SUNDAY 13 October was a very historic day in the life of Kildare and Leighlin Catholic diocese. Bishop Denis Nulty ordained seven married men as permanent deacons for service in the diocese. The diaconate is an ordained ministry which is rooted in scripture. Chapter six of the Acts of the Apostles records how the apostles appointed others to see to the needs of the community members who were being overlooked. This is the essence of the ministry of deacons: to serve those in our community who are poor and overlooked, whatever form their poverty may take.
Permanent deacons were very much a feature of the early Church, but the ministry fell out of use over 1,000 years ago and diaconate simply became a stage on the road to ordination for priesthood. In 1967, Pope Paul VI, on the advice of the bishops of the world, restored the order of permanent deacons. In 2000, the Irish bishops began the process of introducing permanent diaconate into Ireland.
Here in Kildare and Leighlin Diocese, applications were invited in 2008 and the seven candidates who were accepted in 2009 have since undertaken four years of formation. The permanent diaconate is open to single and married men.
The first responsibility of the permanent deacon is to be an effective visible sign of Christ, who came to serve rather than to be served. Although the permanent deacons will exercise their ministry on a part-time basis, they remain at all times a deacon and they are called in their lifestyle to reflect this. The ministry of the deacon is an expression of his being, an icon of Christ the servant. The normal areas of ministry which may be entrusted to deacons can be categorised under the general headings: pastoral, liturgical and faith development.
Pastoral includes visiting the sick; visiting prisoners; visiting the bereaved; youth ministry; working with the poor and the homeless; promoting awareness of the social teaching of the Church; promotion of justice and human rights.
Liturgical means proclaiming the Gospel at Mass; preaching the homily; assisting the priest at Mass (sign of peace and dismissal); leading communion services when need arises; bringing the Eucharist to the sick at home and in hospitals (nursing homes); presiding at exposition and benediction of the blessed sacrament; the celebration of baptism; celebrating marriages; presiding at funerals (also removals, reception of remains, burials).
Faith development involves participation in sacramental preparation programmes; formation of ministers of the Eucharist; formation of ministers of the word; formation of altar servers; facilitating study of, and prayer with, the scriptures; facilitating the development of lay ministry; chaplaincy to various parish groups; school chaplaincy.
I do, however, believe that surely women are living ‘deacons’ in every parish in this country and the universal Church. Most parishes are totally indebted to women for their active ministry. Women are the backbone of every faith community.
A leading theologian recently highlighted his hopes that women be accepted as ordained ministers, suggesting that Pope Francis implement this inclusive vision of Church. Timothy Radcliffe, OP, the former master of the Dominican order, recently wrote: “My profound hope is that women will be given real authority and voice in the Church. The pope expresses his desire that this may happen, but what concrete form can it take? He believes that the ordination of women to the ministerial priesthood is not possible, but decision-making in the Church has become ever more closely linked to ordination in recent years. Can that bond be loosened? Let us hope that women may be ordained to the diaconate and so have a place in preaching at the Eucharist. What other ways can authority be shared?”
In challenging times, the Gospel message is truly relevant and very necessary as we all find meaning and purpose in life. Surely this is the moment when women should be recognised as true deacons of the Church.