Monday, March 28, 2011

Deacons and Diakonia: Too Many Deacons?

Recently the Diocese of Worcester announced that it was suspending its diaconate formation program pending a thorough review of the pastoral needs of the diocese.  You can read about it here.  The basic question seems to be: "Do we have enough deacons?"

This raises some interesting areas for discussion, especially in light of what we've already examined about the nature of the diaconate.  The article mentions the possibility that there might be enough deacons to meet the needs of the diocese.  Deacon Gerald Du Pont, the current head of the National Association of Deacon Directors, and Fr. Shawn MacKnight, the Executive Director of the Secretariat for Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops were both interviewed for the article.

I simply would like to make two points:

1) No one should ever be ordained to any order (bishop, deacon, presbyter) if there is no pastoral need for that ministry.  The ordained ministries do not exist for the good of the ordained themselves, but for the common good and building up of the whole People of God (see, for example, Lumen gentium 18).  We don't often think of this important dimension; it is far more common to speak of the vocation a particular person receives and then responds to.  When approached in this way, a vocation can be (mistakenly) as a personal thing: "I have received a vocation from God to be [bishop, presbyter, deacon]."  However, that is only half the story: an ecclesial vocation is, in fact, just that -- a vocation exercised with and for the Church.  Lumen gentium 29 further states: "It pertains to the competent territorial bodies of bishops, of one kind or another, with the approval of the Supreme Pontiff, to decide whether and where it is opportune for such deacons to be established for the care of souls."  Therefore, to review the pastoral needs of a diocese in terms of the ordained ministers needed is certainly appropriate.  

2)  However, here's the rub.  The question becomes: How do we determine the needs of the diocesan Church?  It is in response to this question that I think we sometimes jump to wrong conclusions.  There is too often a tendency to filter this question through pastors and parishes: "What do our parishes need?"  "How will the deacon fit into these needs?"  But the church is not confined to parishes, nor is the church's service exercised solely through parishes.  Certainly it is important to know about specific parochial needs; but we must ensure that someone is assessing the needs of the broader church and community, and this is precisely a principal diaconal venue of service.

The problem really only arises when deacons are understood primarily as PARISH ministers, not if they are understood as ministering in venues that transcend the parish. 

Further the "funding" of the diaconate should never come solely from parish resources. Whoever "pays" for something feels like they "own" something.  If the deacon is truly a diocesan minister, then the diocese needs to find extra-parochial sources for funding.

In conclusion, I would suggest that it is perfectly reasonable to assess the pastoral needs of the diocesan church for ordained ministry; however, in the assessment of those needs vis-a-vis the diaconate, it should be ensured the widest possible lens be used, and that more than parish-centered needs be worked into the equation.


  1. As always, Bill, a very insightful take on things. But the church is not confined to parishes, nor is the church's service exercised solely through parishes. It truly is about assessing broader, extra-parochial needs! When I look at the concept of ministry in healthy evangelical churches, the locus of ministry is outside of the congregation (i.e., what happens inside is meant to impact what happens outside). As Catholics I don't think we forget about this, it just makes us uncomfortable.

    I know prior to Archbishop Niederauer departure from our diocese, he spoke openly about wanting to have deacons engage in exactly this kind of ministry. Perhaps if we're attentive, the Spirit is telling us it is time to take this step, which I think would help solidify the identity of deacons.

  2. Very practical, Bill. Well said - as always! When I consider this question, I always think of what Fr. Ed Salmon used to say:

    "How will we know when we have enough deacons?

    When all the needs of the marginalized and vulnerable are met. When to gather the gifts of the church and take them to the world, and to gather the needs of the world and bring them to the church, has become a habit.

    When deacons going back and forth, have worn down the boundary lines that we use to keep the church and the world separated.

    When deacons leading the baptized in and out, have beaten a path between the altar and the gutter so that everyone will see the link between the Blood in our chalices and the blood in our streets and in Iraq.

    When all people respond to the challenge to live, not in the love of power, but in the power of love.

    May God bless us with enough foolishness to believe that we can make a difference in this world and in our Church; so that we shall do what others claim cannot be done."

    Just a thought . . .

  3. All those committed to the formation of deacons are invited to assess what is happening in Worcester and elsewhere in a prayerful manner. Is God leading deacons to be formed in the New Evangelization and not simply in "helping Father around the Parish"? If so what does that mean for formation, its content, its candidates and spiritual focus?

    This also has ramifications for curriculum. Should we be emphasizing more pointed studies in the theology of the laity and their role as transformers of culture.As we follow the laity out the door do we all know enough about the "martyrdom" they are called to and how we might better assist them spiritually and catechetically to accomplish the new evangelization?

    Thanks Bill

    Jim Keating

  4. Three powerful responses/reflections here. I plan to open my next formation class with the quotation that Deacon Frank Williams shared. Thanks so much for it!

  5. The problem is that some Catholic priests and bishops do not have a missionary-evangelical attitude, but a static, bureaucratic attitude. Consequently when deacons come along as the ones in the best position to be missionaries to the secular world--on their secular jobs, in their families and neighborhoods, in their kid's schools and activities--those clergy with a narrow, constricted view of ministry are sadly quick to be befuddled. Instead they should be saying "Wow! Now we can infiltrate every corner of society and spread the Catholic Faith in new and creative ways."

  6. That's a great quote from Fr. Ed. However, he was quoting someone else! I'll look it up, but he was actually citing an Anglican woman deacon (archdeacon, actually). When Ed first shared this quote, everyone went up to him and asked for permission to use it, and he provided the actual citation. I have it somewhere in my files and will provide it.

    God bless,


  7. I did some further research and learned that Fr. Salmon borrowed the lines from an Anglican archdeacon--and a female one at that! He included them in a wonderful prayer for candidates that was printed in a publication for the deacons of the diocese of Lansing:

    I'm going to use it as the opening prayer in my class next Saturday. Thanks to Deacon Frank and Deacon Bill for the leads on it.

  8. Your site article is very intersting as well as fanstic,at the same time your blog theme is exclusive and ideal,great job.To your success.

    generic nolvadex