By RENEE WEBB
When the director of the permanent diaconate in the Diocese of Sioux City recently attended the national deacon congress last month in New Orleans, the main focus was celebrating the anniversary of the permanent diaconate in this country.
“It’s the 50th anniversary of the permission that came from Pope Paul VI for dioceses in the United States to begin training and ordaining permanent deacons,” said Deacon David Lopez. “The main message of the congress was the celebration of what we have accomplished so far – starting from 0 and building up to 18,000 deacons over 50 years is a pretty remarkable achievement.”
Just as there has been growth in the number of deacons at the national level, so too has there been in the Diocese of Sioux City. Currently, there are 54 deacons with 46 in active ministry. The deacon director added that in Bishop Walker Nickless’ 13 years in the diocese, he has ordained 37 of the deacons.
Apart from some time in early church history, Deacon Lopez noted for hundreds of years prior to the Second Vatican Council the permanent diaconate had essentially disappeared.
“The ministry had been carried out in a transitional way by those who were being ordained priests. They would first be ordained deacons, exercising the ministry of deacons and then they would go on to become priests and exercise both ministries as they still do,” he explained.
While permission was given to the United States to reestablish the permanent diaconate 50 years ago, Deacon Lopez noted each country or conference of bishops was given the responsibility of judging if or when it was appropriate to reinstate the ministry. Not every country chose to do so.
Instituted by Christ
Even though the ministry of the permanent diaconate was dormant in the church for many years, Deacon Lopez said the diaconal ministry has always existed in the church and he stressed both forms – transitional and permanent – are valid.
He went on to explain the diaconate was one of the orders established in the church by Christ himself and cited Chapter 6 of Acts that centered on the selection of seven men who were chosen to help the apostles take care of widows and orphans.
“It was an expansion of the apostolic ministry that Christ gave to the apostles, but only a particular share,” the deacon director said. “Like priests, deacons share in the apostolic ministry of the bishop. The bishop gives authority and responsibility to priests to do certain things, especially pastors of parishes. He gives a different level of his own authority, mission and ministry to share with deacons.”
Deacon Lopez said with the reestablishment of the permanent diaconate, the work of the diaconal ministry is highlighted, more effective and becomes more of an expression of Christ’s will for the church.
“The permanency of the diaconate is a restoration of something that fits God’s mind more than it fits in the world,” he said. “It is a divine work of the church.”
Work of the deacon
The deacon director called deacons a valuable resource for the church as they have broad-lived experience and far reach. Most are married, have families and jobs outside of church.
“The ministry the deacon does in the world, in the workplace and in the family has a strong impact in each of those locations,” said Deacon Lopez, who said while deacons are asked to give 5 to 10 hours a week to their ministries, they are living their vocation all the time. “They don’t put aside their identity as deacons when they go to work. They are still deacons at work and home.”
To help clarify the distinction of the deacon as an ordained minister, Deacon Lopez referred to the ordination rite. In the ordination rite of the priest, he is given bread and wine to celebrate the Mass and is told that anchors their ministry. The parallel for a deacon is that in their ordination rite, he is given the book of Gospels and is told to preach it, live it and inspire others.
The deacon is a minister at the altar, assists the priest at Mass, can perform baptisms and weddings. They usually are involved in assisting with parish ministries such as sacramental preparation and help in charitable works at the parish or in the community like at nursing homes or prison ministries.
Deacon Lopez said there are three forms of ministry: ministry of the word, of sacraments and of charity. Every deacon should be involved in all three of those areas but noted how they do so is open to various things such as time of the deacon, needs of the parish and so on.
Deacons, he noted, can also be beneficial in relation to Ministry 2025. Given they often work in more than one parish, deacons can help build a new sense of unity and hospitality in faith communities that have been restructured.
Formation of men entering the diaconate has evolved. Presently, the diocese has a five-year formation program with two cohorts – spaced two and three years apart.
“We ordained a class in the spring of 2016 and began a class in the fall of 2016. Then we ordained a class in the spring of 2018 and have formed a class that is just to begin,” said Deacon Lopez, who noted the next group will start formation in 2021.
Men interested in following a call to the diaconate can contact their pastor or they can reach Deacon Lopez at email@example.com.
“We are tremendously grateful for the men who have gone before us, especially the pioneers in the 1970s who were the first to respond to the call,” the deacon said. “The experience of the church in the United States with the success we have had in promoting, forming and serving as deacons is an avenue of that depth and it is beginning to have a deeper impact. This is God’s motion in the church, it is not something we are doing for ourselves.”