The focus should be on what deacons are, not what they do

Posted by admin_waci2, With 0 Comments, Category: Deacons,

How has a bishop implementing a decision of Vatican II become controversial, asks Bro. Martin Browne OSB

In a pastoral letter issued at the beginning of August, Bishop Kieran O’Reilly of Killaloe announced plans for the permanent diaconate in his diocese.

It is almost exactly 50 years since the Second Vatican Council provided for the restoration of the diaconate as a ‘permanent rank’ of the Church’s ordained ministry. However, it was not until 2000 that the Irish bishops decided to proceed with this restoration. The first candidates began formal training in 2009 and were ordained in 2012. Permanent deacons are now to be found in several dioceses in Ireland, and several more have candidates in formation.

A bishop implementing a decision of the Second Vatican Council – albeit 50 years after the fact – might not expect to draw much media coverage or criticism, but Bishop O’Reilly drew plenty of both. So much so that he issued another letter a month later, announcing that, having listened to many people, he had decided that he would “not now proceed with the introduction of the Permanent Diaconate at this time in the diocese”.

One of the lines in the original letter which proved most controversial was: “I wish to invite men who believe that the Lord is calling them to the ministry of the permanent diaconate to present themselves to the Diocese and so begin a process of discernment.” I presume that it was the word ‘men’ which caused most offence.


Some of those who were most vocal in their criticism of Bishop O’Reilly seemed to imply that the bishop was excluding women from his invitation arbitrarily and that he could easily have included them if he had so wished. This is, of course, not the case. The bishop has no authority whatsoever to change the practice of the Church regarding who may be admitted to the sacrament of holy orders, and suggesting that he might do so is extremely naïve.

I am not an entirely disinterested observer in this matter; I am a native of the diocese and have been a deacon for the past six years. I believe that the restoration of the diaconate has enriched the Church and am saddened that it has become a cause of division.

To claim that one’s opponents just don’t understand the matter under discussion is a familiar strategy often employed by politicians. Yet the Killaloe diaconate debate, at least as it has been reported in the media, does seem to have involved much poorly-informed comment.

This is not to denigrate the protagonists or to question their goodwill. However, now that the bishop has moved to defuse the simmering anger by postponing the planned introduction of the permanent diaconate in the diocese, it is worth looking more closely at some of the issues.

A major objection to the permanent diaconate is the claim that it further clericalises ministry in a clerical Church. This certainly is a danger and in places around the world where recruitment was done imprudently, clericalism has indeed been a problem.

Part of the reason for this lies in the fact that, because the diaconate was merely a stepping stone on the road to priesthood for a millennium, deacons are still often seen as half-priests. Introducing deacons to Ireland at a time when the numbers of priests are shrinking has reinforced this mistaken view.

Because the word deacon comes from the Greek word diakonos, which is usually translated as ‘servant’, deacons have often been associated narrowly with care for the poor. But as modern understanding of the Greek word develops, so too does our understanding of the deacon’s broader prophetic servant vocation.

As Vatican II put it, deacons are ordained for “the service of the liturgy, of the Gospel and of works of charity”. Service is the golden thread. Deacons are ordained to be living icons of Christ as servant, and to incarnate the servant nature of his Church. In short, deacons should be ordained not because we don’t have enough priests in the Church, but rather because we don’t have enough deacons!

A related objection is that deacons could supplant lay ministry. However, just as deacons are not meant to replace priests, neither are they supposed to replace the People of God in their mission of witnessing to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. A deacon who uses his clerical status to lord it over other Christians misses the point of his ordination.

There should be no tension or competition between the ministry of deacons and that of others. In the communion of the Church, discussions of ministry should reflect the interrelational ministry of bishop, people, deacons and priests.

There have also been complaints in Killaloe that the diocesan pastoral plan provides for the development of more lay ministries but doesn’t refer to the diaconate at all, and that this new male-only ministry shouldn’t be introduced now instead. However, surely no-one is seriously suggesting that it is a case of either/or? The Church needs both.

It is certainly true that only men may be ordained in the Church and I appreciate the sadness and frustration that causes for many people. There is significant evidence for women’s diaconal ministry in the early Church and so the door is not locked on the question of women being ordained deacon in the future.

In the meantime, though, it makes no sense to say that a diocese won’t have this ministry simply because it’s not open to women too. If that were the case we’d have to stop ordaining men as priests and bishops too, and there aren’t many voices calling for that to happen – least of all among the priests who have been vocal about the Killaloe controversy.

A wise bishop once asked: “Is there anything at all that is peculiar to the deacon? Is he given powers that are given to no-one else? The answer is ‘no’. There is nothing he can do which nobody else can do. But that is just what is distinctive about him. He has no power. He is a servant. He is entrusted with the ministry of Christ who washes his servants’ feet. He embodies the service of the Lord who has made himself the servant of us all.”

This speaks powerfully to the current controversy in Killaloe.

We get bogged down if we only consider what deacons do. Their significance lies as much in who they are as what they do. I sincerely hope that this can be more fully understood during the continuing dialogue in his diocese promised by Bishop O’Reilly.

Bro. Martin Browne OSB is a monk of Glenstal Abbey.
The Irish Catholic
25 September 2014