A call of their own: The role of deacons in the church

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Deacons are not meant to be mini-priests, or super-laypeople. But the church as we know it wouldn’t be the same without them.

Even after nearly 50 years, the permanent diaconate still confuses some people. If deacons aren’t priests, are they laypeople? No—they are ordained. Some deacons say that priests have told them that theirs is not a “real” vocation. Wrong again. Deacons are called to embody the image of Christ the servant; they represent the church in the community, and at Sunday Mass they bring the needs of the community to the attention of the church.

Deacon William Ditewig, now director of the diaconate office in the Diocese of Monterey, California and the former head of the U.S. bishops’ office for deacons, says their dual role in parish and community makes deacons ideal for “connecting the dots.”

Ever since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) restored the permanent diaconate in the church, the numbers of deacons in United States have been off and running. The United States currently leads the world with about 18,000 deacons, more than 15,000 of whom are in active ministry. By contrast, Poland did not ordain its first permanent deacon until 2003, and India not until 2006. Many countries have only one or two deacons.  

Ditewig was ordained a deacon in 1990 while on active duty in the U.S. Navy; he and his wife still had young children. His timing contrasts with that of many deacons today, who often see the diaconate as a “second-career opportunity”—not, Ditewig hastens to add, what the council’s bishops had in mind.

What was behind the decision of the Second Vatican Council to restore the permanent diaconate?

There is a common misperception that the bishops, particularly those from the developing world, got together at the Second Vatican Council and said, “We don’t have enough priests, so let us have deacons.” That’s just not what happened.

There were 101 proposals submitted at Vatican II about a restored permanent diaconate, representing close to 200 bishops from around the world. Most of them—more than 60 percent—came from Western and Eastern Europe, not from the developing areas of the world. Now, what led to that?

We can trace Catholic thought about bringing back the permanent diaconate to the 1840s in Germany, to the correspondence of a priest who envisioned it as a way to make the church less distant from the average person, because a deacon would proclaim the gospel to people where he lives. It comes up periodically after that.

During the Nazi era, more than 2,500 priests were incarcerated at the Dachau concentration camp alone, many of whom over the years would be assigned to cell block 26, nicknamed the Priesterblock. Now, what did they talk about? I ask my students: Imagine you’re a 45-year-old German priest in Dachau at the beginning of 1945. What have you lived through in your life?

Quite a lot.

Right—in your teen years you had the First World War, with 16 million dead. You’ve seen the rise of three totalitarian regimes. You’ve lived through worldwide economic collapse, then the Spanish Civil War, then Hitler and the Second World War, and now cell block 26 is just a few yards away from the crematoria.

So as a priest you have to be asking yourself, why wasn’t the church able to somehow influence society to prevent all of this from happening? What can we do in the future so this doesn’t happen again?

Immediately after the war these Dachau survivors, especially two Jesuit priests, Fathers Otto Pies and Wilhelm Schamoni, wrote about their conversations in a series of articles.

One of the things that they had discovered at Dachau was that the church seemed to be missing a servant’s heart. They began to say, “We have images of Christ the king and Christ the priest. But maybe what’s gone missing is Christ the servant. For 100 years we’ve been talking about the possibility of deacons here in Germany—that’s the missing piece, and that’s how this could come together.”

So how did that end up influencing the bishops at the council?

Around 1947 the Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner began writing about the possibility of a renewed diaconate. Meanwhile in Freiburg, Germany, a young man named Hannes Kramer read some of these early reflections, went to his bishop, and said, “I feel called to serve as a deacon.”

The bishop, of course, said that he couldn’t ordain him as a deacon with no expectation of ordaining him into the priesthood. But he encouraged Kramer, saying, “Let’s find out more about this.” So Kramer formed what’s called a diaconate circle, which attracted men and women from around the area to both study theology and do service.

By the time of the Second Vatican Council more than 30 of these diaconate circles were meeting in Germany and France. They formed a loose confederation and opened a little storefront operation in Rome to be a resource for the bishops at Vatican II. Plus the bishops, at least the German ones, had Rahner’s writings.

As Cardinal Walter Kasper likes to say, the priests and the deacons of the church are like the two arms of the bishop.

The mistake I see quite often here in the United States is to confuse the deacon’s mission with charity alone or even just charity and justice. That’s too limiting. I refer to deacons as “ministers of connect the dots.” We are supposed to show how charity and justice are a function of word and sacrament. They all fit together—they’re not separate, distinct compartments.

So what were the bishops doing in bringing back the permanent diaconate?  To put it simply, they wanted to create a world where a Dachau cannot exist again.

Can you compare what the bishops thought they were doing at Vatican II to how the diaconate has actually developed?

It was implemented differently in the United States from how it was in Europe, where they had a long history of discussion about it and so were much better prepared than we were. Here in the States we ended up with groups of priests putting together the diaconate who said, “We don’t need deacons to do things like preach, baptize, or perform weddings and funerals, because there’s plenty of us to do those. What we really need are the deacons to take charge of charity and social justice in the parish.” All of a sudden you see that compartmentalization cropping up. The Europeans were long past that.

Why has the diaconate become so popular in the United States?

First, it has encouraged greater participation by a wider group of people who can now get involved in church ministry but who couldn’t before.

I also think as a country we have far greater resources of time and availability than people in some parts of the world do, where families are worried about where tomorrow’s meal is going to come from. Also, after Vatican II there was great enthusiasm that we could change the world.

Does the diaconate look different in other countries?

In Germany, for example, the model is very much one of social transformation. It starts with theology—candidates take a two-year course; you can work through the material yourself and get a certificate in theology.

Then after discernment, if you were called to diaconate formation, you’d first have the diaconal year, in which you get sent back to your hometown—not your home parish, but your hometown—and you’re told to identify an unmet need and then do whatever it takes to meet it.

One time in Germany, I was asking a deacon friend to explain to me how that works. He says, “Let me show you.” He grabs his keys and off we go. Past the parish, out in the middle of nowhere, there’s this flat-roofed building. “This is my school,” he says.

I say, “What do you mean, it’s your school?” He says, “Well, I started it.”

I say, “But you were an accountant in a state-run office. What do you know about schools?” He says, “Nothing, but this is my school. I came back home and discovered that our town had no facilities to provide early childhood education or even daycare for single moms. So I started one. I found this person who knew everything about how to acquire property. This other person knew everything about capital campaigns.” And so on.

It was not only the ability to see the need, but also the ability to muster the leadership skills necessary to do it. That was what being a deacon was all about. This was not theoretical. You did what it took to meet the need.

His school has been operating there continuously since 1987. Four times a year, he participates in the formation of the next group of volunteers that staffs it. But, again, notice the model. This is not parish-based. It’s community-based. It doesn’t step on Father’s toes and it doesn’t step on lay ministers’ toes, because what the deacon is doing is really visionary and building the team.

Here in the United States the model that has emerged is extraordinarily parish-centered. I think that’s a danger.

Why is it a danger?

Deacons are not solely parish-based ministers, nor should we be. Everybody’s based in a parish in one sense—it’s where we experience the local church. We have a pastor in a parish, and we expect him to be parish-focused, “parochial” in the best sense of that word. The difference is, the deacon is there helping the priest as he can, but also keeping his eye on the bigger picture.

What are the needs that aren’t being met by our current parish structure? Who’s not even in the door yet? What can we do about that? I think that’s something that goes missing if you start pulling the deacon too much into internal parish life, if he’s perceived as “that parish guy.”

That’s a big danger, because what’s being lost is the uniqueness that those bishops at Vatican II had hoped for. The deacon is the ordained minister who’s always looking outward as well—not just at the internal structure of the parish, but outward and beyond, and who challenges us to keep looking. Again, it goes back to that broad vision: How do you change the world? This kind of institutional critique based on our ability to serve others is precisely what we hear and see so powerfully in the ministry and teaching of Pope Francis.

Deacons were never envisioned, by Vatican II or any of the German literature before that, as mini-priests, or partial priests, or substitute priests—ever.

Nor were they perceived as “super laity.” They were seen as a way to inject the church’s sacred ministers into society. So with deacons you would have not only laity engaged in the world, but you’d also have ordained church ministers out there working side by side with laypeople.

Should deacons be appointed as parish life coordinators in parishes where there is no priest?

Not every deacon should be expected to be gifted in that way, and those who are should be provided the opportunity for additional formation to do it.

Decades ago, when you had tons of priests, the majority of priests never became pastors. With the priest shortage, now the pressure is really on the priests to be pastor, and not all of them are gifted to do it. Similarly, not every deacon is called to be a parish coordinator. So if you’re going to ask that deacon to take on the leadership of the parish, it ought to be because that deacon has specific skills, gifts, and talents that can be brought to bear on that.

The bishops take great pains in the national directory to say we need to respect the permanence of this call to the diaconate. But then married deacons whose wives die come under inordinate pressure, almost from the day of the funeral, to become a priest. It’s almost unbelievable pressure.

From whom?

From parishioners, from pastors, from bishops. It’s a huge fear that somehow, on many levels, deacons will get sucked into that vortex because of the priest shortage.

How do you distinguish a deacon from an involved layperson? Couldn’t I as a layperson just as easily go and start a school like your friend the German deacon?

Part of the difference lies in the permanence and commitment of the deacon. Yes, any layperson could go start a school. Then, five years from now, the layperson might say, “I’m tired of this, I’m going to go do something else.” There’s a permanence involved with being a deacon that you can’t just walk away from.

Second, as I’ve said, the deacon ought to be focused outside the parish, not just on the parish itself.

And third, a deacon has to present the totality of what the church believes. A layperson can focus all of his or her energy on whatever issues they want to focus on. You have that freedom. But as an ordained person, you have a responsibility to do the best you can to present all of it.

When I was deacon director for the Archdiocese of Washington in the mid-’90s, I had a guy come in for the initial interview. I said, “What do you see yourself doing as a deacon that you’re not already doing as an involved layman?” He said, “Preaching.” I said, “What’s your first homily about?” He said, “Abortion, because abortion is the greatest moral evil of the day, and all of the other moral problems we’re having in the world flow from that one. You guys aren’t doing a good enough job at preaching about it.”

I said, “Fair enough. What’s your second homily?” He said, “Abortion.” I said, “Your third homily?” “Abortion.” I said, “I’m sensing a theme. Do you see yourself being able to set aside that agenda to preach about something else—immigration, perhaps, or another subject?” He said, “No.” I said, “Well, thank you for coming in. I can’t use you. As a layperson, you can focus your efforts all you want. A deacon can’t. I’ve got to try to keep that big picture of what the church is all about.”

But again, see, being a deacon goes beyond the functions of the deacon. If this were an interview about priesthood, you wouldn’t be asking, “What does the priest do? What doesn’t he do?” We already have learned that there’s more to being a priest than the sum of its functions.

The same thing applies to deacons. The same thing also applies to a married couple. There’s more to marriage than just the sum of the functions.

How does a deacon’s role in the community inform what a deacon does at Mass?

The only thing liturgically that the deacon is required to do is proclaim the gospel. There are other actions he might do during the liturgy that could also be performed by other ministers.

But there’s a logic to the deacon doing them, especially the general intercessions. Why? Because it ought to be the deacon who really knows the needs of the community and knows the needs of the people. Ideally, it would be the deacon who’s composing those prayers and personalizing them to the particular community he’s with, so there’s a connection there.

And there ought to be something in the way I preach that’s a bit different from the way the priest would preach. I don’t just mean saying, “I took my family to Disney World last year.” What is your experience in the world showing you? What can you give an insight on that a priest can’t because he’s not in that environment?

If the deacon is already perceived as the servant to the community in every sense of that word, when you see that servant in action liturgically, it cements that. People see the deacon and think, “That’s also the guy who does that prison stuff,” or, “This is the guy who goes out and works the soup kitchen, and now he’s challenging the rest of us, in his homily, to join him.” It all comes together.

It’s significant that the deacon gets the last word at Mass. Ite, missa est does not mean “Go, the Mass has ended.” Ite is a Latin word that a Roman commander would use to address his troops. It means “march.” And missa est means the church is being sent. He’s saying, “We’ve got to link this Eucharist with mission. Let’s go do that.”

Sometimes a deacon will show up before Mass and the priest will say, “I don’t need you today.” Yes, you do. Would a priest go to Mrs. Smith and say, “I don’t need you to read today, I’ll do the readings”? No. Just as you need laypeople present and active, you need the deacon. That’s how we achieve our Catholic identity as a community—we see ourselves for this garden that we are.

Why is it that in the United States, deacons are often older men?

The original proposal at Vatican II was that mature married men, about the age of 40, could be ordained. When it came to the debate, the bishops said, “That’s too old,” and lowered the age to 35. Clearly the vision was that these would be men who were married, raising families, still engaged in the workplace, in the world, and also who would be deacons.

What’s happened here in the United States is a tendency to see the diaconate as a second-career opportunity. Whenever I go to Europe to talk to deacons, I get teased about, “Why have you guys let this turn into a retirees’ club?” The average age of a deacon here in the United States is pushing 64. Fifteen
percent of our deacons are over 70, and only 2 percent are under 40. The average age of a deacon around the world is significantly younger, somewhere in the 40s.

A lot of men in the United States thinking about the diaconate might say, “I don’t want to do the deacon formation when I’m younger because I don’t want to dump the kids on my wife while I’m off attending classes.” But what do they do in Europe? The whole family comes. A group of child care providers and youth ministers meet the family at the door. The kids go off and do age appropriate stuff and Mom and Dad go to their program. And at mealtime and Mass time, everybody’s together.

You said that those early circles included women. At Vatican II was there any discussion about ordaining women as deacons?

At least two or three of the bishops brought it into their proposals, that the diaconate be open to men and women.  One bishop actually had a joint group of candidates ready, men and women.

I’ve never been able to find why that got dropped. It may have been seen as a little too much, too soon. There was some initial significant push back to the diaconate—New York’s Cardinal Francis Spellman, for example, hated the idea.

I think the bishops wanted to try to sell the idea of the diaconate first before introducing women. The idea of women as deacons seems to disappear somewhere around the first draft of Lumen Gentium.

It would be wonderful to have women deacons. This is where theologian Gary Macy’s work about the history of women deacons has been so helpful in saying, “The church has understood it this way in the past. What’s keeping us from seeing it this way now?”

What is the role of the wife of a married deacon?

Wives of deacons are a population of women who run the gamut. One woman told me about her degree and the books she’d written and her years of experience in ministry, long before her husband became involved. She said, “Now I’m going to go through the rest of my life known as the deacon’s wife.”

On the other hand, you’ve got the woman who says, “I’m here because this is what my husband feels called to and I’ll participate in it, but I won’t do public things.” Then you’ve got the group in the middle that says, “I don’t want to be involved right now, but maybe after the kids are gone I might.”

There is no singular role of the deacon’s wife. I think a lot of parishioners, especially those who come into the Catholic Church from other traditions, compare the deacon’s wife to the pastor’s wife in other Christian denominations. 

Sometimes even our priests think like that. A priest will ask the deacon, “Why don’t I get you and your wife to run this committee?” The deacon might answer, “Have you asked my wife? Maybe my wife has no interest in doing that whatsoever.”

 I always advise the wives: Please don’t get dragooned into things you don’t feel called to. There’s no such thing as the deacon’s wife. It’s not like the pastor’s wife at all. We need to respect where the wife is.

Does the deacon’s wife go through the same formation as the deacon?

Generally, yes. You can’t force them, nor would you want to. But at the same time, there are legitimate concerns. As a married couple, you want to grow together. The husband is going off to classes and going on retreats, having his spirituality prodded and pushed and nudged. If the wife doesn’t participate to some degree in that, the real danger is that the couple is going to grow apart.

How do you balance family and ministry?

Every deacon can tell you about the deacon’s checklist. First comes your relationship with God. Second comes your relationship with your spouse and family. Third comes your relationship with your employer. Then comes your relationship with the church.

That’s nice and neat, but it doesn’t always work. What happens if a parishioner calls me at 7 p.m. during a family birthday party for my little girl, and now I’ve got to go out and minister to someone? That’s just one example.

I’ve had some deacons say, “Well, of course, you wouldn’t go out. You’ve got that prior obligation to be Dad and to be home.” I’m not so sure it’s that clean.

That’s the kind of thing that husbands and wives talk about during formation. But there’s no strict answer. You’ve made the commitment to a dual sacramental life. It’s messy, and you’re going to have to deal with the mess.

This article appeared in the June 2014 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 79, No. 6, pages 24-28).

Image: Flickr photo cc by James Bradley