For our July 20-27 issue the editors of America asked three writers to assess the modern diaconate. William T. Ditewig, who for five years directed the U.S. bishops' office on deacons, takes a look at the unique ministry of the deacon in "Married and Ordained." in "Looking Back and Ahead," Scott Dodge presents the theology behind the diaconate, and Greg Kandra offers a humorous account of his first two years of ministry in "A Deacon's Lessons."
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Ron Hansen responds (July 27):
The adjective "busy" seems to be increasingly attached to "deacon" because while the priest's role is clearly demarcated in a parish, the deacon's role is more fluid, an open basket to drop obligations into, and the majority of us have full-time jobs and family concerns as well. The Vicar for Clergy in my diocese wisely instructed me to resist any task that interfered with my job or my marriage, and so far I haven't really noticed any pinching in those areas. I have noted only a loss of time in front of the television, which is not a loss I mourn. In the meantime, there are so many gains. After presiding at my first wedding, I reported to my spiritual director the surprising ebullience I felt, and he said, "Yes; nobody ever tells you that celebrating the sacraments can be fun."
We are not overworked; we are overjoyed.
Deacon Ron Hansen’s most recent novel is Exiles, about Gerard Manley Hopkins and “The Wreck of the Deutschland.”
Eric Stolz responds to Greg Kandra (July 23):
Deacon Greg Kandra's article was a humorous but insightful look into what he has learned since his ordination. So much of what he wrote rings true to me after five years as a deacon.
I too recall lying on the cold stone floor of the cathedral as the litany of the saints was sung at our ordination. It was so reassuring. All our patron saints, the patrons of our parishes and of the archdiocese were invoked: "Pray for us!" "All you holy men and women, pray for us." I still hear it today.
And in some ways we deacons are still lying on the floor, saying "Pray for us!"
When I was ordained I was aware that some priests refer to deacons as "liturgical flowerpots." What I have learned is that those are the same priests who who come into the sacristy and inform the deacon dismissively that they prefer to read the Gospel, so "you can do one of the other readings if you like" and take all the deacon's roles in the Triduum. One priest has informed me, inexplicably, that he will never allow me to preach at "his Mass" if I am wearing a dalmatic. Go figure. I've encountered priests who seem to feel the deacon needs to be "put in his place" to preserve the priestly role. They make me feel like I am walking on eggshells.
And then there are the priests who are wonderfully affirming. They ask me to preach when they preside and we have great laughs over dinner. They encourage me to develop my particular gifts and constantly, fraternally, remind me of what I should be doing. They engage the assembly and encourage them to become involved the social justice programs I set up. They are unpretentious, have no agenda and seek only what will help the faithful to grow closer to the Lord. What a blessing these priests are! They make me feel like trusted co-workers in the Lord's field.
Some of my biggest supporters are religious women. We have an unspoken bond. They know what it is like to labor without recognition for the sake of the Kingdom, and I have much to learn from them.
At the dinner following our rite of the call to ordination, our archbishop said, "I'd like to tell you that you will be universally accepted by everyone, and that all priests will respect and love you. But that would not be true." Wisdom! Let us attend!
And when I share with my best friend some incident of what I call "priests behaving badly," he now knows not to ask why I put up with such insults, because he has heard the answer before: I do it for the people.
The people are marvelous. They are accepting. They are engaged and grateful. They will share with the deacon things they are hesitant to discuss with the priest. My married deacon friends all have experienced how parishioners seek them out discuss marital issues "because the priest just doesn't understand." Those who claim the faithful are not ready to accept a married priesthood should visit parishes with deacons.
"Shhh," I tell parishioners who thank me for my preaching and say it's better than the priests' because I weave in thoughts gleaned from real life and experience in the workplace. "Don't say that. Someone might take offense." They smile and nod and say "God bless you." It's our secret. And they go home happy and fulfilled.
In the end, it's not about our relationship with priests. And then again, it is. If we deacons are to minister in a church that still maintains structures of priestly authority and privilege, we have to navigate those structures as best we can. If the ministry of deacons is to flourish and touch the people, we need the assistance of good priests to do so.
Deacon Eric Stoltz ministers at St. Brendan Church, Los Angeles. With Deacon Vince Tomkovicz, he is co-author of the book "Ascend: The Catholic Faith for a New Generation" to be published by Paulist Press in November.
Scott Dodge responds to Greg Kandra (July 22):
Advice from someone with experience is always a valuable gift. So, I appreciate very much Greg Kandra’s “Seven things they don’t teach you in formation.” Two of his points touch on the area of preaching. Preaching is an updated feature of the modern diaconate. The consensus is that ancient deacons proclaimed the Gospel, but did not preach. In some areas they read patristic homilies in the absence of a priest. While I agree that an overly long homily is deadly to any message, I see nothing magical about seven minutes. Even though written about in a humorous vein, I think as preachers we have to confront people on fundamental Gospel values. I also want to offer a contrary view to the predominant practice of homiletics, one that arises from my own experience, as ironic as that seem given my point.
After preaching at Mass one Sunday this past May I was shaking hands on the front steps of the church. A man shook my hand and asked me, “Are you a deacon?” I answered that I was. He said, “Good homily.” I said, “Thanks.” He then told me that he and his wife were visiting form out-of-town and that, “Our deacons back home only talk about themselves.” The power of personal experience and story-telling in preaching is overrated by many preachers, especially by deacons who undoubtedly bring a unique and much needed perspective to the ambo.
There is a consensus that when used effectively these stories and experiences greatly enhance a homily. I believe storytelling and relating personal experiences too often pass for preaching instead of being seen as tools in the preacher’s toolbox. I readily acknowledge that this is not the kind of issue that lends itself to a singular solution. One certainly has to account for the differences between preachers and the communities they serve. This is not only true of the people of my diocese and those in the Diocese of Brooklyn—though New York City and Salt Lake City are rather far apart and not just geographically—but parishes within my own diocese.
Poor preaching is one of the perennial complaints of U.S. Catholics. In my experience, people are hungry for substance, for serious engagement with church teaching and the demands the Gospel makes on their lives. As preachers, too often we content ourselves with telling a story or sharing a personal experience to hammer home one singular point or theme from the readings, not connecting it to the other themes that emerge from the proclamation of word of God in the service of articulating a coherent form of Christian life. A good example is preaching on a Gospel parable by telling a story. So, we have a story about a story.
Any authentic preaching of the Gospel challenges us. Our Lord taught us to pray for our enemies, especially his prayer as he was being crucified. Preaching takes courage. Prudence is what enables us to discern the difference between being courageous and being foolish.
Greg Kandra responds to William T. Ditewig (July 18):
From my observation post in the blog world, I’ve been fascinated, and somewhat dismayed, at how different dioceses approach the permanent deacon’s married state. In Brooklyn, where I live, the wives’ participation in our formation was strictly optional; all that was required was their support, their consent and, of course, their prayers. Elsewhere, I know, it’s radically different. In at least one archdiocese, wives are required to attend all classes, and take part in ministries; they are subsequently introduced with their husbands at the time of ordination as part of a “deacon couple.” (The implication, to my way of thinking, comes perilously close to something like a dual ordination–or at least, it sounds that way.) That approach more or less excludes spouses who (like mine) prefer to cheer from the sidelines, without actually getting into the game. Clearly, different places have different ideas of how to handle a married clergy.
And that’s something the church is still trying to figure out, I think. That, along with the precise role of the deacon in the life and ministry of the parish. When I first started serving as a newly ordained deacon in my parish, folks saw it as something novel and curious, and many would ask me after mass, “So, if you could, wouldn’t you like to be a priest?,” and they’d be smiling and bobbing their heads, expecting me to say yes. But in fact, I told them something else: “No thanks. I have a hard enough time now just being a deacon, and figuring that out.” What I didn’t explain to them was how hard it is to juggle a marriage, a job and a ministry. It’s tough enough with the limited sacramental workload I carry now; how that would be done as a priest is beyond me. Or, as a classmate said, answering the same questions at his parish: “Until they figure out how to have a married diaconate, I don’t think the church is ready for a married priesthood.” Amen. Taken a step further, I can only imagine the problems that would ensue if the married deacon were a married (or widowed or divorced) mother with children. The benefits to ministry would be immeasurable, of course. But so, I fear, would be the problems.
This is all very much a work-in-progress–-we’re only starting the fifth decade of the restored diaconate, after all–and there’s clearly more work to be done.
Most likely, the Holy Spirit will sort it all out when he has some free time--in between dealing with the SSPX, the visitation of nuns, and the simmering disputes over whether American ears can contend with a liturgy that contains the word “ineffable.”