The Catholic bishops of the world assembled at the Second Vatican Council voted overwhelmingly in 1964 to renew the Order of Deacons as a ministry permanently exercised. Bishops who expressed particular interest in this renewed Order came largely from Western and Eastern Europe (the majority) followed by bishops of Latin America and Africa. Following the Council, in 1967, Pope Paul VI implemented this decision when he promulgated Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem.
One of the things the bishops had agreed upon was that the decision whether or not to have (permanent) deacons had to be made by a petition from the appropriate episcopal conference to the Holy See. Following the Pope’s motu proprio, five episcopal conferences immediately requested and received permission to ordain deacons (and the United States wasn’t one of them). The Conferences from Germany, France, Italy, Brazil, and Cameroon. (For those interested, the bishops of the United States studied the issue for a year and then in 1968, requested and received permission; the first deacons in the US were ordained in 1969.)
Germany had the first ordinations, on 3 November and 8 December, 1968. But also on 8 December 1968, seven men were ordained deacons for the Diocese (now Archdiocese) of Douala in Cameroon.
Cameroon? Why? Context is critical.
Colonial Cameroon achieved independence between 1955 and 1960. Pope John, of course, had announced on 25 January 1959 his intention to convene the Council, and the early preparations began. In Africa, the face of Catholicism, especially its episcopal leadership, was changing rapidly. The first native African bishop in all of Africa had been ordained in Rome by Pope Pius XII in 1939; he remained the only African bishop on the continent until 1951. Then, between 1951 and 1958 (the end of Pius XII’s papacy), 20 more were ordained, and in 1960, Pope John named one of them, Archbishop Rugambwa of Tanzania, the first native African cardinal of the church. One of those bishops was Thomas Mongo, a 41-year old priest of the Diocese of Douala, who became auxiliary bishop, and then two years later, in 1957, the diocesan bishop of Douala.
It was in this capacity that Bishop Mongo attended all four sessions of the Second Vatican Council. He served as diocesan Bishop until ill-health forced his early retirement in 1973 at the age of 59; he lived a very simple life of service until his death in 1988.
By all accounts, Bishop Mongo was known as a gentle and attentive leader, committed to building up the community among his people and their priests (and then, his deacons). Unlike many other bishops, he had no advanced university education. One biographer highlighted his exceptionally collaborative style by noting that among his closest aides, throughout his entire time as diocesan bishop, he had only one vicar general, chancellor and finance officer. Today he remains revered as the “Father” of the Archdiocese of Douala. Though he suffered from poor health through most of his tenure, he was famous for his focus on the poor of Cameroon, especially the children. He worked personally in building homes for the poor, paid school fees for poor children, and even gave up his own car, preferring to walk or to ride along with someone else. He was also the first bishop in all of Africa to ordain permanent deacons to assist him in all of this community building. The bishop was also well-known for his political activism, an “artisan of peace” who actively engaged in political debates concerning Cameroon’s future. In particular, he preached that the country “should be placed in God’s hands, retain its African identity and not be a replica of France.” He opposed colonial rule and condemned any political action that would deprive people of their rights.
Deacons are still being ordained in Douala, with the latest report I have seen about an ordination in 2013. While they are not great in numbers (approximately 20, from what I can find), they are part of the foundations of the contemporary diaconate, and we can all learn from our “founders”!