Saturday, October 22, 2016

Deacons and priests need to work together

Yesterday I mentioned that last weekend, along with my brother deacons and many of their wives, I was privileged to once again participate in our diocese's annual weekend-long deacon retreat. It's always a joy to see, spend time among, and talk to many of my brother deacons. One thing that remains clear to me after nearly 13 years of being a permanent Roman Catholic deacon is, generally speaking, priests don't care much for permanent deacons. As in most things, there are certainly exceptions. I don't make this observation in an accusatory way, or because something has recently happened in my own ministry that pissed me off. I make it simply as an observation over nearly 13 years of ministry. For what it's worth, I firmly believe it's something that can be overcome and rectified if it's given the attention it deserves. In my experience, not much caring for permanent deacons is true both of more and less traditionally-oriented priests. It seems this not much caring for deacons takes two forms, which I will seek to set forth in a very generalized manner.

In the first instance a permanent deacon isn't deemed by the priest to be ministerally competent. Lack of ministerial competency, which does not necessarily, or even usually, imply utter incompetency, usually results from inadequate initial and/or the utter lack of on-going formation, as well as the lack of genuine opportunities to serve, opportunities that allow the deacon to hone his skills. In such cases the priest dismisses him as not being up to the task. Of course, the fact that many priests eschew on-going formation themselves- something that shows in their ministries, often taking the form of the outmoded "Father knows all, makes the decisions with little or no consultation, and does all the things that really matter" view of ministry- is usually overlooked. About those deacons who may be ministerally incompetent, remember, no deacon is even accepted as a candidate for ordination without a strong recommendation from his pastor!

The second generalized instance involves a deacon who was initially well-formed and who actively seeks to improve his ministerial skills. These deacons are often viewed as a threat, as a competitor, someone to be kept in his place by various means. This often holds true despite the fact that people in most parishes are pastorally under-served. But there is no need to compete or priests to feel threatened by competent and active permanent deacons because the pastoral need in most parishes far outstrips the parish's pastoral capacity, even when one thinks about priest(s) and deacon(s) working together at something like full capacity. There are reasons why, by-and-large, Catholics no longer seek pastoral advice and counsel, spiritual direction, if you will, in matters affecting their lives, even when it comes to complex moral issues such as in-vitro fertilization, marriage preparation and counsel, end-of-life issues, etc. In other words, even in matters that seem to call for pastoral consultation and input as a serious Catholic prayerfully discerns what to do, or seeks assistance in trying times, people seem to grasp there is often not much to be gained from seeking pastoral advice, which assumes it's made available when they seek it. This is a challenge for the Church across-the-board.

How both of these states-of-affairs are typically made manifest is the refusal of priests to have anything substantial to do with deacons assigned to their parishes, choosing instead to keep them at arms length. In many situations, it seems, the best a permanent deacon can hope for is a kind of benign neglect that gives him a certain list of things to do which he is then left to do with little or no interference. In my own diocese I aware of permanent deacons willing, able, and ordained to serve who are given either trivial or, in some instances, nothing to do. In short, when it comes to ministry, many permanent deacons are under-employed, which is not only to their own detriment, but that of the entire parish and, in the aggregate, the detriment of the entire Church. Collaborative ministry requires communication and partnership. As in all such relationships, be they personal, professional, or pastoral, these require effort, work, and no little creativity. At minimum the fruitful collaborative relationship between priests and deacons requires a view of pastoral ministry that involves deacons. Fruitful collaborative relationships don't just happen, they require leadership and initiative.

It's surprising to me that priests working with deacons and deacons working with priests does not seem to be given much emphasis in either priestly or diaconal formation. What often passes for this in diaconal formation is for the deacon to be utterly deferential in every way to the priest(s) he serves alongside. While it's not the job of the deacon to play loyal opposition or be a divisive force within the community, much less to play devil's advocate, such an utterly deferential attitude can seriously compromise a deacon's diakonia. A deacon should not reject his pastor's authority, but he shouldn't be shy about speaking up when it's the right thing to do. Ideally, such speaking up is done at a time and in a place when and where it is not divisive for the community, but useful. This means such times and places must exist.

One thing I've never understood is what in reality is a priests' convocation being billed as "Clergy Convocation" while excluding deacons. Why do deacons and priests of a given diocese not come together, say, once a year for a convocation together, an actual Clergy Convocation? Are there dioceses that do these kinds of things? How often do the clergy of a parish, even if it's one priest and one deacon, get together to discuss ministry to the parish and build fellowship with one another in order to foster koinonia in the community they serve? Why is communication often done through intermediaries, like parish staff, and not directly, even in relatively small parishes? Deacons and priests working together strikes me as a matter of great importance for the Roman Catholic Church in the United States and other countries that have a well-established permanent diaconate. I think we're overdue for this matter to be given its due.


  1. Deacon Scott,

    Once again, thank you for your thoughts. I cannot but agree with so much of what you describe. The bind that many deacons seem to experience, i.e., they are considered marginally competent and thus marginalized in pastoral planning, or perceived as a ministry threat because of their competencies and charisms, is difficult to endure.

    I have for several years worked on building fraternity among deacons and priests, with slow but steady success. I emphasize slow. I personally refuse to "dumb down" my ministry, but I never deliberately diminish the priests with whom I minister.

    My experience often is deacons are not well-led, but well-controlled. Rather than managing and controlling, deacons need vision and mission, both of which I have tried to articulate for my brothers in the diaconate and the presbyterate. Most deacons I know are dedicated, skilled men who have proven themselves in family, career, and Church before entering formation, and are eager to serve if led well without unnecessary hindrances placed before them.

    One thing is clear to me and that is the Holy Spirit is at work in the diaconate. We must not hinder Him or His work.

    Thank you for your diaconal ministry.

    BTW: I too was on retreat this past week.

  2. Bob:

    I agree. I didn't want my post to sound cynical or accusatory, but hopeful. It really is something that dioceses need to focus on. It needs to be at the instigation of the bishop and carried out by his Vicar for Clergy. The primary co-workers the bishop is given for carrying out his ministry are his priests and deacons.

    Given the many unmet pastoral needs, this should be a given major focus.

  3. I didn't think your post was cynical at all, just a realistic description of the landscape.

    Yes, our bishops need to initiate and the Vicar for Clergy needs to assist in implementing the bishop's vision/mission for his deacons. Somehow, the bishops, priests, and laity need to develop an ecclesial imagination that is inclusive of deacons. So many people have an active image of a priest or bishop or religious sister or brother, but no ecclesial image of deacons. I think we deacons are going to have to develop that image to be apprehended by others. Takes time. Maybe another generation....

  4. Well-stated. Deacons need to be formed and allowed to foster the ecclesial imagination that includes us. It is stunning to me how many books and articles on parish pastoral ministry continue to be published that simply ignore the ministry of deacons. Permanent deacons in my diocese already outnumber priests. When our new class of 15 deacons is ordained early next year, the differential will become quite significant. Why invest the time, energy, and resources forming and ordaining ministers who will be underemployed and, in some cases, unemployed when it comes to ministry?

  5. A couple of years ago, the NADD had their annual convention in Minneapolis and I was able to attend. One of the keynote speakers was George Weigel. He spoke of his book "Evangelical Catholicism" (I think that is the title). In it, he talks about priests, bishops, laity,and religious and their potential role in evangelism, but no mention of the diaconate. One of my brother directors, well-known nationally, confronted him about this, and he said it was up to us (deacons) to write that chapter. At first, I was a little irritated by the statement, but with reflection, I found myself agreeing.

    Thus, what you and I do in our lifetimes will have an effect for the next generation of deacons. It is an exciting time, in that way, to be writing and thinking aoout diaconal vision and mission.

  6. It was a clever answer, but I think it revealed he hadn't done his homework. When I acquire a new theology of ministry or pastoral ministry book, I go to the index and look for "deacon" and "diaconate". If the author didn't factor in the diaconate, his/her work is incomplete and out-of-date. It reflects an inadequate ecclesiology, meaning it is fundamentally flawed. Deacons probably do more evangelism than any of the other groups mentioned.

    I agree with what you assert about what our work is. I gladly accept the challenge and hope to make a contribution at some point.


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