Deacons on the parish team

"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 active ministry

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.


A different 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.


Deacon 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
william.ditewig@saintleo.edu.

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