On June 9, 2011, Most Reverend Alexander K. Sample, Bishop of Marquette, (now Archbishop of Portland, Oregon) issued a Pastoral Letter entitled,
The Deacon: Icon of Jesus Christ the Servant. This 19-page letter gives a tremendous amount of material upon which to reflect for deacons, and indeed, all the priests and the faithful of the Church as well.
Bishop Sample expressed his sadness after the Pastoral Letter was promulgated that most media outlets focused their attention on one item in the 19-page letter. Deacons should preach less frequently at the Eucharistic liturgy. The comments that swirled around that specific component of the letter were all across the board. Some celebrated that comment with gusto. Others were very much dismayed. Overall, it reignited the broader question of what to do with the deacon in his ministry.
When Bishop Sample issued his letter in 2011, I followed many of the articles written about his letter. I also read a good portion of the the comments made online following these articles. It was fascinating to see some of the words of encouragement and support for deacons contrasted with the many negative comments about deacons as well. The one that stuck in my mind most is what I captured in the title of this blog post. "Permanent deacons are the worst experiment of Vatican II." Can you feel the love?
Last week the clergy of our diocese gathered for a three-day institute centered upon discipleship. Our speaker was Sherry Weddell, author of the book, Forming Intentional Disciples. At one point after she had referred to the "clergy" a few times but only meant the priests and the bishop, she corrected herself and casually commented, "The Church doesn't know what to do with the deacons." She verbalized what many of us already knew. Will it take another fifty years to better grasp the role of the deacon?
Sherry Weddell said time and time again during her presentation that there was a need to "build bridges of trust" to help people in their spiritual seeking and conversion. Each time I heard her repeat that phrase I was grateful for the many ways that I see deacons fulfill that role. We aren't priests, but we are ordained for a life of service that effectively builds bridges. We are instruments of God's love leading people to conversion. That doesn't seem like a bad "experiment".
Years ago a religious sister was visiting with my pastor. I was standing nearby and heard her make a negative comment about deacons. My pastor asked her, "How could you make such a comment when my deacon is standing right there?" She said, "I like him as a person, but his role as a deacon is irrelevant." In my nearly 17 years since ordination as a deacon I have become accustomed to such comments. There has never been a doubt as to where the deacon falls on the hierarchical structure of the Church, or as to how we are viewed by some of the priests, religious, and laity. That is okay. I simply strive to live out my calling as best as I am able utilizing the gifts and charisms that have been entrusted to my care for the building up of the Kingdom of God.
We are preparing to begin another formation class of deacons in the Diocese of Cheyenne. If all goes as planned we will have a diaconate ordination in the year 2021. Quite a number of current deacons will be moving into the retirement years by then. My prayer is that men discerning a call to the diaconate will be guided by the grace of our Lord, Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit in their prayerful reflection.
There have been many discussions and plans established for the formation of this next group. Information sessions have been planned and will begin to take place all across the diocese starting this Saturday. We will continue to learn and grow in our diaconal ministry. I was appointed to the diaconate formation board last year by the bishop, and I will have the privilege of walking with these men (and their wives) for the next five years of their lives as they go through the inquiry phase, aspirancy, and candidacy for Holy Orders.
The role of the deacon has been front and center in my mind during recent months because of all of these preparations. (The policy manual for the already ordained deacons has been revamped and updated as well.) I hope and pray that I fulfill the responsibilities of my own calling with faithfulness, fervor, and zeal. I know there are times when I fail to love as Jesus did, but overall, it is my intent to be a beacon of Christ's light in a world sometimes enveloped in darkness. Otherwise, I guess I am just part of the "worst experiment of Vatican II."