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William T. DitewigApril 29, 2024
Seminarians from the Pontifical North American College at their ordination to the diaconate in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican on Sept. 28, 2023. (CNS photo/Lola Gomez)

​This essay is a Cover Story selection, a weekly feature highlighting the top picks from the editors of America Media.

In an October 2023 interview, Cardinal Robert McElroy of San Diego and Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago said that the General Assembly of the Synod on Synodality raised the question of “reimaging” or “revisioning” the diaconate as a whole. It is precisely such a “revisioning” that many historians and theologians of the diaconate have been engaged with for many years, so it is affirming to hear two prominent church leaders express such a view.

In particular, Cardinal Cupich and Cardinal McElroy raised the question of whether it remained necessary or even desirable to ordain seminarians to the diaconate prior to ordination to the presbyterate. This suggestion is not new. I want to offer some rationale as to why eliminating a seminary diaconate (what I have referred to elsewhere as an “apprentice model” of the diaconate) is not only possible but necessary for envisioning a mature and fully formed diaconate for the future.

By way of introduction, it should be remembered that in the ancient and early medieval church, direct ordination was common, with sequential ordination in the pattern of the cursus honorum a later development that developed regionally. This system of “coming up through the ranks” was revamped and simplified at the request of the world’s bishops at the Second Vatican Council and implemented by Pope Paul VI in 1972.

It should be noted that these changes affect the Latin Rite of the church. The rite of tonsure (which brought a candidate into the clerical state and made him eligible to receive subsequent ordination) was suppressed, as were the minor orders of porter, lector, exorcist and acolyte. Pope Paul retained the functions of lector and acolyte as lay ministries that no longer required ordination. Finally, he turned his attention to the three major orders of subdeacon, deacon and presbyter. He suppressed the subdiaconate and tied entrance into the clerical state to diaconal ordination. The pope’s actions resulted in the three orders we currently have: episcopate, diaconate and presbyterate.

Experience in ministry

The overall purpose of sequential ordination was to ensure candidates for the higher orders had gained experience in ministry before assuming greater responsibilities. In the seminary system, tonsure, the minor orders, then subdiaconate and diaconate were all tied to different stages of seminary formation. Seminarians nearing the end of the process would be ordained deacons and then sent into a parish setting for a period of time prior to ordination into the presbyterate. This has been replaced by a pastoral year that normally precedes diaconal ordination.

In a practical sense, one might question the purpose of requiring ordination to the diaconate as a prerequisite to presbyteral ordination. Of course, it is sometimes suggested that diaconal ordination is essential for those en route to the presbyterate (and episcopate) because it grounds them in the foundation of all ministry: the church’s diakonia. While this sounds reasonable, it would also seem to be the case that all ministry, lay, religious and ordained, is to be grounded in diakonia and therefore more of an effect of baptism than holy orders.

The new edition of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Program of Priestly Formation includes a “Vocational Synthesis Stage,” during which a seminarian-deacon would go “outside the walls” of the seminary into a parish assignment for some period of time, likely six to 12 months. The text takes pains to declare that this is not a stage in which the seminarian is undergoing “on-the-job” training, but that he is coming into a fuller appreciation of the demands and blessings of the clerical state. Still, the whole feel of this section of the program of formation is of an apprenticeship, as the seminarian-deacon is incorporated into the community of the clergy within the diocese, an incorporation that is still focused on his eventual ordination into the presbyterate, not an appreciation of the diaconate in its own sacramental identity. The sacramental “goal” lies ahead.

Finally, I would further point out that a seminarian’s formation, no matter how lengthy, is focused in one direction: the presbyterate. At no point is the seminarian discerning a vocation to the diaconate, which serves merely as a final step in his preparation for presbyterate. It is truly an apprenticeship model. But a vocation to one order does not and should not presume a vocation to another.

Words matter

With this in mind, let us turn to two major considerations revealed in the language often used to describe the diaconate.

First, we must immediately retire the use of adjectives to describe a deacon as either a “permanent” deacon or a “transitional” deacon. For decades now, scholars and bishops have pointed out that there is only one Order of Deacons, just as there is only one Order of Presbyters and one Order of Bishops. All ordinations are permanent, so calling a deacon a “permanent” one is redundant, and calling a seminarian-deacon a “transitional” deacon is sacramentally wrong. All deacons are permanent. We do not refer to a presbyter who is later ordained a bishop as a “transitional” priest!

The U.S.C.C.B. recognized this years ago and renamed the secretariat responsible for the diaconate. It had been known as the Secretariat for the Permanent Diaconate, and the actual Committee of Bishops responsible was known as the Committee on the Permanent Diaconate. In the mid-1990s, the word “permanent” was removed from both the committee’s name and its supporting secretariat. Although this realization was made decades ago, we still encounter references to men being ordained into the permanent diaconate or into the transitional diaconate, as if there were two separate orders of deacons.

Why is this such a big deal? Because words matter. To think of the diaconate as a temporary stop on the road to somewhere else minimizes the sacramental significance of where one is already. How many deacon-seminarians have heard comments on the day of their diaconal ordination, “Well, you’re almost there, aren’t you?” And how many so-called permanent deacons have heard, “O.K., so when is your real ordination?” meaning, “When will you be ordained to the presbyterate?” One newly-ordained deacon recalls a family member commenting after his ordination that the ceremony “was almost like a real ordination”!

A deacon is a deacon is a deacon. Maintaining an apprentice model in the seminary dilutes and distorts all of this.

Second, the apprentice model perpetuates a distorted image of the diaconate. The diaconate, as experienced by a seminarian, is largely liturgical, school-based and, if the seminarian is lucky, parish-based. This makes sense if the diaconate is seen as a kind of “on-the-job training” for the presbyterate. But it does not reflect the realities, challenges and lifelong commitment to the diaconate that is faced by other deacons not aspiring or preparing for the priesthood. Deacons are formed under standards issued by the Holy See in 1998 and, here in the United States, by two successive editions of the National Directory for the Formation, Ministry, and Life of Permanent Deacons in the United States.

A vision both historical and forward-looking

From the outset, deacon candidates are challenged to be competent across the triple munera of Word, Sacrament and Charity, and no one is to be ordained who is not. There is nothing of the “transitional” in deacon formation. The emphasis is on the sacramental identity of the deacon-qua-deacon (as contrasted with a sense of deacon-qua-future priest), and the ministerial responsibilities flowing from diaconal ordination.

This understanding is not new. On June 2, 1563, at the Council of Trent, the 41-year-old bishop of Ostuni, Giovanni Carlo Bovio, offered the following intervention:

I desire that the functions of subdeacon and deacon, diligently culled from the sayings of the holy Fathers and conciliar decrees, be restored, especially those of deacons. The church has always used their services, not only in ministering at the altar but also in baptism, in the care of the sick, of widows, and the suffering. Finally, all the needs of the people are placed before the bishop by deacons. I also desire…a longer period between orders, at least three or four years, in which he may minister in his order and serve well in his office, and then be allowed to proceed to a higher order.

I find this description interesting and helpful. First, it offers a vision of the diaconate that is both historical and forward-looking. Those ancient functions of the deacon remained necessary in Bishop Bovio’s 16th century and in our own 21st. There is the traditional connection of the deacon with the bishop, an aspect of the diaconate we need urgently to recover more substantively, and there is the concern that the order of deacons not be treated as a ceremonial functionary while en route to the presbyterate, but be appreciated in its own right. Unfortunately, the bishop’s intervention did not make its way into the final texts from the Council of Trent.

I am in total agreement with Cardinal McElroy and Cardinal Cupich that now is the perfect time to re-envision the diaconate as a whole. I would go so far as to say it is long past time to do so. The first thing we must do is abandon the apprenticeship model, along with the false linguistic distinction between “permanent” and “transitional.” If the diaconate is ever going to mature and come of age, capturing the Catholic imagination as a “full and equal order,” we must eliminate the vestiges of the cursus honorum and leave our apprenticeship behind.

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