Up Front and Personal

Latin America Needs Permanent Deacons

Father Peter J. Daly

Pope Benedict XVI’s visits to Mexico and Cuba were good things. Both countries are extremely troubled. The Catholic Church in those countries could use the encouragement of the Church’s supreme pastor.
I’ve never been to Cuba, but I have frequently been to Mexico and Nicaragua over the past 12 years. We have sister parishes in both countries. We have visited them, and the pastors of those parishes have visited us in the U.S.
Every country has its particular situation, but there are some similar problems. The Catholic Church everywhere, north and south, has been lazy.  We have rested on the assumption that we are part of the culture.  We think that people will learn the faith simply because they are part of a “Catholic culture.” But we cannot rely on culture to do our job.
The Catholic Church in Mexico and Nicaragua is much like the rest of Latin America. Everywhere there is increasing secularism and the challenges of materialism, just as we have in the U.S. There is also increasing competition from evangelical and Pentecostal churches, often “imported” from the U.S.
People are leaving the Catholic Church in Latin America, too. In Puerto Rico and Brazil, there are now more practicing Protestants. Every time I visit Latin America, I see more and more non-Catholic churches.
The Catholic Church in the various parts of the Americas has much that we could learn from one another.  U.S. parishes could learn about joyful and enthusiastic celebration from Latino countries. The Latino Catholic community could learn about the ministry of permanent deacons from North America.
The Catholic Church everywhere needs more clergy. Permanent deacons are part of the answer. The Latin American church could imitate the U.S. in embracing the permanent diaconate.  In the U.S. we have one priest for every 1,500 to 2,000 Catholics, depending on the area. But we have nearly 17,000 permanent deacons, which is about 40% of the permanent deacons in the world.
In Latin America, parishes often have one priest for 10,000 Catholics or more.  In most of Latin America, there are no permanent deacons. I met the only permanent deacon in the whole country of Nicaragua at a funeral a few years ago. There should be one in every village in Latin America.
For many people in rural Mexico or Nicaragua, the church is an empty building.  Many towns have a chapel where Mass is celebrated once or twice a year. People are baptized as babies but then spiritually abandoned.  As a result they become evangelicals or Pentecostals when a local preacher shows up in town. What else could we expect?
But if they had a permanent deacon, it would be better. He could be a married man from the village. He could be trained to preach the word, pray with the sick, officiate at weddings and bury the dead. He could know his people who would be his neighbors.  A permanent deacon could celebrate a Liturgy of the Word on Sunday, preach a homily and distribute the Eucharist consecrated earlier at the parish church. [hr] Father Daly is a priest of the Archdicoese of Washington, D.C.

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