Bishop issues pastoral letter on diaconate to clear up "misunderstandings and misinterpretations"

I can’t remember the last time a local bishop has written this extensively on the diaconate.

It’s a rare event.  But Bishop Alexander K. Sample. of the Diocese of Marquette, has just released a 19-page document on the diaconate that reflects on the vocation — and clarifies some of the deacon’s responsibilities.


Calling the restoration of the diaconate as a permanent ministry a “source of tremendous grace and blessings for the Church,” Bishop Sample said there have been, nonetheless, some “misunderstandings and misinterpretations of the essential identity of the permanent deacon.” To address these issues, a study committee was formed in 2009. The findings of that study informed the bishop’s pastoral letter.

Deacon Don Thoren of Marquette, who was ordained 10 years ago, found the letter to be a confirmation of the role of deacons in the Church. “It’s not like he’s reining us in; it’s the bishop affirming what we do,” Deacon Thoren said. “We’re all behind the bishop.”

“We’re just servants,” said Deacon Thoren who has been very active in prison ministry for 30 years. “We are so fortunate to have Bishop Sample.”

A profound understanding of “diakonia,” or service, is needed to grasp the role of deacons.

The ministry of today’s deacons includes “service to the poor, the imprisoned, to the sick and to those who are abandoned and lonely, the modern day ‘widows and orphans.’ (cf. Acts 6),” Bishop Sample wrote.

Looking to the history of the diaconate, Bishop Sample noted that as the work of the Apostles became too demanding, men of “good repute” who met certain qualifications were allowed to share in the daily ministry of the Apostles, including serving at table. However, Bishop Sample explained that Scripture shows us deacons also also preached, baptized, served the Church community and “began to have a liturgical function.”

The bishop also has clarified the deacon’s role as preacher:

With permission of the rector of the church, all deacons of the Diocese of Marquette will have faculties to preach everywhere in the diocese, unless limited on an individual basis. However, it was noted that this is a faculty and not a right and priests should normally deliver the homily at Mass. Lay persons may not give the homily.

However, preaching is not necessarily limited to homilies at Mass. In the liturgical and ecclesial contexts, preaching opportunities occur at wake services, the funeral liturgies outside of Mass, Sunday celebrations in absence of a priest, during the Liturgy of the Hours, and other prayer and liturgical services.

“Preaching on the part of the permanent deacon, taken in the broadest sense, encompasses many things,” Bishop Sample wrote. “A permanent deacon ‘preaches’ first of all by the witness of his life, especially in the marketplace through his teaching and witness to those he encounters in the daily regimen of his life and work. Finally he exercises his role as teacher in the various catechetical roles that he fulfills within the Church.”

Among the entrance requirements to join the diaconal formation program are active involvement in the Church, demonstrated active service, and being  prayerful and inclined to further spiritual formation. A candidate must be at least 35 years old, no older than 60 at the time of ordination and have completed at least two years of college. If married, be married only once and for at least five years in a stable and sacramental marriage (candidates cannot be divorced) and willing to remain celibate if his wife precedes him in death. If widowed, have at least two years to heal and recover from the loss; if single, enjoy a stable, settled life with a history of healthy relationships and be willing to accept the gift of a celibate life. Those with a history of substance abuse or grave addictions should be free from such behaviors for at least five years and continue to participate in a “recovery” program.

Additionally, “there must be a clearly identified specific need in the community, authenticated by the bishop in consultation with the pastor, for which the man would one day be ordained to service. Without such a genuine need being identified, a man will not be admitted into the aspirancy program,” Bishop Sample wrote.

You can read the whole letter here.

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35 responses to “Bishop issues pastoral letter on diaconate to clear up "misunderstandings and misinterpretations"”

  1. It is good to see clarifications made on the role of the deacons and bring a sharper focus on the expectations of their ministries. The bishop sets a good example to follow for other dioceses to clarify and define the ministry of deacons and their differences to the ministry of priests and lay people.

  2. Greg:

    I read the entire 17 page letter from the various links. I only have two observations:

    –I’m curious about why the letter states that men who have been divorced cannot be admitted to Candidacy. I have met a few men whose first marriages ended in legal divorce but who had their marriages properly adjudicated by a diocesan tribunal who are already either ordained or are in their final stage of candidacy. NOW, I did note that this letter did have an exclusionary clause admitting that those criteria listed (including the “divorce” one) could be over-ruled by specific permission of the bishop. So maybe that says it.

    –The other is the whole scene on preaching. What I am used to — and apparently you are also — is that we preach on a scheduled rotation. It has been a long standing custom in our area that the parish deacons preach at all the masses on one Sunday a month. In your case — if I understand it correctly — the exception is when you do not preach on Sundays. Once upon a time, I was assigned to a parish and pastor who only had me preach on weekends where their were multiple scripture readings: such as Christmas; Holy Week; Easter. Ourside of those rare windows, if I preached for him three times in that 12 year assignment I would be surprised.

    Other than that, I found it fairly solid.

  3. Thank you for posting this article. I have learned a lot from it. From time to time I feel called to the Priesthood, but am reluctant for I do not want to be in Holy Orders, but God is not one to resist. My Archbishop has advised me to continue as a Hermit for another two years, and then talk about it again. Thank you.

  4. Norb…

    The section on preaching is interesting, and conforms in many ways with the norms. My situation — I preach every week, sometimes at multiple masses — is the exception, rather than the rule. Most deacons do so once or twice a month, at most. The “Deacon Sunday” idea, where all the masses on one particular Sunday are preached by a deacon, is fairly common.

    Dcn. G.

  5. What struck me most about this letter was the effort on the part of the diocese to ensure that the diaconate will be regarded primarily as a ministry of service rather than a liturgical ministry. The requirement that candidates be selected to meet a specific identified need in the diocese–and then at ordination be assigned in writing to meet that need–goes way beyond the common practice of ordaining a man to “be a deacon” in his own parish. In terms of assignments at ordination, I think we are moving in that direction in Atlanta. I am interested in seeing how this is received in Marquette.

  6. Times are tough, and the government is increasingly pressing the Church to do stuff she can’t do and stay faithful to her Bridegroom. We need to find ways of fulfilling the obligations of charity without using government money. Deacons were a huge part of that before there was government money, so it’s sensible that they’d be part of it now.

  7. Also, if priests come and go from a parish but deacons stay there forever… well, alternate power structures can become a problem even with ordinary laypeople running programs. So I imagine a bishop would like to keep his deacons close, so nothing weird happens with some guy getting a stick up his butt and deciding he owns his parish.

    Beyond that, obviously not all parishes have deacons around, so sharing is caring. 🙂

  8. Re: ron chandonia

    There have been several genuine “waves” of focus about all this. Many years ago, my class of 19 was made up of a campus ministry Deacon; two prison ministry Deacons; a Marriage Encounter Deacon; a deacon heavily involved in the Charismatic Renewal; another two who were heavily involved in the Cursillo Movement; one was chaplain of his Knights of Columbus Council; another was deeply involved in urban city affairs including soup kitchens while another one was deeply involved in Rural Life Ministry. Now, I know that does not add up to 19 but I have to admit that some were called to their eternal reward before I was able to clarify what “Specialized Ministry” they were involved in

    Deacon Bill Ditewig, in another post somewhere, is pushing the idea that every deacon should have some “extra-parochial” — maybe even diocesan wide — service ministry.

    BTW: I was the Campus Ministry deacon listed above.

  9. I’m a bit surprised at the “deacon Sunday” business. Do the deacons also “diaconate” at all the Masses? If so, isn’t that against the law? Priests are limited to two Masses on Sundays, or three in case of pastoral need (Canon 905 §2). Are deacons free to “diaconate” without limit?

  10. The letter is a welcome contribution to the rising awareness of the vocation of the deacon, so that’s good. But we all need to keep in mind that it is directives of one bishop for his specific deacons in one particular diocese. I find its biggest flaw to be in what many would call a one-sided view of the diaconate that is not entirely supported by or consistent with advances in Scriptural understanding of diakonia (persistently defined as the “table-serving” concept) or with the Scriptural example that Acts gives of much greater emphasis to the (germinal) deacon’s Stephen and Philip as teachers and preachers, a couple of chapters compared to a passing verse or two of the table-concept. Serving (as defined materially) is mentioned almost in passing in Acts 6 and as the initial reason given for calling forth the Seven into ministry. The bishop’s letter continues this emphasis upon “works of service” by defining the ministry as the corporal works of mercy (with only a passing mention of the spiritual works of mercy). On our recent diaconate retreat we were reminded that such services as retreat and spiritual direction and campus ministry are examples of ministries perfect for a deacon. Just some food for thought.

  11. Meant to add that we shouldn’t forget the two authentically authoritative documents (Vatican and USCCB) of the Church teach us that the threefold munera of Word, Liturgy and Charity are of co-equal value. They remind us that one of the three may be more prevalent in a deacon’s ministry due to his talent or competencies, but that all three have some role in every deacon’s life.

  12. re: naturgesetz #9

    Some things:

    –There is not — to my knowledge — any limitation imposed on deacons like you just described.

    –To preach at all the Masses on any given Sunday means just that but in our immediate area there is only ONE parish (our of maybe 12) that has more than three masses a week-end anyway — and that one has four.

    –While Canon Law may specify no more than two masses on a given week-end, most of the priests in our area have a minimum of three and in some rare cases five.

    –Some statistics: During the past thirty days (May 20 to June 20, 2011), I preached on seven different settings: one wedding ceremony; one Baptismal ceremony; one Communion Service in a local nursing home; one Communion Service opening up our traditional parish Tuesday-long Eucharistic Adoration Day; two Saturday Morning Communion Services and two Weekend Masses just last Sunday

  13. I find it interesting that there is a concern, not just in Marquette, but elsewhere, that we might have “too many” deacons (“Where and how many permanent deacons do we need and in which specific ministries and apostolates within the diocese?”, from the pastoral letter preface). This never seems to be a cause for concern where women are answering the call to consecrated life or men are answering the call to priesthood. I guess, this is an indication that not just laypersons, but bishops are unsure of what to do with men answering the call to be deacons. Any thoughts, fellow “Bench” warmers?

  14. It is good to see clarification on the permanent diaconate, but one thing puzzles me. Why the upper age restriction for ordination as a deacon? If the man is in good health should age matter?
    Just wondering.

  15. Over a 30 year period I have served primarily under two pastors (both single priest parishes)–and both preferred a regular preaching rotation–in fact,
    that seemed to them to be one of the best ways I could be of help to them in that area.
    And I was glad to see how emphatic the document is in seeing diaconal ordination as being, without a doubt, part of the Sacrament of Holy Orders. This should help put to rest the way some people downgrade deacons being under Holy Orders as a means of pushing other agendas.

  16. BOTTOM LINE: upper age limits are diocesan rather than Vatican imposed. HOWEVER, that being said: (1) Between a preparation “aspirancy” program and a three year Candidacy program — four years prior to ordination is a generally accepted norm; (2) Some bishops believe, and maybe there is some precedence here, that deacons only become “productive” (whatever that means) after ten years of service.

    NOW, do I know someone who was turned down as “too old” at 65 and now, over 15 years ago, is still going strong as a pastoral leader in his parish? Sure do! In fact, I can rely on him to help out a lot on various projects. Am I angry at him being turned down due to age — not really. That wasn’t my shot to call. I will say that the deacon who was the Vicar at the time and who made that decision “no longer works for us.” In fact, he was hired in a similar position is a diocese many, many miles from us.

  17. On Deacon Norb’s points (echoed to some extent by diakonos09), it is possible that the recalibration – if I might use that term – of the diaconate towards “diakonia” as explained in the bishop’s letter for his diocese, owes something to the “recalibration” seen in the amendment made to CCC 875 and imported into Canon Law as recently as October 2009 by the Apostolic Letter “Omnium in mentem” which, inter alia, added this to can. 1009:-

    “§3 Those who are constituted in the order of the episcopate or the presbyterate receive the mission and capacity to act in the person of Christ the Head, whereas deacons are empowered to serve the People of God in the ministries of the liturgy, the word and charity”.

  18. Re; Missouri deacon #13.

    I’ll stick my neck out here and follow the pattern in early church — SEVEN deacons for every Presbyter!

    If you diocese has 100 priests, it can handle 700 deacons!

  19. Wow. Only one comment so far on the marriage position? Bishop Sample may very well be correct for Marquette regarding divorces but he clearly does not speak all of the dioceses. Men can be divorced, more than once even, but all must be properly ajudicated. Again, these men may never pass the screening in Marquette but they do exists.

  20. I’ve been a Permanent Deacon for about 5 years and have a wonderful, supportive pastor. I preach on a regular basis in our church and am very well received in that role. I’ve noticed that many of my classmates are not so lucky…their pastors basically decide their roles, which is proper, but they often limit them in their ministries. Many apparently see deacons as glorified altar servers. I get a sense this is this Bishop’s view as well….his comment about limiting the number of deacons leads me to believe that he is someone who may never have been comfortable with us, and is now arbitrarily trying to “rein us in” and put us on the back burner, all the while couching it in terms that seem pastoral and supportive. (The same is often done with the role of women in our Church.) In an environment of fewer and fewer priests, I think this is counterproductive. Deacons certainly aren’t priests, but this attempt to address what I guess he sees as a problem of deacons overstepping (or something) hearkens back to the days before the permanent diaconate began to establish itself. It discourages me.

  21. #18
    “I’ll stick my neck out here and follow the pattern in early church — SEVEN deacons for every Presbyter!”

    Fantastic idea – I love the original source of the idea also.

  22. With some of the comments, and not being a Deacon myself, I get the sense that some think this all about themselves, or “their” service, “their” ministry, and “they” have to say. Many deacons in our area have weird ideas. Their preaching is not very orthodox (but neither are a lot of our priests either).

    Also, as for the divorce, I agree with the good Bishop. What bad example it sets in a day and age when marriage itself is on the “ropes” so to speak. Your actions, and my actions, are more powerful than your preaching. People may not say much about a divorce, but in their hearts … How many people will use the EXAMPLE of a divorced deacon to justify themselves obtaining a divorce? I guarantee you the answer is many!

  23. Tad…

    I know of a couple divorced men who became priests — including one man who was married twice. (One was a civil marriage, the other one a church marriage that resulted in an annulment.)

    Dcn. G.

  24. Oh I am sure these days many things have happened that probably were not very good ideas. Whatever happened to the idea of living out your life quietly when something like a divorce happened. Why do we HAVE to do something else like marry again, become something, etc… I knew people years ago who divorced, separated and still lived out their vocation quietly, never dating again, never getting married, never BECOMING something else. Just fulfilling their duties in the situation they were in. This is fidelity, a lost virtue of our agee.

  25. The Archdiocese of Galveston/Houston has a very solid diaconate formation process, and I think the second (or maybe the largest) diaconate in the nation. Chicago may be larger.

    The deacons are well respected.

    Daniel Cardinal DiNardo loves the diaconal ministries and is very supportive.

    A model of best practices.

  26. It is interestinh that the one item which the very conservative Catholic blogs/new sites have put up as headlines about Marquette are all along the lines of “Deacons Not to Preach Much Anymore”.

    Now if THAT is the teaser-line, what does it say about what mosr people have experienced from deacon homilies? I know in my class of 22 we had at least 8 men who ministered in inspirational services but who couldn’t preach to save their lives.

    I would have liked to see the Bishop of Marquette require some qualifications on the deacon as preacher rather than take the most retrictive interpretation of when they can preach.

  27. Actually, considering all the flack the Church gets for only ordaining men to the priesthood who are willing to take a promise of celibacy, you would think it would be wise for the Church to make parish work a deacon’s prime ministry (since virtually all deacons and most parishoners are –or have been– married).
    I still see regularly in the media negative comments about all Catholic “clergy” not being married usually as a prelude for an attack on the Church for nor “understanding” real life.

  28. In my Canadian city we have had the same deacons in parishes for two or three decades. Alas, many deacons have been very poorly trained and are often heterodox in their preaching. The problem is, depending on the pastor, they can become part of the preaching rotation.

    Pastors and Associates come and go, but these deacons, like Eveready Bunnies, just keep going and going. They don’t go away …

  29. Re: Donna Ruth: #30

    Couple of things:

    –In some dioceses, priest/pastors are “irremoveable rectors.” There is a provision in Canon Law for that. Once a priest is in that parish as a pastor, he is there for life.

    –Many more bishops, however, have some form of structured rotation for the assignments of their priests. The one I am most familiar with is: (1) First three years as an Associate Pastor being mentored by the best pastor available; (2) Next six years as a pastor of a small parish — typically one without a parish elementary school. (3) That first six year assignment can be renewed if considered appropriate by all concerned. (4) Eventually, after no less than nine years after ordination, the priest may be assigned to a more complex parish with an elementary school.

    –Bishops can and do rotate their deacons using a similar format — using that initial term for three years and successive ones for six. The problem is real simple, however. Deacons typically are married men and cannot relocate with anywhere near the same ease as celibate priests. I have been rotated but between two parishes easily within driving distance if my home.

    –NOW, you are absolutely correct. Not all bishops rotate their deacons. That is changing. I think we are seeing more of that as time goes on.

    –One other thing I will add you may not have thought about. Deacons should NEVER minister in the same parish where their children attend the parish’s elementary school. That is a BAD SCENE, period.

  30. It is late at night and my computer keyboard is not functioning properly. Obviously that last post — #31 — was mine.

  31. 26 John – I lived in Houston for 1.5 decades. St Jerome’s had 4 deacons (~1975-85). One of the pastors over the yrs said that at first priests shied away from deacons. But once they experienced them in action, would fight to keep them.

    One of them was deacon Jim. He was laid off by Shell. Pastor gave him a small salary and benefits. Gave him the temporal responsibilites of the parish. Told him to take whatever time he needed to earn more money on the side by consulting. At the same time Jim raised the money to build a multipurpose building.

    Jim succeded and I think got a raise. Pastor was absolutely thrilled.

    Only thing that would have made things better is if deacon candidates could have been found then in the Hispanic and Vietnamese parts of the parish community. Surely by now they have been found.

  32. Re; Richard #33

    “Only thing that would have made things better is if deacon candidates could have been found then in the Hispanic and Vietnamese parts of the parish community.”

    Good luck! We do not have Vietnamese folks in our area but we do have a lot of Hispanic folks. We do not, however, get a lot of bilingual/Hispanic candidates for the diaconate. Part of the reason is the individual educational requirements for admission. Very few men in the Hispanic community have any college education at all much less a complete baccalaureate degree. I hate to say it but without some type of undergraduate education as a “prep-school” of sorts, the academic portion of Diaconal Formation is incredibly intimidating!

  33. Dn. Greg, thanks for posting Bp. Sample’s letter–a very good resource. It’s consistent with what we’ve been given in our training so far, I’m happy to see. Just chiming in to comment on a couple of responses above: first, our program currently has 27 men, and we’re entering our second year of Candidacy. All but one of us are married, and at least five of those are second marriages. (I’m not one of those.) In our Diocese, that’s not an impediment, provided it was properly adjudicated etc.

    We also represent our Diocese fairly well in terms of ethnic diversity: less than half of us are Caucasian, the rest are Latino, Vietnamese, Filipino and Pacific Islander. It’s not a perfect Pepsi commercial–no black Candidates at this time. Our Diocese has many strong black churches, and several black deacons, but no candidates from our group, unfortunately.

    I’d agree with the last poster regarding the academic portion being demanding, but strangely enough, the guys whose English is a second or third language, in our group at least, often do pretty well. Most of them are immigrants, and have a ferocious work ethic. The guys with limited or no higher education do least well, but it’s also often pointed out to us that the academic piece is not always a good predictor of how well a Deacon will minister. We need to be grounded in authentic Church teaching, and that’s a vital part of the academic program, but our diaconal service will ultimately call for many other gifts and abilities outside that realm.

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