Servants of the Lord

A look at the permanent diaconate in the United States

Servants of the Lord

In his discussion of the Scythians’ gruesome royal burial customs, Herodotus spoke of the tragic fate of the king’s diakonos, his servant, his waiting-man, his attendant. When the Jews of Alexandria translated the Book of Esther into Greek, they used the same word to describe “the king’s servants who attended him.” It was natural, then, that when the Apostles ordained “seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom” (Acts 6:3) to serve at the tables of the quarreling Hebrew and Hellenist widows, these men should be called diakonoi, or deacons.

Service at tables led to service at the altar, so much so that bishops from the western Roman Empire, gathered at a synod in Arles in 314, noted with displeasure that deacons “in many places” were usurping the honor due to priests and even attempting to offer Mass. In the Early Middle Ages, an important Spanish Church document stated that “to the deacons it belongs to assist the priest and to serve in all that is done in the sacraments of Christ, in baptism, in the chrism, in the paten and chalice, to bring the oblations to the altar and to arrange them, to lay the table of the Lord and to drape it, to carry the cross, to declaim the Gospel and the Epistle.… To him also pertains the office of prayers and the recital of the names.”

Over the course of the first millennium, the diaconate ceased to be a permanent order in the Church’s hierarchy in the West while remaining a transitional one preceding priestly ordination—though as late as the 13th century, St. Francis was ordained a deacon without ever being ordained a priest. In explaining the varying missions of the episcopate, the priesthood, and the diaconate, the fathers of the Second Vatican Council expressed the hope that “the diaconate can in the future be restored as a proper and permanent rank of the hierarchy” in the Latin rites, especially in mission territories.

In 1967, Pope Paul VI issued general norms for the restoration of the permanent diaconate where requested by episcopal conferences. More than four decades later, 46 percent of the Church’s 37,203 permanent deacons serve in the United States, according to figures published in the 2011 Catholic Almanac, while an additional 5 percent serve in other parts of North America. A third of the Church’s deacons minister in Europe, 13 percent in South America, and approximately 1 percent each in Africa, Asia, and Oceania. There are more permanent deacons in the Archdiocese of Chicago than in all of Africa and Asia combined.

By a very wide margin, the Archdiocese of Chicago leads the United States in the number of permanent deacons (643), followed by Galveston-Houston (386), New York (374), Trenton (357), San Antonio (352), Los Angeles (315), St. Louis (274), Hartford (272), Rockville Centre (265), and Boston (258). Twenty dioceses have more than 200 permanent deacons, and an additional 39 dioceses have between 100 and 200.

Just as some episcopal conferences have not deemed it prudent to request the restoration of the permanent diaconate, some US dioceses have yet to ordain a permanent deacon, though they permit permanent deacons ordained elsewhere to exercise their ministry there. There are 15 dioceses with fewer than 10 permanent deacons, and another 15 with between 10 and two dozen.

The 20 most “deacon rich” dioceses in the United States—those with the highest ratio of permanent deacons to Catholics—are Fairbanks, Tyler (Texas), Amarillo, Bismarck, Lexington (Kentucky), Rapid City (South Dakota), Pensacola-Tallahassee, Omaha, Tulsa, Peoria, Marquette (Michigan), Nashville, Oklahoma City, Superior (Wisconsin), Knoxville (Tennessee), Memphis, Mobile, Des Moines, and Savannah. Statistics show that there is no conflict between fostering the permanent diaconate and fostering priestly vocations. In 2008, seven of these dioceses—Amarillo, Bismarck, Lexington, Nashville, Rapid City, Tulsa, and Tyler—were among the 20 in the US with the highest ratio of seminarians to Catholics. Tyler was particularly “deacon rich” and “seminarian rich,” ranking second in the nation in both categories.

According to the 2011 Catholic Almanac, whose information is current as of January 2010, the dioceses in the United States with the lowest ratio of permanent deacons to Catholics include Greensburg (Pennsylvania), Kansas City (Kansas), Las Vegas, Lincoln (Nebraska), San Jose, El Paso, Fresno, Wichita, New Ulm (Minnesota), Grand Island (Nebraska), Owensboro (Kentucky), Pittsburgh, Fort Wayne-South Bend, Brownsville (Texas), Madison, Los Angeles, Orange (California), San Bernardino, and Monterey. Since January 2010, a few of these dioceses have ordained large numbers of deacons: Bishop Joseph Pepe of Las Vegas has ordained 19, and Bishop David Zubik of Pittsburgh has ordained 43.

One of these “deacon poor” dioceses, the Diocese of New Ulm, has begun a diaconate formation program, and Bishop John LeVoir is scheduled to ordain a dozen deacons next April. “In the history of the restored permanent diaconate, we have come to our formation program late; in the history of the Church, it is only a very minor delay,” says Deacon Mark Kober, director of the diocese’s diaconate program, who explained that resources were scarce “in a large geographic diocese without a seminary or Catholic university.”

Of the 20 “deacon poor” dioceses, five—El Paso, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Orange, and San Bernardino—are also particularly “seminarian poor,” being among the 20 in the nation with the lowest ratio of seminarians to Catholics in 2008. However, three dioceses—Lincoln, Owensboro, and Wichita—are simultaneously “deacon poor” and “seminarian rich,” with Wichita ranking fourth and Lincoln ranking first in the nation in the ratio of seminarians to Catholics.

“Beginning a formal permanent deaconate program has been discussed in the past in our presbyteral council, among our pastors, and in other forums in the diocese, and, in each instance, it was recommended that our bishop not begin such a program,” explains Amy Pavlacka, the Diocese of Wichita’s director of communications. “Because there is not a need for additional ordained ministers in our diocese, having a permanent deacon program in our diocese has not been our top priority.”

“We have a need to have all of the laity in our diocese involved in the work of the local Church,” she adds. “To this end, our efforts have focused more broadly in forming catechists, forming holy families, [and] creating an atmosphere of stewardship whereby everyone takes an active part in their faith.”

“The question of whether or not to ordain permanent deacons has been discussed on multiple occasions by the presbyteral council of the diocese, and the presbyteral council has not recommended that we ordain permanent deacons,” says Father Daniel Rayer, chancellor of the Diocese of Lincoln. “We have a large and very rural diocese with many small parishes, and we do not suffer from a severe shortage of priests as some dioceses do. In light of this, there are questions about whether there is a genuine need for permanent deacons in the diocese, concerns about the practicalities of a training program in such a vast territory as our diocese, and also concerns that a permanent deacon program could negatively impact vocations to the priesthood.”

Deacon-rich dioceses

Bishops and other officials of deacon-rich dioceses typically attribute their high numbers to pastoral need and active recruitment.

“I believe necessity—the shortage of priests and women and men religious—brought about the response of many native men to become permanent deacons in our Yup’ik Eskimo region,” says Bishop Donald Kettler of Fairbanks, the nation’s most deacon-rich diocese. Because many villages are visited by a priest only once every four to six weeks, “our deacons celebrate Communion services and Liturgy of the Word services in the absence of the priest, [as well as] baptisms, funeral liturgies, marriages, and the catechesis for all of these sacraments and services. Most important, they bring their own native culture and understanding to their diaconate ministry in the villages where they have lived most of their lives.”

“We actively recruit in areas where there are no deacons, hoping to find a vocation that will assist parishes and communities in need,” says Deacon Max Schwarz, who leads the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City’s diaconate ministry. “This is a large archdiocese in area, with much of it being rural. There are many small parishes serving large areas…. The deacon, because of his ordination, can bring a number of ministries to these areas.”

Similar needs exist in the adjacent Diocese of Amarillo, where “the majority of our parishes are in towns with populations less than 1,000,” observes Deacon Blaine Westlake, the diocese’s coordinator of the diaconate. “Thus there is a particular need for some type of clerical permanency therein…. In addition, many of these parishes have experienced a rapid growth in the Hispanic population—thus the need to have Spanish-speaking, bilingual, inculturated deacons who live and work [in] and are part of the community. In the Amarillo diocese, 50 percent of the active deacons are bilingual and live in the rural towns.”

“We ask the deacons and the priests of the diocese to identify men from their parishes who they believe are candidates for the permanent diaconate,” says Deacon Arden Wolterman, director of the permanent diaconate in the Diocese of Lexington, as he discusses why his diocese has attracted a proportionally high number of deacons. “Another important element of our program is the support given by our bishop, Bishop Ronald Gainer. He actively participated in the revamp of the program in 2003 and has been very supportive since then.”

At times, a legacy of past active recruitment laid the foundation for further growth in the diaconate. Bishop Richard Pates of Des Moines credits one of his predecessors, Bishop Maurice Dingman (1968-86): “Because the diaconate was introduced early and [Bishop Dingman] recruited candidates diocesan-wide, deacons became role models for other possible candidates and thus grew relatively rapidly in the diocese, accounting for the high numbers.”

Msgr. Charles Beebe, episcopal vicar for the permanent diaconate in the Diocese of Peoria, told CWR that the Cursillo leadership movement has profoundly influenced the permanent diaconate in his diocese.

“Cursillo has been our very successful evangelization program in this diocese for many years,” he explains. “There is a Cursillo overtone to our formation that bonds our candidates and their wives into a very strong community…99 percent of the candidates come to us having made a Cursillo [retreat], and the majority have had a profound conversion because of it.”

“In the end I believe it is the strength of our program, word of mouth, as well as the experience of those in the pews who say, ‘I want to be like that and do that,’” Msgr. Beebe adds. “Our orientation meeting that is required before one can apply usually attracts about 100 men. Some will choose not to apply after hearing the requirements of the program. However, it is not unusual to have 60 to 75 applicants for 30 spots.”

Several officials of deacon-rich dioceses spoke of the importance of the involvement of wives in formation, an involvement that helps ensure a man’s perseverance in the diaconate. “Wives must attend all formation weekends and be formed with their husbands,” says Msgr. Beebe. “It is not fair to form the husband spiritually without at the same time forming the wife. Because of this, in the history of our program there have been only two divorces.”

“We emphasize that each wife must be part of the formation process,” Lexington’s Deacon Wolterman adds. “Even though the wives do not have to do the homework or write papers they must attend as many of the formation sessions as possible. This is for two reasons: if the husband is ordained as a permanent deacon it will have major effect on their marriage, and the wife must provide written consent to the bishop on three occasions during the process for the husband to continue, and we want this consent to be an informed consent.”

Taking stock

The Diocese of Marquette ordained a high number of permanent deacons because an earlier bishop “was open” and “charged into it,” according to Bishop Alexander Sample. In the past decade, he told CWR, “the enthusiasm of the permanent deacons,” who actively recruited new candidates, was a major factor in attracting a “huge influx” of new deacons.

Following discussions with chancery officials and deacons, Bishop Sample decided that the time was ripe to take stock, temporarily stop accepting new deacon candidates, and consider the deacon’s essential ministry and identity. The result was “The Deacon: Icon of Jesus Christ the Servant,” a 19-page pastoral letter issued in June—perhaps the lengthiest and most thoughtful examination of the diaconate by an individual bishop in the deacon-rich United States.

Catholic teaching on the diaconate, while not as fully developed as magisterial teaching on the episcopate or the priesthood, has not been lacking over the past 50 years. The Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI’s 1967 apostolic letter on the restoration of the permanent diaconate, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church all briefly summarize the ministry of the deacon; Blessed John Paul devoted three general audiences to the diaconate in 1993, and Pope Benedict delivered an important address on the diaconate in 2006. In 1998, two Vatican congregations issued documents on the life, ministry, and formation of permanent deacons, and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a national directory devoted to the same topics six years later.

Bishop Sample’s pastoral letter enriched this body of teaching because it sought to dispel “some misunderstandings and misinterpretations of the essential identity of the permanent deacon that have led to some confusion regarding his ministerial role in the life and mission of the Church.…  Many people most closely identify the ministry of the deacon with his role in the sacred liturgy, but this is not his essential identity and role. His service in the liturgy is only a reflection of his true identity brought into the public worship of the Church.”

“His essential identity is as one who serves,” Bishop Sample continued. “That is why there are special ministries that are particularly suited to the deacon as servant. These include ministry and service to the poor, to the imprisoned, to the sick and to those who are abandoned and lonely, the modern day ‘widows and orphans.’”

Within this context, Bishop Sample offered further theological reflections and discussed diaconal spirituality and the role of the deacon’s wife and family. Noting that the identification of a specific need preceded the call of the first deacons in the Acts of the Apostles, Bishop Sample decreed that henceforth

a man will not be ordained to simply “be the deacon” at a particular parish or mission. There must be a specifically identified need in the community, authenticated by the bishop in consultation with the local pastor, for which a man will be called forth to minister as a permanent deacon. In other words, the deacon will need to have a particular service ministry or diakonia for which he will be ordained. This new direction will be reflective of the fact that the deacon’s primary ministry is not in the sanctuary but in the service of charity.

In his pastoral letter Bishop Sample noted that deacons can preach regularly at the baptisms, funerals, weddings, and other liturgies outside of Mass; citing the Latin text of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, he added that “the permanent deacon may be entrusted with the homily at Mass on certain occasions, in other words from time to time, as circumstances suggest. This should not occur, however, on a routine or regularly scheduled basis.” This diocesan norm, Bishop Sample told CWR, caused some controversy in the blogosphere, though nothing that was written has caused him to be “shaken in my interpretation of the law.”

Marquette’s diocesan norm, while grounded in the bishop’s interpretation of the text of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, is atypical among deacon-rich dioceses. Far more common is the experience of the Diocese of Nashville, where deacons both engage in ministries of service and preach regularly at Mass.

“Several of our deacons have regular prison and hospital duties,” says Deacon Ronald Deal, Jr., the director of the permanent diaconate in Nashville. “I would say the average [for preaching at Mass] is once a month, with the deacon taking the preaching for all of the weekend Masses in his parish. I have always thought the diaconal preaching voice is particularly important for the laity to hear inasmuch as the deacons live much the same lives (spouses, kids, jobs, bosses, mortgages, etc.) that the average family in the pew lives. The witness of diaconal ministry—that it is possible to have all of the secular ‘stuff’ going on in life and still live a God-centered life, albeit with the same struggles and issues the laity have—is an important message.”

The future

Bishops and chancery officials contacted by CWR almost unanimously agree that the future of the permanent diaconate is bright—in part because of fewer conflicts between priests and deacons, improved formation of deacons, and an increased appreciation of the deacon’s essential identity.  

“The diaconate is not merely a matter of functionality, of what a deacon does, but rather it is a reflection of a much deeper mystery of faith and points to the very identity of Christ himself, and hence the very identity of the Church, namely that of servant to all,” says David Fleck, director of the Diocese of Bismarck’s office of the diaconate. “As we look to the future, I am filled with hope knowing that the type of reflection mentioned above is indeed occurring at many levels, from Rome to the US to each local diocese.”

Bismarck’s David Fleck, on the other hand, emphasized the generosity of the diaconal candidates he knows. “The people who reside in North Dakota are very generous and service minded by nature,” he says. “This natural disposition lends itself very well to the vocation of the diaconate which is all about service. When a man is called to become deacon, it is then a natural step for him to desire to serve his bishop and the priests…. The deacons I have had the privilege of working with in our diocese, as well as the men in our diaconate formation program, are men of deep generosity. This is certainly grounds for hope and encouragement for the future.” Bishop Sample, too, told CWR that his deacons have “hearts of gold.”

It seems certain that thousands of American men will be ordained to the diaconate in the decades ahead. As they minister as deacons, they will likely encounter what Deacon Bob Rudloff—one of the first deacons ordained for the Diocese of Las Vegas—has experienced since his ordination this summer.

“It has exceeded my expectations in so many ways,” he told CWR. “I’ve been blessed with the privilege of baptizing more than a dozen children so far; I have a couple I am working with in preparing them for their wedding; and I have assisted on the altar almost every weekend and preached twice.”

“But I have also been called into service—the more important part of the ministry of a deacon,” he added. “A close friend and coworker is battling cancer and is in the final stage of his life. I have been visiting him regularly, praying with him and his wife, bringing them Communion. I have become his connection to the Church, as it is so hard for him to go anymore. Having been blessed to be able to serve him and his wife this way has been very humbling for me. It has also crystallized for me the important role we as deacons have in serving the people.”


Editor’s note: The original version of this article included comments that were not intended for publication by the source. They have been removed from this article.


If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About J. J. Ziegler 57 Articles
J. J. Ziegler, who holds degrees in classics and sacred theology, writes from North Carolina.