VANCOUVER, Wash.—Deacon Carl Anderson, whose bearded and patriarchal face adorns the Archdiocese of Seattle's new diaconate handbook, is the epitome of a permanent deacon.

The 74-year-old retired aluminum smelt worker was ordained in the second-to-last graduating class of deacons for the archdiocese in 1982. His service since at St. Mary of Guadalupe parish in rural Washington has been—as with many deacons around the country—a monument to endurance and adaptability.

Ordained to the service of charity, “I thought I'd be visiting nursing homes, or doing some other type of volunteer work,” he said. “I didn't expect having this much to do with liturgical needs or operation of the church itself. I'm doing baptisms, burial services and weddings.”

Usually unpaid, with a mission that is frequently misunderstood by laity and clergy alike, the permanent diaconate is staggering into its fourth decade in America. What the next decade will bring is unclear.

‘A Driving Force’

Restored by the Second Vatican Council, the permanent diaconate was commissioned by Pope Paul VI in the 1972 motu proprio Ad Pascendum to both lead and promote lay participation, “to be a driving force for service … which is an essential part of the mission of the Church,” he wrote.

However, Pope Paul VI's vision of deacons serving primarily in remote areas of underdeveloped nations fell by the wayside as developed nations began ordaining far more deacons than the underdeveloped. Also, the revived diaconate's ordination to serve bishops and priests made parishes, rather than social service agencies and missions, the natural focus of their ministry.

This caused ambivalence at the diocesan level and boiled over into opposition when the deacons overlapped the duties of the concurrently growing lay ministry. Yet the permanent diaconate was instantly popular among potential candidates, especially those already serving as volunteers in parishes and charitable agencies.

According to a research report by the Bishops' Committee on the Diaconate and the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, there were 529 candidates for the diaconate by 1971. By 1980, the number had soared to 4,744 deacons and 8,514 candidates.

By 1999 there were 12,862 ordained permanent deacons and 2,582 candidates in the United States, more than all other nations combined. Yet despite the growth, most dioceses are cautious and several have been, at least periodically, hostile to the permanent diaconate.

“More often than not, it depends on the needs of the diocese,” said Deacon Anthony Cassaneto, president of the National Association of Diaconate Directors and director of deacon formation, ministry and life for the Archdiocese of New York. “Many have developed strong lay leadership programs, so they favor those over the diaconate.”

“However,” he added, “150 dioceses now have formation programs, and more will come as the need for the ministry of the deacon becomes more and more evident.”

The most enthusiastic diocese has been the Archdiocese of Chicago, with 604 deacons in active ministry and 40 of them in full-time paid positions.

“We've had great success,” said Father Ed Salmon, vicar for the archdiocese's diaconate community, who said it uses permanent deacons in parishes, hospitals, prisons and airports.

“I know many dioceses have ambivalence, but I don't know why,” he said. “They've been a great benefit to this archdiocese. We couldn't do what we do without them.”

Among those that remain indifferent to deacons is the Diocese of Sioux Falls, S.D., with 28 active and retired deacons. With only a few candidates ordained periodically since 1977, the diocese has discontinued deacon ordinations pending a review.

“We had a small program, when we had one,” said Chancellor Jerry Klein.

Now, the diocese has the vocations director and a theologian redesigning it. “I'm not sure how active we are in this process,” he said.

First ambivalent, then indifferent and now cautiously supportive of the permanent diaconate, the Archdiocese of Seattle is preparing to ordain its first 28 deacons since 1986.

“We've learned from the programs in place across the country for the last 35 years,” said Father Stephen Rowan, vicar for education.

Sponsored by Archbishop Alexander Brunett, the new deacon ordination program is designed as a formation process to prepare the candidates for a central role in the parishes.

“One of the constants for us is the need for deacons who will be prepared to understand the Church's traditions and beliefs,” Father Rowan said, “so that when they get through formation, they've pulled a lot together.”

Shortage Solution?

For the Archdiocese of Portland, Ore., the Archdiocese of Chicago and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, there is an assumption that deacons will move into greater pastoral roles in parishes as the number of priests continues to fall behind population growth.

In the latest bishops' conference report, 3,400 men were reported to be studying for the diocesan priest-hood, a significant increase from previous years but still as little as half of what is needed to replace the 31,162 diocesan priests now serving in 19,000 parishes across the nation. With a national average of one priest for 1,200 people—up to 50% higher in the West and Midwest—deacons are being prepared to take on more parish responsibility.

However, the Archdiocese of Seattle isn't prepared to accept deacons in positions of primary responsibility.

“We're training deacons to be prepared for integrated ministry,”

Father Rowan said, “[but] they were never intended to be a solution for the priest shortage.”

However, Father Salmon in Chicago is more pragmatic.

“We've discussed the possibility [of deacons as parish administrators],” he said. “We have enough priests, for now, but we might have to do that in the future. That is the reason for our move to heighten [deacon candidate] qualifications.”

Meanwhile, Pope John Paul II has become an enthusiastic advocate for permanent deacons in America, cautioning that their role should never be confused with that of a priest, but otherwise encouraging them to foster “common service to the Kingdom of God.”

Speaking in Detroit in 1987, the Holy Father said, “If we keep in mind the deep spiritual nature of this diakonia, then we can better appreciate the interrelation of the three areas of ministry traditionally associated with the diaconate; that is, the ministry of the word, the ministry of the altar and the ministry of charity.”

Philip S. Moore writes

from Portland, Oregon.