Deacon poor and deacon rich: a look at the vocation in different dioceses

Deacon poor and deacon rich: a look at the vocation in different dioceses November 22, 2011

A reader sent this my way: a long and comprehensive look at where deacons are thriving, where they aren’t, and why:

In 1967, Pope Paul VI issued general norms for the restoration of the permanent diaconate where requested by episcopal conferences. More than four decades later, 46 percent of the Church’s 37,203 permanent deacons serve in the United States, according to figures published in the 2011 Catholic Almanac, while an additional 5 percent serve in other parts of North America. A third of the Church’s deacons minister in Europe, 13 percent in South America, and approximately 1 percent each in Africa, Asia, and Oceania. There are more permanent deacons in the Archdiocese of Chicago than in all of Africa and Asia combined.

By a very wide margin, the Archdiocese of Chicago leads the United States in the number of permanent deacons (643), followed by Galveston-Houston (386), New York (374), Trenton (357), San Antonio (352), Los Angeles (315), St. Louis (274), Hartford (272), Rockville Centre (265), and Boston (258). Twenty dioceses have more than 200 permanent deacons, and an additional 39 dioceses have between 100 and 200.

Just as some episcopal conferences have not deemed it prudent to request the restoration of the permanent diaconate, some US dioceses have yet to ordain a permanent deacon, though they permit permanent deacons ordained elsewhere to exercise their ministry there. There are 15 dioceses with fewer than 10 permanent deacons, and another 15 with between 10 and two dozen.

The 20 most “deacon rich” dioceses in the United States—those with the highest ratio of permanent deacons to Catholics—are Fairbanks, Tyler (Texas), Amarillo, Bismarck, Lexington (Kentucky), Rapid City (South Dakota), Pensacola-Tallahassee, Omaha, Tulsa, Peoria, Marquette (Michigan), Nashville, Oklahoma City, Superior (Wisconsin), Knoxville (Tennessee), Memphis, Mobile, Des Moines, and Savannah. Statistics show that there is no conflict between fostering the permanent diaconate and fostering priestly vocations. In 2008, seven of these dioceses—Amarillo, Bismarck, Lexington, Nashville, Rapid City, Tulsa, and Tyler—were among the 20 in the US with the highest ratio of seminarians to Catholics. Tyler was particularly “deacon rich” and “seminarian rich,” ranking second in the nation in both categories.

According to the 2011 Catholic Almanac, whose information is current as of January 2010, the dioceses in the United States with the lowest ratio of permanent deacons to Catholics include Greensburg (Pennsylvania), Kansas City (Kansas), Las Vegas, Lincoln (Nebraska), San Jose, El Paso, Fresno, Wichita, New Ulm (Minnesota), Grand Island (Nebraska), Owensboro (Kentucky), Pittsburgh, Fort Wayne-South Bend, Brownsville (Texas), Madison, Los Angeles, Orange (California), San Bernardino, and Monterey. Since January 2010, a few of these dioceses have ordained large numbers of deacons: Bishop Joseph Pepe of Las Vegas has ordained 19, and Bishop David Zubik of Pittsburgh has ordained 43.

One of these “deacon poor” dioceses, the Diocese of New Ulm, has begun a diaconate formation program, and Bishop John LeVoir is scheduled to ordain a dozen deacons next April. “In the history of the restored permanent diaconate, we have come to our formation program late; in the history of the Church, it is only a very minor delay,” says Deacon Mark Kober, director of the diocese’s diaconate program, who explained that resources were scarce “in a large geographic diocese without a seminary or Catholic university.”

Of the 20 “deacon poor” dioceses, five—El Paso, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Orange, and San Bernardino—are also particularly “seminarian poor,” being among the 20 in the nation with the lowest ratio of seminarians to Catholics in 2008. However, three dioceses—Lincoln, Owensboro, and Wichita—are simultaneously “deacon poor” and “seminarian rich,” with Wichita ranking fourth and Lincoln ranking first in the nation in the ratio of seminarians to Catholics.

“Beginning a formal permanent deaconate program has been discussed in the past in our presbyteral council, among our pastors, and in other forums in the diocese, and, in each instance, it was recommended that our bishop not begin such a program,” explains Amy Pavlacka, the Diocese of Wichita’s director of communications. “Because there is not a need for additional ordained ministers in our diocese, having a permanent deacon program in our diocese has not been our top priority.”

“We have a need to have all of the laity in our diocese involved in the work of the local Church,” she adds. “To this end, our efforts have focused more broadly in forming catechists, forming holy families, [and] creating an atmosphere of stewardship whereby everyone takes an active part in their faith.”

“The question of whether or not to ordain permanent deacons has been discussed on multiple occasions by the presbyteral council of the diocese, and the presbyteral council has not recommended that we ordain permanent deacons,” says Father Daniel Rayer, chancellor of the Diocese of Lincoln. “We have a large and very rural diocese with many small parishes, and we do not suffer from a severe shortage of priests as some dioceses do. In light of this, there are questions about whether there is a genuine need for permanent deacons in the diocese, concerns about the practicalities of a training program in such a vast territory as our diocese, and also concerns that a permanent deacon program could negatively impact vocations to the priesthood.”

Deacon-rich dioceses

Bishops and other officials of deacon-rich dioceses typically attribute their high numbers to pastoral need and active recruitment.

“I believe necessity—the shortage of priests and women and men religious—brought about the response of many native men to become permanent deacons in our Yup’ik Eskimo region,” says Bishop Donald Kettler of Fairbanks, the nation’s most deacon-rich diocese. Because many villages are visited by a priest only once every four to six weeks, “our deacons celebrate Communion services and Liturgy of the Word services in the absence of the priest, [as well as] baptisms, funeral liturgies, marriages, and the catechesis for all of these sacraments and services. Most important, they bring their own native culture and understanding to their diaconate ministry in the villages where they have lived most of their lives.”

“We actively recruit in areas where there are no deacons, hoping to find a vocation that will assist parishes and communities in need,” says Deacon Max Schwarz, who leads the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City’s diaconate ministry. “This is a large archdiocese in area, with much of it being rural. There are many small parishes serving large areas…. The deacon, because of his ordination, can bring a number of ministries to these areas.”

There’s much more.  Read it all.

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28 responses to “Deacon poor and deacon rich: a look at the vocation in different dioceses”

  1. Thanks, Dcn Greg, for such a great posting and article link. We always hear (usually from the anti-deacon faction) that the US has too many deacons when compared to Europe, etc. But is that a fair or accurate comparison? What I mean is…the USA is a union of 50 sovereign states, many of which on their own are equal to or larger than some European or African countries. Wouldn’t it be more accurate when comparing diaconal stats to not use “USA” as one entity but rather each state on its own? Just a thought.

  2. Deacon Kandra:
    We are a small-town parish (about 7,500 people in town) about twelve miles from a bigger city of about 52,000. We have one priest. The nearest Catholic schools are in the bigger city. We have not seen any deacons around here, unless they come with the bishop. I confess I am lacking in knowledge about how a priest spends his day. As far as I know all of the parishes in our diocese currently have priests, although many of the priests are older and close to retirement. What would a deacon do in our parish? How might that change as priests retire?

  3. Thanks for this very informative article. Hang on to it. My sense is that we bloggers will need to refer to it often!

    God bless you!

  4. Thanks, Deacon Greg, for posting this. I hope that all readers will come to appreciate that permanent deacons aren’t “priest substitutes,” but are a distinct Order, with a distinct ministerial role, in the Church.

    The Archdiocese of Washington has at present 72 seminarians, and 43 men in formation for the permanent diaconate. We rejoice!

  5. Father Rayer from Lincoln shows a remarkable lack of understanding of the Diaconate. No deacons because there is not a shortage of priests? Does he think that’s the purpose of deacons; to pick up the slack for the lack of priests? He also thinks it will negatively impact vocations to the priesthood; he thinks that deacons are a bunch of wanna-be priests who also want to be married (or something) and therefore will “settle” for the Diaconate? Very depressing.

  6. Diakonos, i am sure you know how one can play all kinds of things with stats.
    if one just keep the big picture, a few things come across: if there are over 1billion and 200 thousand Catholics, and there are around 67 million in the USA, then it does seem clear to this casual observer, that the USA has a big hunk of the deacons. it is also interesting that where the church is growing the fastest (in the southern hemisphere) the diaconate is hardly represented. north of the equator, where the church is stagnant or decreasing the diaconate is growing. but stats are just stats, there should be no reason for anyone to get defensive….if the church in the USA feels a need for them, that is good and if the churches in other areas don’t feel the need that also is good??

  7. Dear Greg,

    Good article, but frankly, there’s nothing new in any of it. I’m glad it’s out there; maybe more people will start to pay more attention to what has been reported for more than a decade (and in some cases, for nearly TWO decades)!

    Here’s what I mean: These data have all been reported before: each year’s CARA reports since about 2004 on the diaconate provide the source for most of the data, including the shifting landscape of where the most “deacon rich” dioceses are. I discussed much of these same data, for example, in Chapter One of “The Emerging Diaconate,” (2007). The interesting comparison of diaconal and presbyteral vocations was first made and documented by Richard Schoenherr and Larry Young in their 1993 report “Full Pews and Empty Altars: Demographics of the Priest Shortage in United States Catholic Dioceses.”

    So, really, not much new here, including the persistent myths and misperceptions which still abound about the rationale, nature and exercise of the ministry of the Order of Deacons!

    God bless,
    Deacon Bill

  8. PS to my last post:

    When looking at the comparison of deacon “numbers” in the USA to other countries, one factor (although certainly not the only one) that has to be borne in mind is that we have 196 dioceses and eparchies. Germany, for example, has 22, I believe. We’re going to wind up with many more deacons simply because of the sheer size of the country.

    Obviously, I’m not reducing the difference solely to that reason, of course! But it IS a factor which is often overlooked when pondering this question.

    And remember — Vatican II never, never, never intended the renewed diaconate to be a substitute for, or an abridged form of, the priesthood. As my mentor (Fr. Joe Komonchak) used to say, quite accurately, “Vatican II didn’t restore the diaconate because of a shortage of priests, but because of a shortage of deacons.” So, for people to say, “Well, there aren’t as many deacons in the lesser developed parts of the world where there aren’t enough priests,” is just, well, wrong. If the Church needs more priests, deacons are not the answer to that need. And even in a “priest rich” environment, there will always, according to the history and theology behind the decision to renew the diaconate, be a need for deacons.

    God bless,


  9. Will: I’ll let Dceacon Greg speak for himself.

    I minister in a small city of 18,000 in a county of 60,000. In our county, we have six Catholic parishes staffed by three priests who pastor five of those parishes — the sixth one has a Religious Sister as a Pastoral Leader. There is also two priests who live in “retirement” in our area — one of whom is a “Sacramental Chaplain” at our sixth parish — the other is far too ill to do anything.

    In our county, we also have a retreat center; an elderly religious sisters retirement home; one major hospital (secular); and nine nursing homes (secular).

    Those six parishes have six deacons working in them (three “active” and three in “Senior/Emeritus” status). Two of those “active” deacons still have full-time secular occupations and thus are not available during the work week. I am the third “active” one and the only one of those three available in the day-hours.

    These six deacons have an enormous “case-load.” I handle mostly weddings and work with both engaged couples individually and in groups but I am also involved in campus ministry at our local Community College. Another deacon “chairs” our area wide RCIA team. Two of those deacons (one “active” and the other “emeritus” are Hispanic and bi-lingual/bi-cultural. One of them presided at 59 infant baptisms in 2009 — all from children of farm-worker families in the migrant camps. Another deacon is a volunteer Hospital Chaplain and is “on-call” there 24/7. Another on handles three of those nine nursing homes.

    Believe me, there is plenty to do.

  10. Sometime back, maybe 2-3 years ago, I had the opportunity to do some serious research on deacons in the other countries of the world beside the US. I’m not at all sure how accurate my “read” is but here are two conclusions I came to:

    –The new Vatican norms require a very rigorous academic program for the formation of deacons. Roman Catholics of the United States — of all of the countries of the world — have the highest per-capita educational attainment. In other words, more American Catholic men have undergraduate and graduate degrees than any other nationality group. Thus, diaconal academic formation is not as intimidating to them as it might be for “third-world” countries.

    –Many other countries consider the diaconate as a full-time career and men are specifically trained at a younger age for that life. Thus deacons in Europe, say, tend to be younger in age than US deacons are. Almost all European Deacons — England may be the exception here — are in full-time paid ministry for the Church; less than 10% of American deacons work for the church in any “monetary” sense. So, yes, there are fewer deacons in other areas of the world but the ones they have follow a completely different economic model than we do.

  11. Well put, Dcn. Bill. Another point overlooked, but I am reminded of when Euro-Catholics visit and go to Mass here in the States. They invariably remark how many men there are at Mass here, compared to back home.

  12. In all the discussions of the permanent diaconate I almost never hear any mention of it being a vocation that men are called to by God. If we believe that it is a calling by God for ordination, then all other arguments would seem to fall to the side. Wouldn’t matter if they are needed for xyz reason or not, God thinks that they ought to be deacons. Maybe a lot of people don’t believe this?


    Mike L

  13. Will…

    Norb described a typical circumstance for deacons. We’re not here to supplant priests — despite what some believe — but to assist them. In that role, deacons preside at weddings, celebrate baptisms, even perform some funerals when a priest is unavailable; deacons preach, teach, catechize, and supervise various parish programs. Increasingly, in my diocese, deacons are also facilitating annulments and serving as MCs at episcopal liturgies. In many places, deacons are taking on more of the functions once assumed by priests, thus freeing up the priests to celebrate mass, hear confessions, anoint the sick and perform other duties that only priests can do.

    Obviously, living in New York City, I’m not part of a “small-town parish” like you; my parish has about 2,500 families with three priests and one deacon. We offer five Masses every weekend, two Masses every day, and confession six days a week. We also have a school with grades pre-K – 8 and a busy religious education program.

    Dcn. G.

  14. Ed Peters. I often disagree with you but not here!

    I happened to be in Eastern Europe (Slovakia and Poland) in the summer of 2004. During my ten days there in those two countries, I attended four Masses. Most were packed to the capacity of that specific individual facility. In all of them, 90% of the attending congregations were women of all ages: 10 % were men. BUT the men were all under 16 or over 60. The only men I saw who were in that missing middle (16-60) were the following: (1) the priests on ceremony, (2) foreign visitors, (3) a benefactor of a local Orphanage who was at a Mass honoring the anniversary of the facility; and (4)the groom and groomsmen at a wedding. Even with those exceptions, the women still outnumbered the men 9-1.

  15. Fiergenholt, i follow your observations but am not sure they are conclusive? many of the countries that do not have many deacons, have full seminaries (as in Africa). which suggests, to me, the men can do the academic work and they would have places for training if they wanted to train deacons.

    i think the important dynamic here is that the diaconate is not mandated, it is up to bishop conferences to ask for it, and even then it is up to the bishop to see if it is needed in his diocese. so it seems to come down to the individual bishop. if he feels a need for deacons in his diocese, i would guess he will find men who can handle the preparation and find the resources to equip them.

    i would be interested to hear more on your second point. i have some knowledge of deacons in france and germany, and most are older men. in france they seem to be searching for their identity,
    in germany they do seem to be more the ‘paid church professional’ type, but i am not that aware of what goes on in the other countries. my understanding is that they have just started to be introduced into poland?

  16. F wrote: “Ed Peters. I often disagree with you but not here!” That’s one small step for Fiergenholt, one giant leap for right reason! 🙂 Best, edp.

  17. I am somewhat familiar with both England and Poland.

    –England has deacons and the model they seem to be using is more of the American one. The English deacons I have met are typically older married men — often grandfathers — who are either at the end of strong secular careers or who have already retired from them. Two parishes come to mind: one in Cambridge which has four deacons and one in Lincoln which has two. If I recall correctly, none are in full-time paid service to the church.

    –Now I know — from a source on the Polish National Council of Catholic Bishops — that this issue of the diaconate is a polarizing one for them. Some bishops only see the diaconate as a solution in search of a problem since Poland has plenty of priests. Others see what is happening in other countries and wonder why Poland is not in the game. Another influence that you might not expect — there are Polish priests and bishops who have spent extensive time in the US and England and have worked with deacons in those two countries — they are adding a third nuance to this discussion.

    Poland appears to be moving toward a common seminary formation site for all their diaconal candidates from whatever diocese; seems to be moving toward full-time ministry career model; seems to want to only recruit those already with graduate degrees; seems to want to dedicate their deacons to “caritas” rather than liturgy and sacraments. We’ll have to see.

  18. I wonder if part of this is based on how eager a bishop is in instituting and promoting a permanent diaconate program in his diocese rather than for any other reason.

  19. Dcn. Greg,

    I am one of those deacons originally from a “deacon rich” diocese (Omaha) and am now serving, by God’s generous grace, in the “deacon poor” diocese of Grand Island, NE.

    There are several what I might call diaconal culture shocks that I needed to work through.
    In Omaha, and this is just my experience, we had more than enough deacons in most parishes that many of us had little ministry opportunities in our parish. The ratio in some parishes might be 11 deacons to one priest. Most priests are grateful for the help and service ministry that we are about. I guess what I am trying to say is that ini a deacon-rich area, the diaconate will continue to flourish. With positive exposure to the diaconate, vocations will grow.

    I say that as a comparison of where I am serving now. I am assigned to three small rural parishes for a kind and “deacon-friendly” priest. I could not be happier or busier. The formation program here is in its infancy. To date, four men have been ordained and we have two of us here from Omaha, giving us six for the diocese (five in the City of Grand Island).
    I was not prepared for the difficulty of forming deacons in such an expansive area. Larger cities (keep in mind that the largest city in our diocese is only about 40,000) are, on average hundreds of miles apart. Video-linking is cost prohibative and so we rely on priests willing to take on the formation of individual aspirants, outside of Grand Island itself.
    Exposure of the baptised to the diaconate is limited, at this point, to Grand Island and my small parishes.
    We have made efforts to talk at other parishes, to be present to help out at other parishes and gain some exposure. The Bishop has all the parishes pray for diaconal, as well as priestly and religious vocations.
    However, there are a lot of priests who want nothing to do with a deacon. Many are unwilling to look for men who might have a calling. I have seen this alluded to in the comments section here as well.
    It would seem that our humble diocese may well be counted as “deacon-poor” for a bit longer. “Come Holy Spirit … a little faster please!”

  20. Anthony:
    “Many of the countries that do not have many deacons, have full seminaries (as in Africa). which suggests, to me, the men can do the academic work and they would have places for training if they wanted to train deacons”

    Here’s another twist. I was at a recent meeting in my parish where US seminary enrollments surfaced as a point of argument. One elderly lay-man passed out an information sheet using statistics from 2002 that showed that seminarians in the United Stated had taken a dramatic drop in comparison to — let’s say — 1952.

    Someone else in that meeting noted that this was almost 2012 — not 2002 — and that enrollments had sharply turned around. Many, if not all, of the seminaries that the other person had checked were at saturation.

    Our elderly lay-man, then, retorted that the only reason why enrollments in college seminaries were up currently here in the US were that the economy was shot and that men were running to the seminaries where they could get free undergraduate education. The meeting — at that point — deteriorated into a yelling match.

    One possible insight is that in third-world countries, a Roman Catholic seminary is a very attractive way to get an education and be a leader in your community. That’s not to say that these “vocations” are false — they probably are not. But the crummy economy here in the US along with high priestly seminary enrollment could possibly tell us something about third world economies and what there are so many priestly seminarians in those cultures.

  21. Don, I don’t understand what you mean. I serve in the Diocese of Tyler, Texas, which is mentioned in the article posted. The bishop who ordained me believes that a bishop needs his clergy, his”… right and his left arm,” his priests and his deacons to meet the needs of the church.
    None of us have been ordained just to promote a “permanent diaconate program”
    We were called by God and ordained simply because we needed.
    The parishes in my diocese have priests and deacons, we have seminarians waiting for ordination, as well as men in diaconate formation awaiting ordination as well. There are never “enough” priests or deacons here. There is always a need for workers in the vineyard, because there are so many needs to be fulfilled.

  22. I am glad to hear news of Deacon Mark Kober. He and my husband and one other gentleman were ordained together in October 2000. At that time the Archdiocese of Omaha had two deacon formation programs; the rural and the urban. They were in the rural program; which was basically any place not in Omaha and its suburbs. The two programs have since merged. There was even at one time a Spanish language formation program, but that didn’t last very long. It has been interesting to watch the evolution of the formation program.

  23. “…so we rely on priests willing to take on the formation of individual aspirants, outside of Grand Island itself.”
    Deacon Bill, that is interesting. I wondered how they would be handling formation in the Grand Island diocese, with it being as far-flung as it is; I believe it covers about 42,000 sq. miles. My hometown is at the western end of the G.I. diocese; they could really use some deacons out there. But up until now the lack of access to formation has been a show-stopper to any men who were interested.

  24. Western-end of GI Diocese ? Where.

    Believe it or not, I did a wedding at St. Luke’s Ogallala in May 2003.

  25. Deacon Norb, no kidding! St. Luke’s in Ogallala was my parish for the first 30 years of my life; many of my family are still there. Small world!

  26. @ Dcn Norb said:
    “But the crummy economy here in the US along with high priestly seminary enrollment could possibly tell us something about third world economies and what there are so many priestly seminarians in those cultures.”
    Really? And the reason that there are so many deacons in the US is that older men feel like losers and need a weekend hobby during which they can trick people into thinking they’re priests to help them feel affirmed, right?

  27. Yup! Never forget it. The whole gig was rather surreal. Neither the bishop of GI at that time nor the pastor at St. Luke’s required those “transient” letters like almost everyone does now. Rehearsal Dinner (60 in attendance) was at the private dining room of “Ole’s” in Paxton. Wedding itself had 120 + in attendance. The pastor, as soon as we came out, spent a few minutes telling the congregation what married deacons were all about. He presided at the Nuptial Mass, I formally accepted the exchange of vows; he blessed the rings; the receiving line set up so quick i was still in my vestments. The wedding reception — well over 200 in attendance — was a swim-party/ox-roast out at one of the beaches at the big lake. Like I said, rather surreal.

    BTW: the groom was our oldest son, the bride was a daughter of a well-known couple in “Og.”

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