The Future of the Diaconate

David Oatney Vocations

deacon-ordination-2010-thumb-425x332-19552A story from yesterday’s National Catholic Register said that many of our nation’s bishops are extremely pleased with the progress of the permanent diaconate in the United States. The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate has been able to glean that there are around 18,000 permanent deacons serving in the United States, and that is based on the dioceses that answered the 2011-2012 survey, where some 12,756 permanent deacons were found. The participating bishops and those overseeing the survey have said that they are thrilled with the numbers, but they’ve discovered a problem that isn’t going away any time soon, it would seem: There is an avalanche of deacons about to reach the retirement age, and in most dioceses that is 75:

However, an overwhelming majority (94%) of the deacons currently serving the Church are over 50 years old, approaching the retirement ages set by over half of reporting dioceses. More than 40% of deacons are in their 60s, and 25% are over the age of 70. Currently, 53% of dioceses require permanent deacons to retire after a certain age, with 13% of those dioceses requiring deacons to retire at age 70 and 80% after the age of 75.

meretreatOf course anyone who knows anything about both deacons and priests knows that for the vast majority of them, their ministry does not end at the age of 75, they’ll go right on ministering as they absolutely should. The primary difference, however, is that those deacons who “retire” are not canonically bound to do very much, and they only have to be as active as they want to be or are able to be, not as active as their bishop or pastor asks them to be. Being “retired” in the Church does not mean “I quit being a deacon,” because, as with our priests, you never do. However, it does mean that, for the most part, a man can’t be compelled to do nearly as much, and the requirements put upon him as an “active” deacon aren’t there in nearly the same measure after the bishop accepts his canonical resignation. The great problem with an “aging” diaconate is the fact that the “retired” deacon gets to choose, for the most part, how active in ministry he will be.
steveretreatPart of the problem is simply the “nature of the beast” if the truth is fully told. A lot of men find that they can’t even realistically begin the process of formation until they have the time to do it. Unlike those men studying for the priesthood, most deacons are never compensated for their service, and in many dioceses the men have to pay for the majority of the expenses related to their formation. That makes the diaconate out of the financial reach of many men at all, but certainly many younger men. We are fortunate in the Diocese of Knoxville that the diocese covers a great deal of the expenses associated with our formation (something people should remember when the collection for the Office of the Diaconate comes ’round), we have to cover only our books (which aren’t always cheap), and incidentals like our Friday meal (we meet Friday-Sunday once a month). Bishop Stika is keen that no one who is called to be a priest or a deacon should be prohibited from discerning that call because they can’t afford it.
donretreatThese three pictures are from our Aspirant retreat. The first picture is of me at table, unrehearsed, taken by my fellow Aspirant, Gil Campos. The second is of one of the two other Aspirants in my deanery, Steve Helmbrecht, who is kind enough to regularly give me a ride to formation. To the left is the other Aspirant in our deanery, Don Griffith. All three of us have arrived at our present position in formation from different perspectives and different backgrounds. Steve and Don have been such a great help to me that I may not have been able to participate in formation without their help.

scottScott Maentz and his lovely wife Christine have given of themselves in advice, comfort, durable medical equipment, and plenty of beer and ale to lend me a hand when I have needed it. I hope that I can return the favor to them and to Steve and Don and their wives Genae and Patty one day, not out of a sense of owing a return favor, but out of an understanding of service and aid to a brother or a sister.

This is the essence of the diaconate. Service at the altar, service to our fellow parishioners, service to one another, service to our neighbor. That’s why I was greatly disturbed by some of the comments under the Register article, especially this one:

Deacons cannot perform any sacramental function that cannot be performed (with episcopal permission) by a layman.  And I have seen many instances of deacons working in positions where there were more qualified laymen whose only liability was “not being a deacon.”

Deacons don’t need special episcopal permission to perform the functions of ministry which are normally canonically theirs because they are ordained. Deacons are not laity, they are clergy, and that means that they possess the episcopal permissions they need inherently unless the bishop revokes them. I similarly saw a recent comment at Deacon Greg Kandra’s blog saying that ordaining “too many” deacons will “clericalize the laity.” I suppose that when we ordain a man a transitional deacon and then a priest, that we are not clericalizing the laity? No man enters clerical formation of any kind already ordained. Every man who would be ordained begins life as a layman who is willing to answer the call of the Holy Spirit.

I am not in a position to speak to the nature of  diaconate formation in other dioceses, but I am so thankful for our formation here in the Diocese of Knoxville. We have had formation overseen by men-Deacon Tim Elliott, Deacon Jim Lawson, and Deacon Joe Stackhouse-who are committed to the diaconate as a distinct order of service and who are committed to Church teaching. Some have asked why I am undergoing diaconate formation when I will likely be doing some of the same things I am now doing (RCIA, parish retreats, catechesis through writing and blogging, etc., etc.) as a layman. There is such a thing as God’s grace calling us to ratify our ministry through sacrament, and I have come to see that God’s path for my life has led me to this point and place, just as he has done for the other men in our class.
We are here to serve, not just to be empty vestments.