As the diaconate in the United States celebrates the 50th anniversary of its renewal this year, permanent deacons are embracing their role in the New Evangelization as parish leaders with a task to work with pastors to form the lay faithful into missionary disciples.
One year ago, Dermot Loughran, a married father of seven who serves St. Jerome’s Church in East Rochester, New York, knelt before Bishop Salvatore Matano in Sacred Heart Cathedral for the rite of ordination to the diaconate. Surrounded by his family, he felt the bishop place his hands over his head and call down the Holy Spirit upon him.
Deacon Loughran told the Register that he felt the grace of that moment and the keen sense that a door had closed on the path that led him to this point, adding that ordination had opened another for him, his wife and their family to walk through.
“When you’re ordained, you are crossing the line. You’re saying you’re all in,” he said.
With a year of ministry behind him, Deacon Loughran said he recognized more than ever the deacon’s vocation in the parish is to call the People of God to be the Church’s missionary disciples, to live out their baptismal calling to proclaim the Gospel.
Back in 1967, Blessed Paul VI followed the call of the Second Vatican Council and implemented the renewal of the diaconate in the Latin Church. The decision reversed the trend that had developed in the Latin Church over the course of several centuries, of treating the diaconate as a mere stepping-stone toward priestly ordination.
The U.S. implemented the decision in 1968 and began training married men for the permanent diaconate. According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, deacons now number more than 18,200, and 2,600 men were in diaconal formation.
Deacon William Ditewig, nicknamed by some in the U.S. Latin Church as “America’s Archdeacon,” told the Register that the Latin Church’s appreciation of the diaconate has matured. The vocation of deacons as “active apostles of the New Evangelization” — how St. John Paul II described the vocation — is being increasingly seen by bishops. Today’s deacons, he said, appreciate the deep connections between their service to the community, their proclamation of the word and their service at the altar.
More than 2,700 deacons joined the 2018 Diaconate Congress June 22-26 in New Orleans, which celebrated the 50th anniversary of the permanent diaconate’s restoration in the United States. Deacon Ditewig said the 2,700 in attendance were energized, as presenters and deacons discussed how they could facilitate in their parishes Pope Francis’ call for the faithful to take up “missionary discipleship.”
“The deacon witnesses to Christ the Servant,” he said.
Deacon Ditewig said the Second Vatican Council was putting into action a plan to restore the permanency of the diaconate that had been envisioned at the Council of Trent, but deferred for centuries until World War II. He said it was in the Dachau concentration camp where bishops and priests began to discuss what went wrong and how permanent deacons could be the bridge between the community and the parish and the priests.
“This was about whether deacons might help,” he said. “It was not about a shortage of priests, but about a shortage of deacons.”
The role of the deacon is becoming considered more and more critical, particularly as the Church’s focus on the parish’s essential role of the New Evangelization grows and matures.
In his March pastoral plan on Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love), Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington described the parish as a “family of families” and set out a blueprint of evangelization based on the parish as the locus of pastoral activity. This observation has been reinforced by Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze, who wrote about the parish and evangelization in The Evangelizing Parish.
Despite the increase of deacons, Dominican Father Michael Sweeney, the director of the Archdiocese of San Francisco’s diaconate formation program, explained that, in sheer numbers, the Church still does not have enough deacons.
Most Catholic parishes contain thousands of parishioners, far beyond the ability of a single priest or a couple of associates to know them all. Father Sweeney said studies done by evangelicals show the maximum number of people a person can pastor and know personally is 200. That’s where deacons can help. A pastor who has enough deacons to cover these needed numbers can help make sure the People of God do not become anonymous in their parish — for example, a pastor and four to five deacons could share the responsibility of pastorally knowing and engaging 1,000 members of a parish. Deacons become the pastor’s partners in seeing the lay faithful become fully engaged with their call to missionary discipleship.
“It is impossible to evangelize without serious engagement of our laity,” he said.
Father Sweeney explained the full potential of the deacon still has to be realized. The parish is called to be the heart of the community and should be attentive to the needs of its neighborhood. The deacon, he said, can step into that role of bringing the problems to the attention of the parish for “discernment and solution.”
“I’m not even sure I’ve seen that happen yet,” Father Sweeney said.
A Fruitful Vocation
Deacon Greg Kandra, who serves the Diocese of Brooklyn, New York, said he has seen how the vocation of the deacon, whether baptizing children, preparing and marrying couples, burying the dead, bringing Communion to the sick or helping people reconcile with the Church, models the kind of accompaniment Pope Francis calls all baptized Christians to embrace. He said the diaconal ministry would not be possible without the full support, patience and flexibility of his wife, and that is true of deacons’ wives in general. Some work behind the scenes, and other deacons’ wives work with their deacon as a husband-wife team.
Deacon Kandra said the profile of men now answering the call to the permanent diaconate is younger than the first class of permanent deacons who answered the call. The men in formation for the diaconate today tend to be those who are in the middle of life, he said, who have a career, support a family and even have young children. The vocation is producing new vocations from children who have an up-close view of their family’s commitment to the Church: A number of deacons being ordained today are the sons of deacons; and there are deacons who are now the fathers of priests who decided to respond also to God’s call to serve Christ and his Church. All this works toward the success of the New Evangelization.
“There’s a great collaboration between priests and deacons, and this enriches the life of the parish.”
Deacon Loughran said the concurrent 50th anniversaries of the diaconate’s restoration in the U.S. as a permanent ordination and of Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae hold special significance for him. They both underscore the life-giving love that a deacon has to live in his vocation.
The deacon said his son who passed away shortly after birth due to Potter’s syndrome made him think deeply about what God was calling him to do.
“We knew at the outset this was a short life that he was going to be given,” he said.
He spent hours in front of the Eucharist, standing before Christ. His entire family has a 3pm Holy Hour they do on Saturdays, and they discerned his call to the diaconate together.
The deacon’s wife is essential to the deacon living out his ministry, and Deacon Loughran said without his wife’s support, he could not succeed. She is completely united with him in his diaconal ministry. His children have also been very involved, and taken together, the vocation has helped them become more intentional about living their lives close to Jesus as his witnesses and helping share Christ with others.
This call to holiness involves the deacon’s entire family. Deacon Loughran said Christ’s own words remind them what the diaconal ministry and the call to missionary discipleship are all about.
“The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.
This story was updated after posting.