On June 11th, we will celebrate the one year anniversary of my husband's ordination to the diaconate. Although I already reflected on how I am adapting to being a deacon's wife, I've noticed over the past year, how few people really understand the ministry of a deacon.
Several weeks ago, my daughter's instructor said, "my mom is really devout but she doesn't understand all this new stuff that the Church is adding like deacons." SIGH...I usually just say "read Acts 6." So there is still much education that is needed in that area.
But, I'm not really going to focus on the history of the diaconate or the catechesis of holy orders. I want to try to give a better understanding of what a deacon's ministry looks like. What we've found is that most lay people may understand what a deacon is, but they really don't understand what they do. It's not just the lay people either. When a priest asked my favorite deacon what day of the week he had off, he was surprised to hear my husband say, "I don't have a day off. I get a few hours here or there." Or when a priest texted my husband and was dismayed that his text wasn't returned for hours because my husband was in an extremely important meeting at work.
Even parish staff with theology or religious education backgrounds sometimes don't quite understand deacon's roles. When I remark about my husband having to take days off from work to attend clergy meetings, I'm met with "why would he have to go to those?"
I'd like to present a snapshot of a deacon's ministry. This is not necessarily the norm, but what it's like in our diocese. There are three aspects to the deacon's life, not including family:
1. Secular employment. Deacons are often seen as a bridge between the laity and the clergy. Although they are clergy, they are generally not paid by the Church unless they are employed within a diocese to work in some capacity that may or may not be related to the fact that they are deacons. Many people in our parish wrongly assumed that my husband would take on a paid position at our parish once he became ordained. In our diocese, deacons won't work for the parish where they are assigned for ministry and they won't be assigned to a parish if they are employed there.
In the United States, many view permanent deacons as retired and older. That perception tends to foster a belief that that is the norm. However, the average age of deacons worldwide is 40 years old. For deacons who are in their 40s or 50s, many are still working to support their families if they are married (yes, there are plenty of unmarried permanent deacons that take a vow of celibacy and married deacons likewise cannot remarry if their wife dies).
Because deacons have to work at secular employment and perform ministry in their off hours, they are often perceived as 'part-time' deacons. That is untrue. They are full-time or all-the-time deacons working 'in the world.' Many deacons will say that they find that their ministry flows into their workplace. They are often asked to counsel, defuse volatile situations, or extend blessings. My husband works in federal law enforcement and is often asked to bless agents.
2. Ministry of Service. The bishop assigns each deacon to a ministry of service. For some deacons, that is within a diocesan office or parish. They may facilitate RCIA, baptism or marriage prep. classes. For others, it may be institutional like ministering in a jail, hospital, nursing home, or homeless shelter. This is where the deacon spends the bulk of his time and is where the true work of his vocation is.
The name deacon comes from the Greek word diakonis which means servant. The real role of the deacon, as demonstrated in Acts 6, is as a ministry of service. As such, this is unpaid service. Typically deacons will spend about 10-20 hours a week between their ministry of service, liturgical ministry, and administrative aspects.
For the retired deacons, they often take on additional ministry assignments and many work almost full-time hours.
3. Liturgical Ministry. Every deacon is assigned to a parish or several parishes. In our diocese, many of the deacons have been assigned to their home parish. If they aren't, they are assigned to a parish that is geographically close to their home or work. Liturgically, deacons can baptize, witness marriages, bless objects, preside at funeral vigils and internments, and have assigned roles during Mass such as read the Gospel (as Minister of the Word), preach homilies, and distribute communion (as Minister of the Cup).
For many parishioners, confusion arises because they often don't understand the dynamics of the three roles. There may be a deacon employed at a parish as a pastoral associate or as a DRE but that deacon happens to be a deacon employed in that capacity, his ministry of service would be elsewhere. For a deacon who has a ministry of service outside of the parish, parishioners may not understand why the deacon isn't heavily involved within the parish. Also, many parishioners ask, "What are we paying that deacon anyway?" My husband often says he gets paid in Kit Kat bars that the pastor routinely gives to our two youngest boys.
There also can be resentment among parish staff that does the bulk of the necessary work within the parish. They may not fully understand why the deacon isn't around much during the week, but is there for a couple of Masses shaking hands with people on the weekend.
So what does my husband's ministry look like? First of all, he is employed in secular employment, which he intents to keep, barring any unforeseen circumstances, until he feels comfortable enough to retire in 15 years or so. He has no intention of taking anyone's job within the diocese as some fear. We are also a single-income family. With a large family and a deacon's ministry, we feel that it's necessary for me to stay home and maintain most of the domestic responsibilities and for he to have a career that enables us to do that.
His ministry of service is as chaplain of a county jail. This is a ministry that, at the beginning of formation, he swore he would never want to do. But he has found that he is really called to it. He travels to the jail two or three times a week and does everything from communion services, Bible studies, RCIA lessons, individual meetings, and prayer services. As he says, he gives much of himself but he receives more from helping these men and women than he ever imagined. An added benefit is that he is able to spread the word about helping the inmates within our community. He has gotten donations for reading material and promises of help for those inmates once they are released.
Finally, my husband is assigned liturgically to our home parish which we've belonged to for the past ten years. That has been a blessing since the parishioners are our 'family.' Within the parish, he helps with RCIA, the Holy Name Society, CCD on occasion, facilitates the Catholic Men's Fellowship, and the liturgical functions of a deacon. He generally preaches a homily about once a month which requires a fair amount of preparation and assist at two or three Masses on a weekend. He is often asked to do funeral vigils and an occasional baptism. I imagine that may increase as time goes by. He has also taught classes within the diocese as a master catechist.
The diaconate is a vocation. Deacons aren't just glorified altar servers, they have a very distinct role within the Church. Hoping that as more people are exposed to permanent deacons, they will come to understand the role of a deacon.