"Deacons ought to be encouraged to transcend parochial responsibilities"
A New Model for Ministry
by Deacon William T. Ditewig
In 1968, the
United States bishops requested approval from Rome to ordain permanent deacons. In order to understand how
deacons model a new way of ordained
ministry, let's look at the reasons the
bishops gave for their request:
1. To complete the hierarchy
of sacred orders; to enrich the
various diaconal ministries at work in the
U. S. with the sacramental grace
of the diaconate
2. To enlist a new group of devout and competent men in
3. To help with liturgical
and charitable services to the
faithful in both large
urban and small rural communities
4. To provide a sacramental presence of the church in
secular life, as
well as in communities within large
cities and sparsely settled
regions where few or no priests are available
5. To provide a source for creative adaptations of
diaconal ministries to the rapidly changing needs
In this column, I
would like to focus on the last
reason. Today's deacons are
often found almost exclusively in parish-centered ministries. However, this was not
the scope of the vision of the
fathers at Vatican II. And
it was not the vision of the U.S. bishops
after the Council.
vision for ordained ministry
Vatican II proclaimed the responsibility of the laity for the transformation of the world. And the Council also sensed that the diaconate could give the church a different form of ordained ministry. The hope was that ordained diaconal ministry would connect sanctuary and marketplace. This notion that the diaconate should be involved in creative new modes of service remains largely unfilled. Yet in today's world, with its emerging technologies, dwindling resources, never-ending conflicts, natural disasters, and human injustices, the diaconate is a treasure trove of potential. What is keeping us for tapping into this potential?
With the steady decline of priests, deacons often step in to fill the gaps in parish ministry as best they can. Unfortunately, this means that in the U. S. deacons have become largely parish-focused. This is obviously a much-needed area of ministry. However, it also means that the deacon is less available to minister outside the parish. It is helpful to remember, however, that the bishop ordains the deacon to serve the bishop and his presybterate, not only in parish-centered ministries but throughout the scope of the diocese itself.
Broader service to the world
Deacons ought to be encouraged to transcend parochial responsibilities. They should be encouraged to extend the reach of the bishop and the entire diocesan church into areas of need not previously identified.
Deacons often find themselves heavily, and
sometimes exclusively, engaged in typical
parish ministries. They seldom find themselves
"pushing the envelope" beyond the parish into
the broader community in need. Simply put, while pastors are obliged to have a parish focus, deacons are not.
Everyone in the parish needs to adapt creatively to the complex needs of contemporary society. We need a process to identify these needs. We need to be asking: "What are the needs in our communities (not simply the needs of our parishes) that remain inadequately addressed?" This should be part of all strategic planning for ministry. Deacons themselves ought to be diocesan leaders for such planning and for the development of creative responses to the needs identified.
William T. Ditewig,
PhD, is the former executive director of the United States
Conference of Catholic Bishops' Secretariat for the Diaconate
and the Secretariat for Evangelization. He is currently a professor
of theology and director ofgraduate programs in theology at
Saint Leo University near Tampa, Florida. Contact him at