Friday, October 21, 2011
Interesting reactions.... Interesting situations...
One deacon reminisces:
After Cardinal Lawrence Shehan ordained Deacon George Evans as one of the first permanent deacons in the United States 40 years ago, a lot of people didn’t know what to make of the new clergyman. “It was a struggle in the first few years,” remembered Deacon Evans, now retired but still assisting at St. Rita in Dundalk. “People were asking, ‘Why are you doing what priests do?’”
For so long the diaconate had merely been a stop on the train to the priesthood that the idea of permanent deacons was strange and new to Roman Catholics -- even when the office was not. “I was accepted,” said Deacon Derouaux, now retired in Florida, “but people had a difficult time with some of the things we were doing in the liturgy. To them, it was important that the priest do everything.” Even some priests, unsure how the permanent diaconate related to their own ministry, could be suspicious.
Permanent deacons had long played an integral role in the first few centuries of the church, but disappeared in the Middle Ages. The diaconate became limited to “transitional deacons” – men who would go on to become priests. Pope Paul VI reestablished the permanent diaconate in 1967, allowing both single and married men to be ordained to the ministry. Deacons proclaim the Gospel and preach at Mass. They also perform baptisms, witness marriages and conduct wake and funeral services.
Given the shortage of priests, I cannot imagine what parishes would do today without the permanent diaconate. You can read more here or another perspective here. What interests me is not the circumstance in Rome that either created it or continues it, but the difference on the part of people. What was radical in 1967 has become ordinary today -- so ordinary that the over abundance of Eucharistic Ministers has further distanced the people from a parish life once defined solely by priestly ministry. In the local hospital these extraordinary ministers bring the Eucharist to the sick and the priest is there generally only for anointing or last rites. In the local Roman Catholic parish of more than 3500 families, two priests, occasionally assisted by another, cannot possibly do all the masses, hear all the confessions, and do all the baptisms, funerals, and other areas of service open to the diaconate. Perhaps it is the experience of so many non-priests or a sign of the times that lay and ordained deacons have become so, well, routine.
There is a parallel in Lutheranism. While the chancel was the domain of the Pastor exclusively, now there are varieties of lay people assisting, and, in some places, replacing clergy. The plethora of locally defined diaconal offices, the informal role of assisting minister, lector, cantor, etc., and the high cost of having a full-time Pastor in a small congregation have created the situation in which we, too, have become blind to the changes both in expectation and acceptance we see so clearly in Rome.
Some insist that this a good thing. In Rome it has become a necessity and there are Lutherans who suggest that we are likewise stuck with this out of need more than out of theology. I will admit that I appreciate aspects of both sides of the argument. I have trained a number of men to serve in the semi-official role of assisting minister in the Eucharist. They act as virtual liturgical deacons and nearly all have also been what Missouri calls an "elder." Yet I am conflicted by the ease at which people have accepted this and the way some no longer raise any question or have any concerns about non-ordained in the pulpit or, it some cases in Missouri, at the altar.
Rome will have to deal with its own problems and needs. Lutheranism, if we are going to have deacons, needs to define them, delineate coherent job responsibilities and boundaries, and create a common training program that will both prepare those who could and should serve and weed out those who should not. I think about this in the shadow of the commemoration of St. Philip the Deacon. Anyway, we cannot afford to have the patchwork quilt of offices, people, training, responsibilities, and unofficial officials the way we do now. It is unhealthy not only for the Church but for the people serving. At some point in time we need to discuss this more fully and resolve this more deliberately and uniformly. Absent some rules and definitions, we will end up with a murkier muddle about who is a minister and who is not, what they can do and what they cannot, who trains them and who does not, and who authorizes them and who does not... which, it seems, may have a little something to do with the Supreme Court case we are waiting to be decided....