Accepting is one thing, embracing is another. In order for a deacon to thrive in ministry and in life, he needs not only to be accepted but also embraced in his ministries.
What I often hear from brother deacons is there is a growing acceptance of the presence of deacons in parishes and in most dioceses in the United States (there remain just a handful of dioceses who have not established the permanent diaconate) but there frequently is not an embracing of deacons and their respective ministries. Perhaps tolerance is experienced, but not an enthusiastic embrace.
I am truly puzzled by this. My sense is there is an unfounded fear among other clerics that some type of challenge is presented by deacons. Maybe a certain fear that permanent deacons detract from vocations to the priesthood (something, if my information is correct, is absolutely unfounded because in dioceses where the diaconate flourishes, vocations to the priesthood are strong also). I have heard from some priests that deacons are “priest wannabees.” Again, I really don’t think this is anywhere near true because I don’t know any deacons in my diocese that would want to be a priest even if it were a possibility. We all know they are two different vocations, although intimately tied to each other because we share in the same sacrament of Holy Orders.
I have heard from many “non-deacons” that deacons are not well trained. I again find this difficult to understand. Deacons in our diocese go through a total of seven years of formation…. yes, seven years, i.e., two years of the Institute of Lay Ministry, one year of aspirancy, and four years of candidacy. Most of the men who enter formation have already obtained Bachelor degrees or higher. Many are highly trained with licenses in many fields and proven success in various careers. I dare say deacons are highly educated men, and have a long proven history of service to the Church.
I have heard some say that deacons are only part-time. This is incredible. The deacons that I know realize they are full-time deacons. We often exercise our ministries at our places of employment 40-60 hours a week, then give our parish assignments 10-15 hours of service a week on top of our ministries to our families (hours untold). This, of course doesn’t include the time spent in prayer and study which tallies up to at least 2 hours a day for most of us. Deacons are not part-time…. they are ministering at least 80 hours a week.
I have heard that the diaconate is a “Vatican II thing” which apparently is meant to say it is not legitimate in some manner. Yes, it is true that the Council Fathers picked up where the Council of Trent in the 1500s left off when it called for the reestablishment of the diaconate as a permanent order in the Church just as it had been at the very beginning of the Church as attested to by the Scriptures themselves. No, the diaconate is an apostolic thing, the work of the Holy Spirit. It is not a “Vatican II thing.”
I think the acceptance sans embrace of the diaconate comes from a fear of numbers, a fear that there may be in the future in some local Churches, i.e., dioceses, more deacons than priests. I also think that if we continue to make those kind of comparisons… priest vis a vis deacon…. then we weaken both the priesthood and the diaconate. There will never be too many deacons because the Holy Spirit decides how many are needed and ensures the numbers are sufficient, not excessive. As long as there are the poor and marginalized, there will be the need for deacons. Here in the United States the diaconate has flourished in terms of numbers because, I believe, the Holy Spirit has willed it so because we have so many poor in our midst, especially the spiritually poor who need to be catechized and hear God’s Word preached to them. Should there be twice the number of deacons to priests someday, what harm will be done? Only good will be done.
Finally, I wonder if part of the resistance to embrace deacons comes from a sort of unknown realization that the diaconate is in a healthier state than the presbytery. We can speculate as to the reasons, if what I suggest is true.
May God richly bless all deacons and their families, and may He bless abundantly all those thousands of faithful priests who labor to bring us the Body and Blood of Jesus each day, and who offer us His forgiveness over and over again.