My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,
As we approach the bi-annual Ordination of Permanent Deacons for the Diocese of Brooklyn, it would be good to review the role of the deacon in the modern life of the Church. The Permanent Diaconate was re-established at the end of the Second Vatican Council. The Fathers of the Council believed that it was time to enlist the service of qualified men to serve in a Diaconate, which was established in the Acts of the Apostles and gradually declined in the history of the Church.
Recognizing the importance of the laity, however, as the Second Vatican Council did, and the universal call to holiness, reinstituting a Permanent Diaconate available to married men, seemed to be a logical conclusion of the teachings of that Council. Also, the shortage of priests in various continents, especially Latin America and Africa, was considered, as the Diaconate could be of assistance to those countries with fewer numbers of priests.
The role of the deacon is one of service, both liturgical and, as its name declares Diakonia, a Greek word that means service to those in need. We remember from the Acts of the Apostles that the Apostles recognized they could not serve at tables, or take care of feeding the poor, since their mission was to preach the Word. And so, they enlisted the service of seven men to serve as the first deacons. One of which was Stephen who became the first martyr of the Church.
Deacons can minister the sacrament of Baptism, witness sacramental weddings, preach and assist at the celebration of the Eucharist. For the last five years in the Diocese in Brooklyn and Queens, the training programs for deacons have been coordinated by the St. Charles Borromeo Council, and a Master’s degree in Theology is offered to the deacons who have a college degree through the cooperative inter-diocesan seminary program. The master’s degree program is fairly extensive. The first year is one of preparation and discernment, followed by four years of classes.
It is interesting that the wives of any married deacon candidate are also invited to participate in the master’s degree if they wish, or they may just participate in the classes. This year, we will ordain 10 men to the Permanent Diaconate, three of whom will receive their master’s degree. Others who enter the diaconate program who do not have a college degree follow the same course of study, however, they receive a certificate stating that they have completed the course work and understand their responsibilities, most especially in regard to preaching. Permanent Deacons must be educated because the Ministry of the Word involves an understanding of Scripture, morality, and other important issues that are necessary for preaching to the faithful.
The number of Permanent Deacons around the world is close to 50,000 which has increased by about 1½ percent. The vast majority, about 97 percent of the Permanent Deacons, live in the Americas and in Europe. This tells us that only when men have occupations and free time, can they actually devote themselves to the voluntary ministry of the Diaconate. Although the Second Vatican Council hoped the Diaconate would be of assistance to mission countries, however, these countries are places where people must support themselves with jobs that leave them little free time. This does not lend itself to the ministry of the Diaconate, which does involve the ability to self-support and have time not only for family, but also for Diaconal ministry.
In the United States, this year it is projected that deacons will account for almost 46 percent of the world’s total of deacons of 37,000. It is interesting to note that of the 10 Permanent Deacons that I will Ordain this year at the Co-Cathedral of St. Joseph on Saturday, May 29, all are married and come from various professions. Two are retired, and the other eight are active in the workforce; an accountant, a plumber, two Catholic high school teachers, a UPS service provider, a machine operator, a Nurse Manager, and a podiatrist.
I have taken a special interest in developing the diaconate program since my ordination to the Episcopacy because this is a critical ministry to the life of the Church which provides a bridge between the laity and priest by sharing in the ordained ministry of deacon. Deacons are usually more permanent in a parish than even the priest. The deacon provides that stability so necessary in parish life. They know the people and the people know them, as the deacon lives among the faithful and can accomplish sometimes what priests cannot accomplish. At times, the deacon can be easier to approach and, perhaps, have a first-hand understanding of family problems since they, themselves, must care for their own family.
As we put out into the deep of the new Ordination of 10 to the Permanent Diaconate and welcome 15 new candidates into the first-year program, join me as we remember the deacons in our prayers. These men of generosity, surrounded by their wives and families, offer themselves to the Church in a special service that is unique to their charism.