The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the much-needed support given by deacons, writes Chai Brady
In many ways the Church in Ireland has been slow to roll out the permanent diaconate which has been a feature in other countries for about half a century after Vatican II’s decision to bring it back in the 60s.
It was in 2000 that the Irish Bishops’ Conference made the decision in light of the pastoral needs of the country: following red tape, the toing and froing of documents and three years of formation, 12 years later 14 of Ireland’s first deacons emerged from the Archdiocese of Dublin and Elphin diocese.
There are now more than 100 ordained deacons in Ireland, with dozens more on the path of discernment or formation.
A recent report entitled A Portrait of the Permanent Diaconate: 2020-2021, published by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Committee on Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations on June 1, gives an idea of the state of the permanent diaconate in one of the first countries to adopt it after Vatican II.
While Ireland is a latecomer in many ways, trainee deacons were already beginning their journey in 1969 in the US. The report estimates there are now up to 19,000 deacons and provides a plethora of information including percentages of those involved in various Church ministries, diocesan information on formation and post-formation and other demographic facts.
As Ireland’s relatively young structures develop, several deacons spoke to The Irish Catholic about their experience so far and what their hopes are for the future.
Coming from a Presbyterian background, Deacon Brett Lockhart QC was ordained as a permanent deacon for the Diocese of Down and Connor in 2018. He is based in St Brigid’s parish in Belfast, is married with four adult sons and still works as a lawyer.
Asked what his experience has been so far, Deacon Lockhart said: “It has been first class. It has been everything that I hoped for, and more, in some ways.”
The permanent diaconate has “brought a whole new dynamic to the Church,” he continues, “It is a kind of bridge ministry between the laity and the clergy. The key is not to get too clerical. You want to stay with a foot in both camps. When I’m on the altar I wear the alb and stuff but I don’t tend to wear a collar, I try to do things to identify with the fact that I’m still a parishioner as well.”
Vocations to the priesthood are in short supply, with Deacon Lockhart describing the permanent diaconate as a “bright spark”.
In his parish he says he gets on extremely well with the parish priest, which has led to a collaborative approach and a great friendship, however he said problems can arise for some.
“I understand it is a transition for clergy and it hasn’t all been the same experience, but my experience personally has been nothing but collaborative and positive. There is a danger a certain territorial approach can take root. Sometimes priests can feel like deacons are mini priests, but it’s an entirely different ministry,” he explains.
“I think if you understand the ministry and if priests begin to understand that it’s complementary then I think it can work extremely well. Yes, there’s a danger, of course, that deacons can get a bit isolated, or if a relationship with a particular priest in the parish is not good then obviously that can be problematic. But I think it can be solved often by a wise bishop putting you with people who are more open to that kind of ministry.”
Increasingly priests are having to shoulder heavier burdens due to a decreasing number of vocations and “have little time for even strategising and thinking about evangelism or whatever, sometimes you can barely just get through the sacraments, so it [the diaconate] has all sorts of possibilities,” Mr Lockhart said.
In Dublin, Deacon Frank Browne, who was ordained just last year and is married with three children, is from Ballyroan and ministers in Ballyroan parish, also highlighted the importance of seeing the role as being a servant to the parish team and “not the assistant manager”.
“If you think you have some added power, and that you have a governance role you’re just looking for trouble. My role is to support the priest it’s not to stir a hornet’s nest,” he said.
“In general, I think it’s a two-way street, the deacon does not go off and do his own thing, it’s about communicating with the team, if people appreciate boundaries there are very few issues.”
Deacon Martin Donnelly, who is based in Enniskillen, Co. Fermanagh, was appointed the Director of the Diaconate in the Diocese of Clogher in January last year. Having been ordained in 2018, he is now the contact point for all enquiries about the diaconate, especially concerning enquiries regarding candidates for formation.
Currently he is the only deacon in Clogher but will be joined by a second man next year. He said there are people interested in the discernment programme starting next year, adding “it is a ministry that has got more recognition”.
“It’s very much a calling. It certainly has taken the best part of 10 years to get to 100 deacons but it seems to have grown more in recent years. It’s a ministry that was only restored in Vatican II but it took until the 2000s before discussions really opened again in Ireland, even though Vatican II was back in the 60s,” he said.
“There’s a new evolving theology. I was very fortunate to benefit from great support during formation, because I was the only candidate from Clogher I actually studied with a group of men from Down and Connor and we went through together. There were nine of us ordained in 2018.
“I was well supported within my own diocese, I had a couple of priests assigned to me who were close friends and a great support to me throughout my journey of discernment. I think accompaniment is one of the key things in discerning anything, it’s not just about personal discernment, I think accompaniment and spiritual direction are quite key elements in the whole journey.
“I’m accompanying two gentlemen at the minute that are considering a vocation to diaconate and I meet with them regularly, they are hopefully going to do a propaedeutic year starting next year, a year of discernment, and I will be helping them. We have a small formation group here in Clogher and we will be walking with these people as they go through their journey, before they go to candidacy.”
Following a period of discernment, those training to become deacons then prepare for ordained ministry, which includes academic study, spiritual, human and pastoral formation.
The US survey on the permanent diaconate found that 93% of dioceses who responded (144/177), have an active formation programme for the diaconate. In Ireland, roughly 60% of dioceses are engaged with the permanent diaconate.
In the Archdiocese of Dublin – the diaconate frontrunner along with Elphin – there are now 33 permanent deacons with another due to be ordained in the Autumn. Two more deacons are going into their third year of formation and should be ordained in 18 months. There are also 9-10 applications for next September to begin the year of discernment which is followed by a four-year degree programme in DCU.
Fr John Gilligan, the Director of Permanent Diaconate in the archdiocese, said he believes the Archdiocese of Dublin is the only See that insists everyone must have a bachelor’s degree – although all programmes in Ireland meet international standards for training permanent deacons.
He says the reason for this was due to Emeritus Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin diocese insisting that deacons receive the same qualifications as diocesan parish pastoral workers.
Fr Gilligan said: “I suppose other dioceses were rolling it out and didn’t have the same facilities as we have in Dublin because they were rural dioceses and they have no college nearby them that would do the training. We were very fortunate at the time that Mater Dei [now part of DCU] came on board and they had already been used to training parish pastoral workers so it was easy then to bring in the deacons then to do a similar training course.”
Vocations for priesthood
“We’re getting few vocations for the priesthood, the calls we’re getting now is for the diaconate which is interesting. A lot of these guys are very faith-based in their own communities, they’re helping out and assisting,” said Fr Gilligan, “When they come to you they feel they are unworthy but they can bring so much, their experience of married life and their experience of family is so important. It has been a good programme I must say, they have been very good and very helpful and very supportive.
“I think during Covid there is probably more interest because a lot of priests saw the need in them [deacons] and the benefits of them. Some of them are tapping parishioners on the shoulder now and saying, ‘would you not think of going forward now for the diaconate?’ There’s been three or four other inquiries now in the last couple of weeks of guys thinking about it and trying to see whether they can fulfil the commitment.”
The oldest age people can join the permanent diaconate at is 60, with Fr Gilligan saying that the majority of deacons in the archdiocese are in their 50s.
“They’re coming towards the end of a career and they are looking ahead and saying, ‘by the time I get through this programme I might be close to retirement and I might be able to give more time’. So we have a lot of guys who give full time to parishes because they can give it, their children have left the nest.”
In the US, 87% of dioceses who answered the permanent diaconate survey said they had post-ordination formation for deacons, with the average number of hours required annually being 22.
Speaking about post-ordination formation, Fr Gilligan said: “We have two years post formation, once the deacons are ordained, they still have study to do for two more years. That’s very important, you can do your canon law and your Scripture and your preaching and then just be finished with the programme and then when you are ordained you’re left there, but now we have a two-year programme and the canon law makes much more sense coming back to it, more practical questions are asked.”
The US survey also found that 80% of dioceses who took part had formation opportunities provided for wives of deacons. It also found 98% of dioceses required deacons to go on an annual retreat, with 79% of them providing couples retreats for deacons and their wives. Nine in 10, or 93% of deacons in the US are married, which would be similar in Ireland according to Fr Gilligan.
Unmarried candidates for the diaconate must be 25 or over before they can be ordained as permanent deacons. Those who are ordained as single men make a solemn promise to remain celibate.
However, regarding married men considering the permanent diaconate, the website of the Archdiocese of Dublin states: “The Church is concerned that there should be no potential for conflict between the responsibilities of ordained ministry and the need of a couple in the early years of their married life to devote their time and energy to maturing in their relationship and to caring for young children. For that reason, a married man must have reached the age 35 before he can be ordained to the permanent diaconate. He must also have the formal consent of his wife.”
Speaking about supports given in the context of married deacons, Mr Lockhart said Ireland still “has a lot to learn about how to deal with a deacon and his wife”.
“But again, I think there’s been great progress made and certainly my parish priest and my bishop are very sensitive to the fact that I’m married with four grown up children and recognise the obligations that I have to family first.
“It’s a major paradigm shift for priests, suddenly you have another member of the clergy who also happens to have a wife. If you’ve had a culture which is very much focused around priestly retreats and suddenly you get someone who’s married, who is partly lay but he’s also clergy, it takes a bit of adjustment. I think that there is an openness there among many, many people.
“My wife, she is astute and she’s very, very committed herself to the Church. I think she was a bit apprehensive about it [joining the permanent diaconate]. It turns out, I think she feels like it has been great for our marriage, it’s been great for me and it has worked well.”
Deacon Donnelly, currently the only deacon in Clogher diocese, said: “I have been married for 40 years. I think that one of the things that certainly the formators at national level are looking at, is a programme of continual support for deacons and their wives both before and after ordination.
“I know in my own case during formation my wife was afforded the opportunity to go on retreat weekends with me as part of the formation process and there were sessions organised for the wives to get together and talk as well and to be part of the retreat process so I think again that’s something that is evolving because at the moment in Clogher it will be hard for me to have a programme when there’s just me and my wife at the moment,” he laughs.
While permanent diaconate programmes are still at an early stage in many dioceses, there is still a broad interest and for those ordained, their ministry has been invaluable. The pandemic has certainly taken a toll on the Church and has put huge strain on the work of priests, parish pastoral councils and bishops. On the road to rebuilding and learning from the effects of Covid, it seems deacons will certainly be playing a big part in the future.
Altar, Word, Charity: What can permanent deacons do?
- Assisting the priest at the celebration of the Eucharist
- Bringing the Eucharist to the sick at home and in hospitals
- The formation of altar servers and of acolytes
- Presiding at Exposition and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament
- The celebration of Baptism
- Celebrating marriages (with the appropriate delegation)
- Presiding at funerals
- Proclaiming the Gospel at the Liturgy
- Preaching the homily
- Participating in sacramental preparation programmes
- The formation of readers
- Facilitating study of and prayer with the scriptures
- Facilitating the development of lay ministry
- Visiting the sick
- Visiting prisoners
- Visiting the bereaved
- Youth ministry, and the facilitation of peer-ministry among young people
- Promoting awareness of the social teaching of the Church
- The promotion of justice and human rights
- The administration of Church property