Deacons: Bringing it Home

Pope Francis poses with cardinal advisers during meeting at Vatican

In news from the Holy See today, it was announced that the nine special Cardinal-advisers to Pope Francis (known colloquially as the C9) have wrapped up their latest three-day meeting in Rome.  You can read Vatican Radio’s account of the meeting here.  The overall topic is the reform and restructuring of the Vatican bureaucracy itself.  Amid the several major areas discussed, ranging from finances to communications to decentralization, several interesting bits were mentioned which directly concern deacons.

In the news conference reporting on the meeting, Director of the Holy See Press Office, American Greg Burke included:

Among other proposals, the possibility of transferring some functions from the Roman Dicasteries to the local bishops or episcopal councils, in a spirit of healthy decentralization.

For example, the transfer of the Dicastery for the Clergy to the Episcopal Conference for examination and authorization for: the priestly ordination of an unmarried permanent deacon; the passage to new marriage for a widowed permanent deacon; the request for priestly ordination by a widowed permanent deacon.

married deaconMany people might be unaware of the history behind these three items, so let me cover each briefly.  Before doing that, however, we should keep one traditional factor in mind.  Throughout the Catholic tradition, East and West, it has been a well-established principle that “married men may be ordained but ordained men may not marry.”  Following ordination, then, the longstanding norm (until the 1984 Code of Canon Law) was that, once ordained, a man could not marry — or marry again, in the case of a married cleric whose wife has died.  In other words, the very reception of Holy Orders constitutes an impediment to entering a marriage.  The 1984 Code (c. 1078), however, permits a request for a dispensation from the “impediment of order” which would then permit the widowed deacon to re-marry.  More about this below.

USCCBThe three issues mentioned today are all questions that up until now have required a petition from the cleric involved to the Holy See for resolution.  None of them were things that could be decided by the local diocesan bishop or the regional episcopal conference (such as the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops).  So let’s take a closer look at these three situations.

  1. “Unmarried permanent deacons”: There are some people who wrongly assume that all so-called “permanent” deacons are married men.  This is inaccurate, and international statistics suggest that somewhere between 4-10% of all permanent deacons are, in fact, unmarried.  When an unmarried candidate for the diaconate approaches ordination, he makes the same promise of celibacy made by seminarian candidates for the (improperly called) “transitional” diaconate.  The situation addressed by the C9 concerns these celibate permanent deacons should they later discern a vocation to the presbyterate.  Many Catholics are surprised to learn this, but the Church rightly teaches that each Order is its own vocation: that a call (vocation) to serve as Deacon does not mean that Deacon necessarily has a vocation to the Presbyterate or Episcopate.  Deacon formation programs are not helping men discern a general vocation to the ordained ministry; rather, the focus is on the particular vocation of the diaconate.  So, if a deacon later discerns a possible vocation to the presbyterate, he must enter into a formation process for the priesthood to test this vocation.  In the US, the need for this careful discernment and formation is detailed in the USCCB’s 2005 National Directory for the Formation, Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons in the United States.  Up until now, the diocesan bishop (or religious superior) had to petition the Holy See to permit the subsequent ordination of that celibate permanent deacon to the presbyterate.  What the C9 is rightly suggesting (in my opinion) is that such decisions might be made at the more appropriate level of the episcopal conference, and not the Holy See. (I would think that should this idea go forward, the decision will ultimately be referred back to each diocesan bishop as the authority best positioned to know the situation and the people involved the best.)  NOTA BENE: This particular situation involves permanent deacons who have never been married before; the situation of a widowed permanent deacon will be covered in the third item below.
  2. US Bishops“The passage to new marriage for a widowed permanent deacon”:  This is a situation which has been faced by many of our deacons over the past decades.  Obviously a married man cannot and does not make the promise of celibacy prior to ordination as a Deacon: we do not promise a hypothetical: “I promise to embrace the celibate life IF my wife predeceases me” is not part of our liturgical and sacramental lexicon.  However, once ordained of course, that married deacon is impeded from entering another marriage.  First, of course, because he is already  married!  But if his wife dies, he is still not free to marry again because he has assumed that “impediment of order” I mentioned above.  St. John Paul II developed three conditions under which a widowed permanent deacon might petition for a dispensation from the impediment of order (notice, by the way, that this is not a “dispensation from celibacy” since the married deacon has never made such a promise from which to be dispensed in the first place).  These three reasons, which need not concern us at the moment, have taken various forms over the years, including some revisions by Cardinal Arinze which made the likelihood of obtaining such a dispensation most highly unlikely.  The petition for this dispensation right now begins with a petition from the widowed deacon to the Holy See, via his diocesan bishop (or religious superior).  What the C9 is suggesting is that in the future, this petition would go from the Deacon to the Episcopal Conference (or, if the Conference develops such procedures) to the diocesan Bishop.
  3. The last reference is to “the request for priestly ordination by a widowed permanent deacon.”  Here we find the widowed deacon discerning a different path.  Rather than discerning a new marriage, he is discerning the possibility of a vocation to the presbyterate.  In a sense, then, he is in the same position as the deacon above who was never married.  In the past, such petitions were handled by the Holy See; if the suggestion of the C9 is accepted and implemented, such decisions would be made at the local (Conference or diocesan) level.

Finally, notice that the C9 specifically mentions the Episcopal Conference as the possible new decision-maker, while I have suggested the possibility of the diocesan bishop in some cases.  What I am envisioning is that the Conference might well develop procedures and policies which might further delegate such matters, under certain circumstances, to the diocesan bishop.  For example, in 1968, it was the Episcopal Conference which received authorization to ordain (permanent) deacons.  The Conference then extended that authorization to each Bishop for his decision on the question.

The question of “healthy decentralization” is a wonderful one, and it is intriguing that the diaconate is part of that conversation!




From the Beginning: Deacons in Cameroon

It’s always good to keep things in perspective.  One way to do that is to consider often overlooked history.  For example:Cameroon Map

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.

191610-advent-procession-bamenda-cameroonColonial 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.

Bishop Mongo of Douala

Conference in honor of Bishop Mongo whose portrait is visible in front of the panel

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”!

Cameroon Deacon 2013