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Celebrating 50 years since the renewal of the permanent diaconate

Image: Members of the permanent diaconate in the Diocese of Grand Rapids, Cathedral of Saint Andrew(Leer en Español)

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the approval by Blessed Pope Paul VI for the bishops of the United States to renew the permanent diaconate as an active, permanent order of ministry.

Learn more

How did renewal of the ministry come about?

Read a Q&A with Deacon Jim Hessler, director of diaconate formation for the diocese, in the June issue of FAITH Grand Rapids magazine

Origins and decline of the permanent diaconate 

According to a 1998 Joint Declaration of the Congregation for Catholic Education and the Congregation for the Clergy, the service of deacons in the Church is documented from apostolic times. “A strong tradition, attested already by St. Irenaeus and influencing the liturgy of ordination, sees the origin of the diaconate in the institution of the ‘seven’ mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles (6:1-6). Thus, at the initial grade of sacred hierarchy are deacons, whose ministry has always been greatly esteemed in the Church.”
 
The order continued to flourish in the western Church up to the fifth century. After this period, however, a slow decline ensued until it became simply an intermediate stage for candidates preparing for priestly ordination, i.e. only the transitional diaconate existed.  

The path to restoration 

The Council of Trent (1545-1563) concluded that the permanent diaconate, as it existed in ancient times, should be restored to its original function in the Church. This prescription, however, was not carried into effect.
 
It wasn’t until the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) that the stage was set for the restoration of the permanent diaconate. The Council in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) established this possibility. According to the Joint Declaration, there were three reasons for opening the door to restoration: (1) a desire to enrich the Church with the functions of the diaconate; (2) the intention of strengthening with the grace of ordination those who already exercised many of the functions of the diaconate; and (3) a concern to provide regions where there was a shortage of clergy with ordained ministers.
 
Blessed Pope Paul VI acted on the recommendation of the Second Vatican Council on June 18, 1967. 

What's the difference between the permanent and transitional diaconate? 

There are two expressions of the order of deacon: permanent, which consists of both celibate and married deacons, and transitional, which consists only of celibate deacons who are proceeding on to priestly ordination. Permanent deacons are responsible for their own financial support and therefore frequently work in secular occupations to support their families. Transitional deacons are generally ordained before their last year of seminary and then ordained to the priesthood. 

Image: Bishop Walkowiak with Deacons Lance Walters, Dean Vernon and Dennis Rybicki, permanent diaconate ordination 2017The road to the permanent diaconate

Inquiry: Men who meet the requirements for the diaconate may apply with their pastor’s approval. After a process that includes home visits and interviews, the bishop reviews the candidates and makes a final decision on which men will be invited to move forward.
 
Aspirancy: During this year-long discernment process, prospective deacons and their wives attend monthly meetings together. The men receive spiritual direction and take online classes.
 
Candidacy: After review, the bishop invites aspirants to become candidates, a three-year process that includes continued discernment, coursework and pastoral internships. Each wife is asked to submit a handwritten letter of approval. The bishop once again reviews the candidates, and those deemed ready are “called to orders.” The current class of deacons is expected to be ordained in spring 2021.

Considering becoming a permanent deacon?

In 2015, Bishop David Walkowiak reinstated the permanent diaconate program in the Diocese of Grand Rapids. The next group of aspirants will be invited to apply in spring 2019, with new classes beginning every other year. To be considered, an applicant must be a Roman Catholic at least 30 years of age who is an active member of his parish and has the support of his pastor. He must be in good health, of sound moral character, mature faith, regular practice in the sacramental life of the Church, and have a sense of vocation to service. If married, he must be in a valid Catholic marriage for a minimum of five years, and have the support of his wife and family. If unmarried, he must be willing and able to commit to celibacy.
Although an upper age limit for application has not been established, the expectation is that ordained deacons will have the health and energy to provide a minimum of 10 years of ordained ministry to the Diocese of Grand Rapids.
 
To learn more, contact Deacon Jim Hessler, director, diaconate formation at 616-288-0913 or jimhessler@dioceseofgrandrapids.org

Related

Additional resources

Learn more about the permanent diaconate program in the diocese.  

Special Report: Jubilee for Deacons during the Year of Mercy