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.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Deacon: Apostolic Leader in Service

Several months ago, I began a series of reflections on the participation of the deacon in the three-fold functions of Word, Sacrament and Charity.  I had finished the first two munera but never covered the final function of "charity." Let's rectify that at long last.

First, let me point out a few things by way of introduction.  The three-fold office of Word, Sacrament and Charity is described by the Second Vatican Council as the role of the bishop, and all three functions are referred to collectively as a "diakonia," a "service" or "ministry."  It's important, I believe to highlight these points: the fullness of these functions are, in fact, the ministry of the bishop, in whose ministry the deacon (and presbyter) participates; and, second, ALL THREE functions are to be understood as "diakonia".  Quite frequently, people mistakenly assume that "diakonia" refers only to the third of the functions, that of "charity."  It does not, and "charity" does not exhaust the concept of  "diakonia," or service.

This explains why I prefer to use the word "charity" for the third function, not "service" as one often reads.  One last time: all three sets of functions are "service."

As I reflect on the various forms of ministry that "charity" can be exercised, I would like to make two observations: 1) ALL Christian disciples are called to serve as agents of God's love and concern, not "just" deacons.  It doesn't take ordination to visit the sick, care for the homeless, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and so on -- it flows from our sacramental initiation!  We are not ordained primarily to "do" charity so that other people don't have to; we shouldn't think, "OK, now I'm ordained, so now I can do prison ministry" (for example).  Doesn't work that way.  2) What is reflected in the church's teaching on the diaconate and in our theology of Order is that all ordained ministries involve the charism of LEADERSHIP.  I have written extensively about this before.  This dimension of leadership applies as much to the order of deacons as much as it does to the order of bishops and the order of presbyters.

Since ordained ministry is a participation in the apostolic ministry, I sometimes refer to deacons as "apostolic leaders in service".

Therefore, as we begin our reflection the deacon's role in "charity," I suggest that we ask how the deacon LEADS (understood as servant-leadership) in this role.  What traits associated with good leadership would apply here?  Leaders are people with vision, who can inspire others to share and be engaged in realizing that vision; a leader cares for the people who serve with him or her; a leader is a good steward on behalf of others.  I believe that this is at the heart of what Pope Paul VI had in mind when he described deacons as the "animators of the Church's service" and when Pope John Paul II taught that the deacon's ministry "is the church's service sacramentalized."

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Flying Time: 21 Years of Ordained Ministry

Twenty-one years ago tomorrow, on 25 March 1990, I was ordained to the Order of Deacons by my archbishop, James Cardinal Hickey of the Archdiocese of Washington, DC.  The photograph below was taken during the concluding doxology of the ordination liturgy, with me elevating the chalice for the first time alongside the Cardinal.

 Standing there that day, I had no inkling of the path of ordained ministry on which I was embarking.  At that moment, I was a Commander in the United States Navy, and I was being ordained ahead of my class because the Navy was sending me to Okinawa to serve as Executive Officer of a base there.  My first diaconal assignment from Cardinal Hickey was to be released from the archdiocese for service with the Archdiocese for Military Services, USA.  My intention at the moment of ordination was to finish my tour on Okinawa and then to return to Washington to teach and to serve as a deacon.  Clearly the Holy Spirit had other plans.

That first assignment on Okinawa was a wonderful introduction to ordained service.  I worked with some great Air Force chaplains at Kadena Air Base, where we lived.  Many of my sailors, who also lived on Kadena, were also parishioners, making for an interesting blend of service!  There were challenges during the tour, but overall it was a most positive experience.  I focused a lot on adult faith formation, as well as sacramental preparation, preaching and serving with local Franciscan Capuchin missionaries in the local community.  At the end of that tour, having served 22 years on active duty in the Navy, I retired and returned to the United States.

Unfortunately, I couldn't find a good job in Washington to support my family, so we returned to the Midwest where I served as Associate Principal and Director of Curriculum and Instruction at a regional Catholic high school.  In addition to serving at the high school, I was a deacon assigned to a large parish, along with two other deacons.  Again, we were blessed with wonderful pastors;  again, I worked closely with adult faith formation and the RCIA team.  I also worked with the diocesan diaconate formation office. 

Out of the blue, after two years, I received a phone call from Cardinal Hickey, inviting me to come back out to Washington to take over the archdiocesan diaconate office.  After being a deacon for only five years at this point, I was now going to be responsible for the formation, ministry and life of more than 250 permanent deacons; that was a scary thought, but it was an exciting prospect, and it was a wonderful experience. I also became a consultant to the national office associated with the diaconate at the US Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, DC.  In particular, I was blessed to be asked to serve as a member of the editorial committee developing the National Directory for the Formation, Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons in the United States.   Additional diocesan ministry followed, serving as Director of Pastoral Services in two other dioceses before finally joining the senior staff of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops.  I served there for more than five years, and in that capacity, became involved with the diaconate, not only here in the States, but in the international community as well.  All of this has become the foundation of the last four years teaching undergraduate and graduate students.

In short, the past twenty-one years have been an unbelievable and totally unanticipated and unpredictable path, and I'm looking forward to the continued surprises the Holy Spirit has in store for the NEXT twenty-one years!


Thursday, March 10, 2011

On the Road Again: Rome

This is a big weekend for three of us who have been working now for several years to establish an international institute for the advanced study of the diaconate.  Along with Deacon Dr. Enzo Petrolino of Italy and Deacon Rob Mascini of the Netherlands, we three have worked out the details with the Vatican's Congregation for Catholic Education and with the major Roman pontifical universities to begin the institute in the summer of 2012.  The Institute has received enthusiastic support from the Vatican and from the universities, and this weekend's meetings will finalize many of the administrative details.  These are being handled by the Gregorian University, and we will be establishing fees, procedures and even some of the housing details.  So, we will soon be able to announce and advertise the specifics.

The Institute will be truly international.  We have professors lined up from the United States, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands and Germany who will teach advanced courses (i.e., graduate level) for academic credit either through the professor's home institution or from the associated pontifical university.  Courses will range from biblical and patristic studies to systematic and canonical courses, and to spirituality and liturgy.  At this point, courses will be taught in Italian and English, although we will probably expand to German and Spanish as the programs develop.

At this point we're considering a three-week block of time in the early summer.  Each course would be one week in length, with intensive sessions in the morning hours followed by research/tours and other activities in the afternoons.  In this way, students might opt to take ONE course (one week), or THREE courses (if they stay the whole three-week period).  These will be designed for graduate or post-graduate students who will be expected to have read extensively before coming to Rome for the course, and to pursue a serious research project following the course.  Courses would be open to any and all qualified and interested students.

I'll keep you posted!