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Date with destiny for first permanent deacon

MARCH 1 will be a significant date in the history of the Brisbane Church.

On that evening Peter Olsen will be the first man to be ordained as a permanent deacon for the Archdiocese of Brisbane.

Peter is one of 16 men, aged from between their 30s and their 60s, who are in the process of formation for the permanent diaconate, which the Second Vatican Council decided to restore as a proper and stable rank of the Church’s hierarchy.

When ordained, deacons will take their place alongside bishops and priests as members of the ordained ministry in the Church.

The term ‘hierarchy’ suggests to some the idea of power and authority. It certainly implies leadership, but a leadership of service.

In keeping with the Greek words ‘diakonia’ and ‘diakonos’, from which the title is derived, the leadership that deacons exercise will be one of service to the Catholic and wider community.

The deacon is called to symbolise and embody the idea of discipleship of Christ who claimed that he came ‘not to be served, but to serve’.

That service will take many forms – sacramental, liturgical and pastoral.

The deacon’s call is especially one of outreach to the unchurched, the poor and the sick, the marginalised and the disadvantaged. How they exercise their ministry will depend to some extent on their circumstances.

Those who will continue to hold down secular professions or trades will have access to people in situations where priests cannot easily go, and their apostolate will be ‘the Church in action’ in those situations.

None of these comments on the role of the permanent deacon are intended to play down the important role that lay people have in the mission of the Church and in the service of Christ the Servant.

But as ordained ministers, deacons will be in a position to act as a bridge between hierarchy and laity.

Of the 16 men in formation, 15 are married and one is a widower. Their life experience equips them to deal with married people and their concerns in areas where celibate priests might feel inadequate or wonder about their credibility.

Archbishop John Bathersby, after consultation with his Council of Priests and other diocesan bodies, decided some years ago to promote the permanent diaconate in Brisbane archdiocese. In doing so, he was authorising the restoration of what was a common feature in the life of the Church in its early centuries.

In 2002, he appointed me as director of the diaconate program. I am assisted by a diaconate committee chaired by Fr John Dobson of Caloundra, which comprises priests, lay men and women and two permanent deacons who are attached to the armed forces.

Peter Olsen is one of a small group of men who entered the formation program in its first year, 2003.

A number of others joined in 2004 and a further five have come on board this year.

As well as Peter, other aspirants/candidates preparing for ordination are: Gary Curtis (Caloundra); Peter Devenish-Meares (Rosalie); Peter McDade (Grovely); Bjorn Hoppe (Darra-Jindalee); John Harrison (Upper Mt Gravatt); Robert Bowlen (Capalaba); Ray Pardo (Cannon Hill); Adrian Eldridge (Nambour); Des Neagle (Wishart); Russell Nelson (Kenmore) and John O’Hanlon (Surfers Paradise).

The new members who have joined the program this year are: Anthony Gooley (Kenmore); Grant Sparks (Carina); Peter Warner (Nanango); Michael Jones (Wishart) and Peter Chan (Bracken Ridge).

As well as these, Brenton Fry will be ordained a deacon in the Military Vicariate in December.

Most of the aspirants are being sponsored by their home parishes.

Apart from Brenton, one is being sponsored by the St Vincent de Paul Society, and two others directly by the archdiocese.

The latter will be more directly at the disposal of the archbishop for diocesan appointments like chaplains to hospitals, to prisons, to the police, to universities and other tertiary institutions as well as colleges, to renewal groups, positions in Centacare and so on.

Those sponsored by their own parishes commit themselves to ministry in those parishes for a number of years, but of course aspirants will be ordained for the archdiocese, and subject to the archbishop’s appointment.

After the completion of their parish commitment, they will be eligible to re-appointment to parish ministry or open to take up other duties that the archbishop asks of them.

The response to the permanent diaconate is one of the most encouraging things happening in the local Church.

It is occurring at a time when we are finding difficulty in attracting young men to the priesthood, but the number of continuing enquiries about the diaconate shows there is no shortage of those who feel the call to serve the people of God as ordained ministers. There are signs that this interest will continue to grow.

The presence of women on the diaconate committee is significant. They perform an invaluable service, especially in their support of the spouses of the aspirants.

The involvement of spouses and families, and the support they give, is crucial to the success of the diaconate program.

It is also a reminder of the prospect that the diaconate will be open to women in the future.

At present, only men are eligible aspirants, but there is clear evidence that there were women deacons in the early centuries of the Church.

It is hoped that the restoration of the permanent diaconate will not be viewed as a move by the Church to perpetuate a patriarchal, male-dominated institution. There are many prominent males in positions of leadership in the Church who look forward to the admission of women to the order of deacon.

Aspirants for the diaconate must complete a designated academic program, including studies in Scripture, systematic and moral theology, Church history, canon law, pastoral theology, as well as practical, ministerial formation (field education, with supervised ministry at the parish level or some other diocesan agency), as well as ongoing spiritual direction.

Before ordination, they will be required to complete the equivalent of Graduate Diplomas in Theology and Ministry, with the expectation that in most cases they will complete a Bachelor of Theology after ordination.

Lay persons and religious who aspire to the position of pastoral director of parishes, in the absence of a resident priest, should not see deacons as a threat to their aspiration. Aspirants to the diaconate are not encouraged or led to believe that their ordination will lead to parish leadership on the organisational or ministerial level. They are not mini-priests, called to plug the gaps left by the declining numbers of active priests.

The diaconate is an order in its own right, and the service of deacons to the community has a different focus.

Peter Olsen, our deacon-in-waiting, has had an interesting and fruitful career. On leaving school, he completed an apprenticeship in cabinet making, and later managed his own furniture making business in Ipswich for many years.

In the early 1970s, he became involved in the Cursillo Renewal Movement and in time became national president of that movement.

During this period of his life, he had a very positive influence on the lives of many men and women who followed the Cursillo way of spirituality – both in Australia and in the Pacific Islands which he visited to set up local teams.

In 1976, he became parish co-ordinator of St Mary’s, Ipswich, when the late Fr Owen Oxenham was the pastor.

This was a multi-functional role, involving his trade skills, as well as pastoral ministry and engagement in parish, archdiocesan and national committees.

In 1990, he moved to St Joseph’s Parish, North Ipswich, as a pastoral associate to Fr Virgil Pender. This role was expanded in 1998 to include the parish of Leichhardt, with Fr Denis Scanlan.

Peter began studying for his degree in theology, a goal that he will realise this year.

He ‘retired’ in 2001, having spent 25 years in his trade and 25 years in Church ministry. These figures will indicate that he is not in the first flush of youth. Although he is getting on in years, he was accepted into the diaconate formation program, with St Mary’s Parish as his sponsor, and the active support of his parish priest and dean, Fr Peter Casey.

After his ordination, Peter will continue as a member of the St Mary’s, Ipswich pastoral team and with the grace of God hopes that he has several years left of active ministry.

Peter was an adult ‘convert’ to Catholicism. He is married to Sharon, who is assistant to the principal (administration) at St Mary’s Primary School, Ipswich. They have a daughter, Jane, a fourth year student at Griffith University who is studying for a degree in psychology and criminology.

Peter is also supported in his decision by four daughters from a previous marriage – Karen, Charmaine, Madonna and Katrina. Madonna is making his vestments for his ordination.

The permanent diaconate is still not well known by the majority of Australian Catholics, because there are only about 50 ordained deacons across the country.

One of the ‘army deacons’ on our diaconate committee, Gary Stone (the other is Graeme Ramsden), received a lot of deserved publicity in the press recently for his chaplaincy service to the Australian Federal Police in Phuket, Thailand, in the aftermath of the tsunami catastrophe.

But his identification in the secular media as Fr Gary Stone shows that deacons still have something of an identity problem.

Peter Olsen, however, on the occasion of his ordination, will join 30,000 permanent deacons in the Catholic world, of whom 14,000 are in the United States alone, with another 3000 in formation.

In Australia, the permanent diaconate is still in its infancy. Peter’s ordination is significant for Brisbane in that he is the first of many who will be ordained as deacons in the years to come.

It is anticipated that at least two more of our aspirants/candidates will be ordained before the end of 2005.

Peter’s ordination marks the beginning of something that is destined to become an important part of the life of the Brisbane Church in the not too distant future.

Fr Bill O’Shea is the director of the Diaconate Directorate in Brisbane archdiocese.

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