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Permanent deacons set for higher profile in Australian Church

A FEW years ago, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, through its Committee for Clergy and Religious, requested that national guidelines for the permanent diaconate in Australia be prepared and then submitted to the bishops for their consideration.

It is hoped that this will happen at the bishops’ meeting in May this year.

From December 4-7, the National Deacons’ Conference was held at St Joseph’s Spirituality Centre at Baulkham Hills, Sydney. It was attended by about 40 participants, mostly permanent deacons and men in formation (aspirants) for the diaconate. Many of them were accompanied by their wives.

From Brisbane, I was present as director of the diaconate in the archdiocese, along with Deacon Gary Stone and Peter Olsen, an aspirant for the diaconate.

Marist Father Gerard Moore, who is head of the Department of Liturgy at the Catholic Institute of Sydney, was the facilitator of the conference, which was also attended by Fr Peter Brock, the national director of the Commission for Clergy Life and Ministry.

The keynote speaker was the recently ordained assistant bishop of Sydney, Bishop Anthony Fisher. His excellent and very creative opening address, ‘The Diaconate, Permanent and Transitional, in the Australian Church of the 21st Century’, was well received. His talk was given against a background of frescoes of the famous Florentine artist, Fr Angelico, whose paintings he linked in with what he saw as important aspects of the diaconal ministry.

Among others to address the conference was Fr Peter Williams, who is executive secretary of the National Liturgical Commission. His speech commemorated the 40th anniversary of Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium).

Janiene Wilson, a psychologist, lawyer and pastoral care lecturer at the Catholic Institute of Sydney conducted a session with the wives of deacons and aspirants followed by an open forum attended by all participants (her topic was the role of the spouse in the diaconal ministry).

Fr John Doherty, a canon lawyer, spoke about the relationships between bishops, priests and deacons according to canon law.

Also present was Fr Peter Fitzgerald, who is secretary of the National Council of Priests, and who headed a discussion on a proposal for deacons to become part of the National Council of Priests in Australia (NCP). Although the details have still to be worked out, the motion was carried that deacons should become affiliated with the NCP. Fr Fitzgerald strongly urged such affiliation.

It was thought that this link with the NCP would enhance the profile of the move in Australia to the permanent diaconate as a normal feature of Church life and ministry. That there is such a need cannot be doubted.

There remains among Catholics a substantial degree of opposition to the restoration of the permanent diaconate – first, among priests, for whom the permanent diaconate has not been part of their concept of ordained ministry.

This is not surprising, because the permanent diaconate ‘died out’ in the Church after the first five centuries. It was, however, a feature of the Church in New Testament times, and for several centuries after that. Priests have also heard negative reports about the diaconate from some countries (like the US), where the permanent diaconate was restored soon after Vatican II, in response to the Council’s direction that this form of ordained ministry should be re-activated.

It is thought that the same problems might arise in Australia, where we have lagged in implementing the Second Vatican Council’s recommendation. It is hoped that the national guidelines to be submitted to the bishops will allay such anxieties. We have had the time to learn from the mistakes of others.

Secondly, there is opposition from lay pastoral associates, and from those who aspire to be pastoral associates, who fear that permanent deacons will be preferred to them for such positions in the parish. I believe such anxiety is unfounded, because I hope and believe that bishops will not see this as the role of a deacon. It may happen in isolated cases, but it is not what is envisaged when we look to the ministry of permanent deacons.

Thirdly, there is opposition on the part of many women who see the restored diaconate as a further reinforcement of patriarchal domination in the Church.

Personally, I believe that women should be admitted to the permanent diaconate. There is strong evidence that women were among the deacons in New Testament times and in the early centuries of the Church. This is not Rome’s position at present, but it may happen in the future. In the meantime, I would ask women to try not to let feelings of discrimination colour their assessment of the restored diaconate.

In his opening address to the National Deacons’ Conference, Bishop Anthony Fisher borrowed heavily from the book, Leadership in the Church, by Cardinal Walter Kasper, the president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity at the Vatican. Cardinal Kasper is one of the possibilities (and one of the hopes of many) for election to the papacy after John Paul II.

The first chapter of his book is ‘The Diaconate’, and in future issues of The Catholic Leader, I will summarise and comment on what he has to say about the permanent diaconate.

A large part of the recent National Deacons’ Conference was devoted to a consideration of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference national guidelines for the permanent diaconate in Australia. As of now, these guidelines remain in draft form, and are undergoing revision.

One of the document’s recommendations is that ‘appropriate catechesis should be undertaken to prepare both clergy and laity, so that the diaconate may be more fully understood’.

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