Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of March 22, 1999
Bring back the deacons
Calgary Diocese to reinstate ordained ministry suppressed 1,000 years ago
By RAMON GONZALEZ
WCR Staff Writer
Deacons have had a bad rap for about 1,000 years.
In the early Church, permanent deacons performed important roles. But abuses by some led to the suppression of the ministry in the 10th century.
Now permanent deacons are back, particularly in North America. Since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) restored the ministry, more than half of the world's 22,000 permanent deacons have been ordained in the United States.
In Canada in 1995, there were 761 deacons in 50 of 73 dioceses, mostly in Ontario and Quebec. Although the Winnipeg and St. Boniface archdioceses have well-developed diaconate programs, the ministry has not spread further West.
At the March 5-7 meeting of the Western bishops in Edmonton, Calgary's Bishop Frederick Henry made a presentation on the permanent diaconate.
Bishop Raymond Roussin of Victoria, vice-president of the Western bishops, said some bishops from the three western provinces showed interest in reinstating the ministry.
First on the list is Henry himself.
His diocese is currently setting up a program that may lead to the ordination of permanent deacons within a few years.
"We haven't really firmed this up yet but we are probably looking at a four-year total program," Bishop Frederick Henry said March 11.
That may include three years of academic formation plus a pastoral year.
The diaconate program is one recommendation of the diocesan synod held under former Bishop Paul O'Byrne.
Henry, who replaced O'Byrne a year ago, said it was his experience with the diaconate as bishop of Thunder Bay, Ont., and the fact "it was the number one question" he was asked during his parish visitations in Calgary that led him to act on the synod recommendation.
Henry has appointed two officials to head up the diaconate program. "They are currently consulting other dioceses and looking at putting together a program," the bishop said.
The majority of the permanent deacons in North America are married and hold down full-time secular jobs.
Calgary candidates who are married will be advised to attend the training sessions with their wives, Henry stressed.
"You don't want to put a stress or strain on their marriage relationship, which could conceivably happen." Candidates will be told that their marriage is primary and their families come first.
Candidates will be screened to weed out those who may want to enter the diaconate for the wrong motives, Henry told the WCR. "I want to put the emphasis on quality rather than quantity."
The restoration of the diaconate was first suggested by a group of priests imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp, he noted . They saw the role of the deacon as one of service to the marginalized.
During Vatican II, some priests who had survived the Nazi death camps wrote a letter to the council fathers suggesting "it was the time to restore the diaconate."
The council fathers picked up on that and approved its restoration. In doing so the Church made the mistake of defining the deacon's role as an agent of the Church in the marketplace.
"We forgot that that's really a responsibility of all of the baptized," Henry lamented. "As a result, a new kind of clericalism kind of came in with the diaconate."
Rome revisited the issue in recent years and defined the diaconate as a "distinct gift from God which involves service of the Word, of the altar and of charity," Henry explained.
A deacon bridges lay and clerical roles in the Church, from ministering to the marginalized to filling some liturgical functions such as preaching and officiating at weddings, funerals and baptisms.
Calgary deacons will do all of that. But for now Henry prefers to emphasize the role of the deacon as "servant to those who might be overlooked or neglected."
For instance, he would like to have a deacon minister to the fledging communities of refugees in Calgary so the priest currently doing that can concentrate more on his parish responsibilities.
Deacons, he said, would play a valuable role in connecting the marginalized with the parish community.
While deacons will be rooted in a parish, their responsibilities may go well beyond parish boundaries, Henry said. Their assignments will likely come directly from the bishop, not from parish priests.
Deacons generally work as volunteers, although they may receive a salary if they work full-time in their ministry or if they are appointed parish administrators.
One drawback in reinstituting the diaconate is the fear that the Church could diminish lay ministry but Henry doubts that will happen. "I think we can do both."
There were more than 20 deacons in Thunder Bay when Henry became bishop there in early 1995. He was so impressed with the quality of the ministers, that he gave the green light for another diaconate formation program in Thunder Bay in 1996. Twenty-four people were accepted in that program, which is now near its end.