Word, Liturgy, Charity: The Diaconate in the U.S. Catholic Church marks the 50th year of the restoration of deacons in the U.S. Catholic Church as a “permanent and stable order of ministry,” a third order of clergy in addition to bishops and priests. The book briefly charts the history from the deacons of the early Christian church to its reemergence during the Second Vatican Council.
It also summarizes changing norms and guidelines for the formation of deacons issued by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and approved by the Vatican. Today there are more than 16,000 active deacons in the U.S. Catholic Church — comparable to the number of diocesan priests.
Leaders of Catholic diocesan seminaries and theological schools will benefit from the findings of this study, which was assembled by researchers at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA). Six different authors contributed chapters on the purpose of the diaconate, demographic characteristics of deacons, their formation in ministry, the perspectives of the wives of married deacons, and how deacons fit into church structures.
Typically deacons preach and teach, assist bishops and priests at Mass and at other liturgies, and serve in charitable efforts in parishes and beyond. Like priests, deacons are assigned by bishops to their specific ministries (with the bishop usually being advised by a diocesan director of deacons). Deacons may preside at baptisms and marriages. They may conduct communion services using bread and wine previously consecrated by a priest. They often bring communion to the sick, and they preside at funerals and burials. Sets of norms that have been issued and revised several times since 1968 have clarified admission standards, established expectations for preparation (formation), and elaborated on diaconal ministries. Those seeking to be deacons may be married or celibate men, but the candidate’s age at the time of ordination to the diaconate must be 35 or older.
Men who are admitted to candidacy for ordination are expected to have spent a year as an aspirant being introduced to various aspects of formation, which since the 1990s has been organized around the same four pillars used in preparing priests for their ministry: human, intellectual, spiritual, and pastoral formation.
On average, deacons spend four years in formation and 22 hours weekly in preordination formation, much of it in person. Online education is slowly being introduced, and not quite a third of the dioceses provide a portion of academic formation online.
Ordained deacons are also expected to engage in continuing education, although the requirement is administered unevenly. Nevertheless, 8 in 10 have continued a formal education program after ordination. Active deacons reported spending 30 hours of continuing education in the previous year. Only a limited number of dioceses cover formation costs.
Other characteristics of their life and ministry cited by the authors:
The book provides useful feedback on how deacons regard their education and formation. Nine in 10 give high praise to their academic formation, but they are far less impressed with their training for counseling, for conducting or assisting in special liturgies, and for hospital or prison ministry.
Virtually 98 percent of deacons express high satisfaction with their work. Nearly the same percentage would recommend the role to others. At the same time, even as satisfaction is high, disappointment has increased over mounting confusion among the laity about deacons’ identities and roles as clergy. Parishioners are less aware of the role now than when the diaconate was a new feature. Additionally, some foreign-born priests and older priests are less than welcoming of their work.
The authors provide meaty information for seminary leaders and educators, bishops, and diocesan directors of deacons. This study indicates a need for continuing practicums in ministerial fields for which deacons feel undertrained, workshops using case studies to improve priest/deacon relations, and personalized invitations to deacons to attend lectures and events. At a minimum, seminarians should be prepared to respect and work with deacons, a highly committed, educated, sacrificial, and much needed order of clergy.
In Trust spoke with Franciscan Sister Katarina Schuth, professor emerita at the Saint Paul Seminary School of Divinity at the University of St. Thomas, asking her what board members need to know about the preparation of deacons in seminaries. An excerpt of her comments is below:
Preparation for the diaconate is different from preparation for priesthood. For one thing, many dioceses have their own programs outside of the seminary context. Only 11 diocesan seminaries have diaconal preparation programs that are part of their regular curriculum. But in some other dioceses, the preparation for deacons is more uneven.
In some places there is a certain amount of tension between deacons and priests, or between deacons and laypeople. Lay ministers used to do a lot of the ministry that deacons now do, so lay ministers have in some cases been replaced by deacons.
Some laypeople value the ministry of deacons — they may find married deacons to be more aware of the issues families face. Others don’t appreciate the ministry of deacons — they prefer a priest.
And some priests — especially but not exclusively priests who oversee more than one parish — really appreciate the help of deacons, while others don’t want the assistance of a deacon. The complexity of the relationship between them can cause misunderstanding on both sides.
Governing boards of Catholic institutions should consider seriously having deacons report, or relate somehow, to the board. Because even if a seminary doesn’t currently have a deacon program, its graduates will have to work with deacons. The seminary should make sure that there is a sense of collaboration and cooperation.
- Jay Blossom
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