New archdiocesan program is restoring centuries-old Church tradition
By Brent Mattson
The Archdiocese of Vancouver is launching a program to form permanent deacons. The announcement was made Feb. 20 in parishes across the archdiocese in a letter from Archbishop J. Michael Miller, CSB.
Implementing the permanent diaconate, restored to the life of the universal Church by the Second Vatican Council, was a key proposal of the archdiocesan synod that concluded in 2006.
"The diaconate is the first degree in the sacrament of holy orders," said Archbishop Miller. "It's a distinct ministry of service that comes to us from the apostles."
"The formation of a permanent diaconate has been an idea for a long time," the archbishop said. "It's been more than 40 years since the permanent diaconate was instituted. It's not anything new to the Church in Canada - most dioceses already have a program for permanent deacons."
Deacons assist the bishop and priests at the altar, officiate at marriages and funerals celebrated outside Mass, proclaim the Gospel and preach, and, above all, remind all of us of the Church's ministry of charity.
The archbishop observed that the deacon's ministry is distinct from a priest's, since deacons cannot celebrate the Eucharist, anoint the sick, or celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation.
"They perform a number of different ministries, particularly ones that have to do with service," Archbishop Miller said. Among these he listed works of charity, justice, catechesis, sacramental preparation, adult faith formation, and ministry to prisoners and the sick.
"They can conduct Communion services when the priest is unavailable, particularly in nursing homes and in difficult situations where the presence of the priest is simply not possible," he added.
Permanent deacons played a vital role in the early centuries of the Church, but after about the fourth century, until the 1960s, the diaconate was almost exclusively a transitional stage prior to ordination to the priesthood. After the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI restored the diaconate as a permanent and separate rank of ordained ministry in 1967.
Permanent deacons are usually married men, and their service is part-time. The archbishop said that their ministry is offered freely and that they provide for their families' needs from secular employment or retirement income.
"In that sense it's very different from a priest, whose livelihood depends on the generosity of those whom he serves," Archbishop Miller said.
The decision to implement the synod's proposition of a permanent diaconate in the archdiocese was made last fall after much consultation, including discussions with the Presbyteral Council, the recently-formed Archdiocesan Pastoral Council, as well as a number of lay men who had inquired about becoming deacons.
"I have a file of about 15 men who have come to me before there was any program," he said. "That was one of the signs that the time was opportune."
Though over the years some permanent deacons have served in the archdiocese, they have come from elsewhere. Archbishop Miller said the difference now is that deacons will be formed locally and ordained for service here.
"We'll be setting up a program to discern and then to form men who are called to fulfil that ministry in our local Church," he said.
Regional information meetings for interested men and their wives will be held in Lent, followed by a formal selection process. Those accepted will begin a six-month period of aspirancy before academic formation begins next January.
"This means that the first ordinations will not be until 2015," the archbishop said. "It's a very thorough program" that covers both theological and pastoral aspects of the ministry. "This ensures that deacons are spiritually mature and ready for the service they're being asked to do in the Church."
Prospective candidates must be between the ages of 35 and 65 at the time of ordination.
Msgr. Gregory Smith, pastor of Christ the Redeemer Parish, has been named director of the Permanent Diaconate Program. In addition to coordinating the various aspects of the deacons' formation, he will assist in supplying information to prospective candidates and chair an advisory board that will recommend candidates for the program to Archbishop Miller.
Msgr. Smith, who was one of the two general secretaries of the archdiocesan synod, said he welcomes the new appointment. "It's an opportunity to be part of bringing to life one of the synod's most exciting propositions," he said.
Msgr. Smith and the archbishop both noted that nothing has been decided yet regarding the involvement of Catholic educational institutions in the training of permanent deacons.
"The archdiocese will certainly oversee the formation. Some of the formation might be coordinated with St. Mark's College or elsewhere," the archbishop said. "That detail hasn't been worked out yet."
Archbishop Miller said the diaconate "is part of the overall ministry given to us by the Lord through the Church: bishop, priest, and deacon. It's a three-fold ministry, each of which serves the People of God in living the Gospel."
A pastoral letter from Archbishop Miller will be issued in the coming weeks further detailing the Permanent Diaconate Program.