The ministry of deacons
William T. Ditewig | JULY 20, 2009
the cover of America, the Catholic magazine
I had been a deacon for about a year and was on active duty in the U.S. Navy as executive officer of the Security Group Activity at Hanza, Okinawa, Japan. My family lived on Kadena Air Base, where I served at the Kadena chapel—the only deacon on Okinawa. One day I received a call from the senior Catholic chaplain, a friend. Laughing, he told me of a conversation he had just had with a young Air Force man reporting to Kadena for duty. Father Mike explained the chapel programs, and the young man said he had been to Mass there. Father described the pastoral staff, including the participation of a Navy Commander (me) as deacon. “Oh, was he the tall man who preached last Sunday?” the young man asked. “That’s right,” Father replied. The young maån complimented my homily, but complained that he had seen me do something “just not right” after Mass: he saw me get into a car “with a woman and her children” and drive off! Father Mike explained that I was a married deacon, and that “the woman and her children” were my wife and our children. The young man said he knew deacons could be married, but that I should not have driven off with my family like that. Cognitively, he understood; affectively, he couldn’t imagine a married cleric.
In another story of confusion, a woman visiting our parish once asked my wife, “When you die, will Bill become a real priest?”
For more than a millennium, Latin Catholics saw an overwhelmingly celibate corps of ordained ministers, though for the last 40 years a new pattern has emerged that includes deacons who are both ordained and married. It is not surprising that confusion persists over the “double vocational sacramentality” of a married deacon.
Scholarship also lags behind current practice, with centuries of writing on the relationship of celibacy to ordained ministry, but nothing comparable on the relationship of matrimony and holy orders. One exception is Chapter Five of Sacrament of Service: A Vision of the Permanent Diaconate Today, by Patrick McCaslin and Michael G. Lawler (1986). This did not reverse the trend, but it does, I hope, offer food for conversation and understanding.
Just as the permanent diaconate is not only for celibates, neither is it a “married ministry,” though currently most deacons are married. Rather, the permanent diaconate is a major order of ecclesial ministry open to married and to unmarried men.
While much theological and pastoral work is needed to help the church recognize the blessings of a married ordained ministry, work is also needed on the celibate permanent deacon, who lives a significantly different state of life than do transitional deacons and priests.
A Theology of Marriage and Orders
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Until the renewal of a permanent diaconate, most discussion of “vocation” presented an either-or approach: a man could either marry or enter religious life/priesthood; a woman could either marry or enter religious life. Those were the vocational choices in the Latin Church.
The Second Vatican Council reminded the church that the source and foundation of Christian vocation is sacramental initiation itself. In his homily to the bishops at the end of the council, Pope Paul VI declared that underlying the council’s work was the identity of the church as servant to the world. Vocations must be seen first through this lens: that all disciples are called to pour themselves out in service to others, following the kenotic example of Christ.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, reflecting conciliar teaching, describes the sacraments of matrimony and orders as having a mutuality of purpose. Both are “directed towards the salvation of others; if they contribute as well to personal salvation, it is through service to others that they do so. They confer a particular mission in the Church and serve to build up the People of God” (No. 1534). The catechism goes on to describe both sacraments in terms of consecration: the ordained are consecrated “to feed the Church by the word and grace of God,” and Christian spouses are consecrated “for the duties and dignity of their state” (No. 1535). This mutual approach to both sacraments builds on the consecration to discipleship celebrated through the most basic sacraments of vocation: the rites of Christian initiation. The sacraments of matrimony and orders add a leadership responsibility and specificity to the baptismal vocation—a particular responsibility for another person in a covenant marriage, and particular pastoral responsibilities toward a portion of the people of God.
The two sacraments share a common foundation. Both make unique demands on the time and resources of the married deacon’s family. These demands must be carefully balanced, but the sacraments are relational, not conflictual. There is no point where the sacrament of matrimony is not graced by the sacrament of orders, and no point where the sacrament of orders is not graced by the sacrament of matrimony. At no point does one sacrament end and the other begin. The two sacraments become one in the person of the deacon and in the married state of life shared with spouse and family.
In marriage, spouses are called to give themselves totally to each other in love; this is nothing more or less than a kenotic diakonia: a self-emptying in service to another. The married deacon has a responsibility based on ordination to be a public and permanent ecclesial leader-in-service who not only speaks of such diakonia but who lives it within the sacramental covenant relationship of matrimony. Both sacraments call those who receive them to model Christ and, through their respective consecrations by the Spirit, to extend this model to the church and world at large. One could easily say that matrimony focuses on the domestic church while orders focuses on the broader community. But this would be far too facile a contrast, because both rites of initiation carry a leadership dimension within the family circle itself and to the wider world.
Priorities and Obligations
Deacons must be masters of balance. Married deacons must juggle the obligations of marriage, job and ministry. It became very popular in the early days of the renewal to speak of the “deacon’s priorities”: first in relationship to God, then to family, to job (because deacons are required to provide for themselves and their families by secular occupations) and to ecclesial ministry. Many people have come to see the list as impractical and theologically problematic. If approached incorrectly, the list tends to compartmentalize the Christian vocation of discipleship. Some people have used the list as a checklist, though its simplicity is a weakness: discipleship and the choices we must make are often messy.
A deacon must find balance between the obligations of matrimony and orders; he cannot routinely shirk one to attend to the other. It has been said that because matrimony precedes ordination, marriage has a fundamental priority over ordination. While I agree up to a point, I think it cannot be an absolute priority. Ordination carries its own obligations, which one freely accepts when requesting it. Married couples travel the formation journey together so that both have a sense of what they are undertaking. My family and I have worked hard at balancing the demands of public ministry with family privacy. The fact that I am a public minister does not mean the whole family wants to be that.
Shortly after my ordination and assignment to a new parish, the pastor approached my wife, Diann, and asked what he could expect her role to be there. We struggled with how to respond. Neither of us wanted to disappoint the pastor. But Diann did not want to take on a public role; she did not feel called to do so, and she felt she needed to stay focused on our home and children. Other couples might have reached a different conclusion.
Diann used to love to sing in the church choir. As we were assigned to different parishes, however, something began to change. Choir directors sometimes assumed she would want to sing solos or be a cantor because “she’s the deacon’s wife.”
One night I came home from work to find my youngest daughter very upset. A religion teacher had taken her to task for not knowing the names of the Twelve Apostles. “Why don’t you know that? Your dad’s a deacon!” My daughter didn’t understand. “Dad, you’re the deacon, not me!”
Then I took a job as associate principal and dean of students at a Catholic high school, where our oldest daughter was an incoming freshman. Not only did she have to make an adjustment from elementary school to high school, she had to do it with her dad as the school disciplinarian and a deacon.
Such pressures have made us careful to preserve and protect family privacy. But they have also helped me to understand other family dynamics better. When someone approaches me about a family situation, I appreciate not only the challenge, but the courage it takes to tell someone else about private matters. Being married with children and grandchildren gives me a solid grounding in something all families face: how to do what is good for each other. “Kenotic self-sacrifice” is not just a theological concept; it is, “Dad, please help that person out; we’ll go to the movies later.”
Since this article focuses the discussions our church should be having on the relationship of matrimony and orders, I have set down four other issues that theologians, formation programs (for lay ecclesial ministers, deacons and priests) and anyone else interested in ministry in today’s church would do well to consider.
1) More theological attention should be paid to the relationship of the diaconate to the presbyterate and the episcopate. For half of the church’s history, deacons were understood as “priests-in-training” (or as a theologian once quipped, “priests junior grade”). Recently, however, theologians have begun to articulate areas in which deacons are not “priestly.” While there is a common foundation of ordination, each order is unique; the unique features of the diaconate need more theological and pastoral reflection.
2) Because deacons are not priests, the work of theologians and historians like Gary Macy and Phyllis Zagano must be considered vis-à-vis the ordination of women as deacons. The history of the church is clear: women have been ordained to diaconal ministry in the past and they could be again. The entire church would benefit from a full and open conversation on this issue.
3) The practical impact of diaconal service on a deacon’s family needs greater scrutiny. Yes, “only the husband is ordained.” But that truism ignores an adequate theology of matrimony in which “the two become one flesh.” Since a deacon’s spouse and children are all affected by ordination, any suggestion that attention need be paid only to the deacon is problematic. Experience gained in diaconate formation has made clear that if the spouses are to grow together, they need to share the personal, spiritual and intellectual growth offered through formation. If they do not, divisions can occur and problems result. This insight is often ignored after ordination, however, as pastors and others begin their new relationship with the deacon.
4) Attention must also be paid to the “role” of the deacon’s spouse. There is no singular role. Some wives share in a “couples’ ministry” with their husbands, giving retreats, teaching, sharing hospital or prison ministry and so on. Other wives prefer to minister in areas different from their husbands. Still others have no interest in or availability for participation in public ministry. Each response must be respected by pastors and parishioners, as well as by deacons and spouses themselves. A deacon’s spouse responds to God’s call to discipleship in ways as diverse as those of any other Christian, and ought not be “pressured” into ministry. Conversely, some spouses, highly educated and experienced ministers, are suddenly relegated to the sidelines “because they are the deacon’s wife.”
With more than four decades, since Vatican II, of a diaconate open to both married and single men, it is time for all the baptized to engage in a healthy, lively conversation about the opportunities and challenges that the renewed diaconate offers the church.
Deacon William T. Ditewig, ordained in 1990, was for five years executive director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat for the Diaconate and the Secretariat for Evangelization. He is currently a professor of theology and director of graduate programs in theology at Saint Leo University, near Tampa, Fla.
Thoughts in Solitude - Thomas Merton
“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.” † † †"Your way of acting should be different from the world's way"...Rule of St. Benedict.
-Thoughts in Solitude
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