One of the key changes introduced by Vatican II was the re-institution of the Permanent Deaconate. Holy Orders is the only sacrament with more than one level: Deaconate, Priesthood and Episcopacy. In the early Church, men who were ordained Deacons could become Priests or remain in that role. As time passed, the Church in the West abolished the practice of ordaining Decaons who remained in that state. Those ordained to the Deaconate became Transitional Deacons and eventually Priests. The re-institution of the Permanent Deaconate after Vatican II has been a great blessing for the Church although it has posed a few challenges.
The Archdiocese of Toronto was one of the first sees in Canada to re-institute Permanent Deacons. My parish in Oshawa was one of the first to have a man complete the formation program and serve in that capacity. Since those entering the program were almost all married men, at first it seemed unusual for the person who preached the sermon and ministered at the altar to have his wife and kids sitting behind you at Mass. However, since it was a period of many changes in the Church, I got used to it.
My positive experience with Permanent Deacons in Toronto made me wonder why there were none in the Diocese of St. Catharines when I moved there in 1988. Inertia is hard to overcome in any institution, including the Church. Some priests expressed concerns about the cost of the formation program while others grumbled about whether Deacons would fit into parishes. Several Deacons ordained in other dioceses were allowed to minister here. When the Diocese announced a Permanent Deaconate program would be established, I was hopeful.
Permanent Deacons serve directly under the Bishop. Their primary role is to undertake charitable works which can get overlooked within a diocese. They may be assigned to nursing homes, hospitals or refugee centers. They are assigned to a parish where they undertake certain liturgical functions like preaching, serving at Mass as well as celebrating Baptisms, Weddings and Funerals.
As someone who has worked with Permanent Deacons, I appreciate their contribution to pastoral ministry. Those serving in nursing homes or hospitals can provide information about parishioners in those institutions. They relieve some of the pressure on Priests in parishes by preaching, celebrating Baptisms, non-Mass Funerals and Weddings as well as being part of parish programs like Baptismal Preparation or RCIA. Their theological and pastoral training can be utilized for fresh ideas on problems. They also provide parishes with a sense of continuity as priests come and go.
Those who are married men and fathers make another important contribution by sharing their experiences. Many Catholics complain celibate clergy lack the personal experience to adequately undertake such pastoral activities as Marriage or Baptismal Preparation. While I dispute this claim, when these programs are done by Permanent Deacons (and hopefully their wives) an extra dimension is added. By using stories about marriage and family life in their preaching and teaching, Permanent Deacons reach a lot of people in a different way than Priests.
Permanent Deacons also cause some tensions in pastoral ministry. Family responsibilities (which take priority over ministerial commitments in the life of a Permanent Deacon) cause some Priests to regard them as unreliable. Other Priests want them to spend more time helping out in the parish which means less time for their charitable work. Occasionally, a Permanent Deacon will do something to undermine the authority of the Pastor in a parish. Tensions exist between all those in pastoral ministry and must be resolved.
Priests and seminarians need to find a way to work with Permanent Deacons. As the demands of pastoral ministry increase and the number of priestly ordinations either stagnates or declines, they will become a valuable resource to the Church in the future. Their expertise, experience, energy and commitment will help Priests better serve God and their people. Where possible seminarians and the newly ordained should be assigned to parishes with a Permanent Deacon so they can get used to working with them.
Permanent Deacons are a gift to our Church and should be recognized as such.