As to the generational thing. I do not usually appeal to it except when it is germane. I think no one who is conscious of contemporary Church history can deny the chasm between the generation of 1960s thirst for change the desire of the others for continuity with the tradition. I think this is a healthy tension that does no harm to fraternity or unity when done, as Augustine states, "in charity". I am not claiming affiliation of deacons with one pontiff or another...that was simply a way to refer to theological and ecclesial attitudes which are, indeed, very apparent and different.

  22. Back to an earlier thread in this series: "Accepting the deacon as clergy." I have to ask: "Why is 'accepting the deacon as clergy' all that important ? I'm not at all sure that the folks I minister to are all that concerned about it.

    --On the "ugly" side of this debate is the issue of "clericalism." It can be defined in many ways but one is a overbearing attitude that you as clergy (bishop/priest/deacon) are something so special you do not associate with mere mortals (laity?).

    --Critical to all of this is the role/interaction of bishop/priest/deacon. IF a vertical hierarchial
    relationship is in place in a given diocese, the average laity can very easily assume a deacon to be either a "glorified altar-boy" or a "mini-priest." If there is a more triangular relationship -- where all three levels of orders respect each other's ministries, then having the laity to accept the deacon as clergy is going to be a lot easier.

    --The local diocesan bishop is the key. If he respects his deacons as clergy, and values them -- both collectively and individually -- then the laity in the pews (and the priests in the rectory) will follow his example also.

    Only the very best of blessings!

    Deacon Norb in Ohio

  23. This thread may be the longest in the blog so far, and it started out with one of the most promising take-off points for discussion: How do we do the diaconate right? Somehow, though, it veered off into clerical garb and canon law. I can't help but think this is revealing, but I'm not sure what exactly it reveals. Mostly, I'm just sorry it went that way.

  24. Dear Ron,

    Interesting comment! Thanks for bringing that up.

    For anyone still following this item, what ELSE should we talk about "doing diaconate right"?

  25. i think it might be helpful to try and follow Ron's comment, it might just reveal some insight at a major block in doing the diaconate right. the conversation could have gone many ways, but it took the path of clerical garb, canon law, using generational polemics,
    and a tone of "the bishop cant tell me what not to wear".
    i think if one goes a little deeper, they might find some issues that deacons need to look at if they want to so diaconate right?

    one can have all the programs and all the debates one wants, but i suspect that what determines the real value of the diaconate are how the actual deacons live their life of ministry and service.

  26. And now maybe a different twist yet:

    In a recent e-mail I sent to our local Dean, I pointed out a fact few folks realize.

    Our church needs more deacons than priests.

    The reason for that is the probable maximum tenure of a celibate priest is 49 years of active ministry (ordained at 26; senior status/retired at 75). In comparison for deacons, while 75 is still the age listed in Canon Law for senior status/retirement, only a very few are ordained around 35. Most are in the late 40's to early 60's when they are ordained. Thus 40 years of active ministry as a deacon, while possible, is extremely rare. Maybe 25 years would be more average (half that of a priest).

    My parish of current assignment -- approximately 4,000 people -- has one priest (the pastor) one active deacon (me), one senior status/retired deacon in ill health, and one deacon-candidate. We are barely keeping our head above the water-line. Would this possibly suggest a priest/pastor at 2,500 folks and an active deacon for every 1,000 more parishioners above that?

    Another specific parish in our diocese with slightly over 10,000 folks on roster has one priest/pastor; one (rookie) priest/ assistant pastor; usually has one pastoral intern (either a fourth-year theology student or a transitory deacon); three permanently ordained deacons and one deacon candidate. They are also barely keeping their head above water as well.

    I'd love to learn what works in other places.

    Deacon Norb in Ohio

  27. Dear Deacon Norb,

    Thanks for your comment, which I believe to be, as the Brits say, "spot on."

    Only one minor clarification, if I may: Canon Law only specifies "retirement" at age 75 for diocesan bishops and for priests serving in the office of pastor (technically, if a priest is not serving as a pastor, canon law does not require him to retire at 75).

    All other retirement ages are set by particular law, usually established by diocesan bishops. So, in your case, the bishop has obviously set the age for clergy (priest/deacon) retirement at 75. Other dioceses use 70; at least one diocese starts a "retirement zone" at 65, with mandatory retirement at 75.

    My point is that, since all of this (except pastors and diocesan bishops) is set by a local lawgiver, that local lawgiver can change it.

    God bless,


  28. Great blog, I've had a great time reading it.

    Deacon Ditewig, in one of our classes you spoke about something I would like to hear again concerning the Transitional vice Permanent Diaconate.

    It often seems as if we have two types of Deacons and not one ordained ministry.

    I believe you pointed out that the Diaconate and Presbyteral ordinations and callings are different and should be treated distincty. An example may be that while someone may be called to the Diaconate, it does not necessari;y follow they are called to the presbytery and vice versa.

    I ask for two reasons and things I have heard. The first is that deacons are often introduced as permanent or transitional deacons, not just deacons. The second is some persons making reference to priests being both priests and deacons, while permanent deacons are "just" deacons. What is your view?

  29. Dear Al,

    You asked:

    "I ask for two reasons and things I have heard. The first is that deacons are often introduced as permanent or transitional deacons, not just deacons. The second is some persons making reference to priests being both priests and deacons, while permanent deacons are "just" deacons. What is your view?"


    The problem is that theologically we have ONE diaconate (there's only one order of deacons), but two different ways in which that diaconate is lived out. However, the USCCB and many diocesan offices have done away with the distinction. In the mid-1990's, for example, the USCCB "Secretariat for the Permanent Diaconate" was changed to the "Secretariat for the Diaconate." It was an attempt to stress the "oneness" of the diaconate.

    One of the reason many of us argue for the elimination of the mis-titled "transitional" diaconate is to focus on the vocation of deacon. Men in the seminary are discerning a vocation to the presbyterate, not to the diaconate. And, just like the ancient church, there's no need for a priest to be ordained deacon first, any more than there's a need for a deacon to be ordained a subdeacon first. And, furthermore, most presbyters do NOT identify themselves as deacons after they're ordained as presbyters.

    The "just deacons" thing comes from the older system that was in place until 1972, where all subordinate ordinations led inexorably to the presbyterate. Everything "less" than the presbyterate was "just" something "less" than the real ordination to presbyterate. For many people today, our popular imagination still things like that, even though the practice of the church on this point has significantly changed.

    We're waiting for our collective popular imagination to catch up!

    God bless,


  30. Thanks so much, that is very clear and concise!