Remembering a great success of Vatican II: permanent deacons

Remembering a great success of Vatican II: permanent deacons October 14, 2011

With the anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council this week, Matthew Cantirino over at First Things takes note of something I often mention — a great success story of the Council, the restoration of the diaconate as a permanent order:

The restoration of the permanent diaconate to the Western church …must rank as one of the council’s more under-appreciated moves, perhaps because it has been largely free of controversy. Yet it was a major change in its own right: many lifelong Catholics were baffled when non-seminarian deacons began appearing in their parishes, and even the newly-ordained deacons often found themselves unsure of their precise position. Admission to an office that had been consigned to seminarians for centuries was now suddenly re-opened to lay applicants.

The fruits of this restoration have been almost entirely positive: there are now nearly 17,000 ordained deacons serving throughout the United States, and their presence has become all the more welcome as the number of men being ordained to the priesthood has slid. Indeed, deacons today have become not only familiar but absolutely necessary to the functioning of countless parishes, serving as bridges between lay leaders (whose growing influence some traditionalists decry) and ordained priests (whose necessary distance from the congregation some reformers dislike).

The revival of the diaconate also, in my experience, serves as a pleasant surprise to Protestant friends when it comes up in discussions of the Catholic Church (many seem unaware of its existence, and imagine the priesthood as the only office to which the sacrament of ordination can be applied). It helps that the deaconate is an office so clearly grounded in Scripture. Whereas considerable debate often ensues about the theology of the priesthood as a continuation of the Levitical line and the nature of the Mass, the role of the deacon, which places service to others and the preaching of the Word the summit of this ministry, seems to resonate clearly with non-Catholic Christians.

Today’s diaconate, in a way, represents the true “spirit” of Vatican II in that it successfully addressed a contemporary need through the revival of an ancient office. It has proven a model of dynamic conservatism, and at the moment it seems to be a promising model for how aggiornamento and ressourcement might cooperate. Although many of the council’s other decisions will remain contentious for some time, it is often overlooked changes like these which, through the quiet good works they produce, can wind up making the biggest impact of all.

To which I can only add: Amen.

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10 responses to “Remembering a great success of Vatican II: permanent deacons”

  1. Deacon Greg,
    I echo with a great Amen!. Thank you for your ministry and all that you do here. Thanks for posting this.
    God bless you and yours!

  2. “Admission to an office that had been consigned to seminarians for centuries was now suddenly re-opened to lay applicants.” (?)

    I may be wrong but I should think that seminarians before ordination to the permanent diaconate would be considered laymen.

    “there are now nearly 17,000 ordained deacons serving throughout the United States… .”

    The United States has around 5-6% of the world’s Catholic population and yet has over 40% of the number of the world’s deacons. It doesn’t make sense to me since the main supporters of the restoration of the diaconate at Vatican II were from Europe (in particular Germany) and Latin America. In addition, Cardinal Spellman, who made an intervention on this issue at Vatican II, did not think the restored diaconate was necessary.

  3. Dcn Greg:

    I agree and also celebrate this great gift from VCII.

    HMS is reminding us that the permanent diaconate has taken root in the United States, a place where it was not deemed as necessary in the early 1960’s, — in other words “Man plans and God laughs”.

    The fruits of the great restoration of diaconate to more then a temporary way-station for those who were becoming ordained priests, speak louder then all words published at VCII – or all the sniping that has happened since.

  4. HMS…

    If I remember correctly, seminarians leave the lay state, and technically become clergy, at a point before ordination to the diaconate. A priest or seminarian or canon lawyer may be able to address that in more detail, but I think that’s one of the nuances involved.

    Dcn. G.

  5. Deacon Greg:
    I think I found the answer to my question.

    Since medieval times until 1972, tonsure was the rite of inducting someone into the clergy in the Latin Church. It was not an ordination but rather a preparation for ordination and it entitled the person to the benefits of the clerical state in society.

    In Pope Paul VI’s apostolic letter (presented “motu proprio” in 1972) on First Tonsure, Minor Orders, and the Subdiaconate, he wrote:

    “First tonsure is no longer conferred; entrance into the clerical state is joined to the diaconate.”

    Learn something new all the time.

    I have letters from my uncle when he was in the seminary in Rome, 1938-40 (a great source of information about seminary life in Rome and also conditions in Italy at the beginning of WWII.) This explains to me why he was so thrilled to be tonsured. It did not happen until he was in his second year in the Major Seminary.

  6. Ha! Thanks for the clarification. “Learn something new all the time,” indeed 🙂

    Dcn. G.

  7. In addition to the clarification offered above, I would simply point out that, while we have about 50% of the world’s deacons here in the US, part of that has to do with our sheer size. There are 196 dioceses and eparchies here; there are 22 dioceses in Germany, for example.

    God bless,

    Deacon Bill

    PS While Cardinal Spellman had his opinion at the Council, the vast majority disagreed with him. In fact, Yves Congar wrote in his journal that, although Spellman rose to speak against the diaconate, “he knows absolutely nothing.”

  8. At least one of my sources also mentions Cardinal Spellman’s unofficial but important role at the council. Rather that being a blazing light of theological brilliance, he played the role of the host. He set up the meeting sites, made sure the food and drink and other amenities were in place, welcomed the guests as they arrived and then stayed in the background to let the younger bishops do the debating and discussing.

    I really do think he realized that he was out-classed and accepted that fact.

  9. Spellman did not favor Holy Communion under both species either.

    But all is forgiven. He made sure that John Courtney Murray attended the second session after he had been disinvited to the first session.

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