Deacon’s Family Can Model Christian Life
Preaching by a permanent deacon “encompasses many things.” It can be said, for example, that a married permanent deacon “preaches” by the witness of his “marriage and family life,” Bishop Alexander Sample of Marquette, Mich., said in a June 9 pastoral letter titled “The Deacon: Icon of Jesus Christ the Servant.”
A deacon and his wife can serve as a sign to the larger community of what marriage is, the pastoral letter suggests. By facing the demands of marriage and the challenges of daily life with faith, the deacon and his family can strengthen family life in both the church and society.
Bishop Sample said that a married man who wants to enter the permanent diaconate program in the Marquette Diocese needs “the full support of his spouse, who will participate actively in the formation program.”
The diaconate as a form of permanent ministry was restored in the Latin Church after the Second Vatican Council, which took place in the mid-1960s. Today there are more than 16,000 permanent deacons in the United States. They differ from those preparing for ordination to the priesthood, who are ordained to the diaconate for a transitional period prior to their priestly ordination.
“The diaconate is first and foremost completely about service,” Bishop Sample said. Included among those served by deacons would be the poor, the imprisoned, the sick, and those who are abandoned and lonely, he noted.
It is “an essential character of the church” to be the “servant of God and his people,” the bishop observed. “The deacon,” he added, “is an icon of this servanthood in the midst of the church.”
The vast majority of permanent deacons in the U.S. are married men. Over the years, the importance of deacons’ wives has been pointed out many times in discussions among church leaders and deacons themselves. It has been asked how deacons’ wives might participate in their husbands’ educational formation, share in their husbands’ role of service and participate in various activities for deacons.
A broad range of issues related to permanent deacons – the reasons they are ordained, their assignments, their relationships with pastors, their roles in other contexts – are addressed in Bishop Sample’s pastoral letter. Interestingly, at a time when the U.S. Catholic bishops rank marriage among their top priorities, the pastoral letter focuses attention several times on deacons’ wives and families.
Bishop Sample announced, for example, that he is establishing a Permanent Diaconate Screening and Admissions Committee to assist him “in the process of accepting potential candidates” and making recommendations to the bishop about a candidate’s “suitability” to enter the diaconate program. The committee is to include “a permanent deacon’s wife” among its members.
The bishop also made clear that a deacon’s family must be taken into consideration whenever a deacon receives an assignment to “a particular ministry in a parish, mission or on the diocesan level.” When the assignment is made, the bishop said that “a ministry agreement will be drawn up which will outline the expectations of the deacon’s ministry.” The bishop explained:
“The intent of such an agreement is to have a clear and common understanding in writing that becomes a reference point. It seeks to make sure that the deacon is able to balance family, work and his diaconal ministry without unreasonable expectations being placed upon him in ministry. It also seeks to hold the deacon accountable for [his] ministerial obligations.”
Accenting growth in spirituality on the part of a deacon and his wife, Bishop Sample recommended that, when possible, they pray some parts of the church’s official Liturgy of the Hours together. “This prayer of the whole church … like no other … unites all those who love and serve God,” the bishop wrote.
He advised prospective deacons and their wives to “realize, from the outset, how entrance into the order of deacon will lay a holy expectation of spiritual growth on the whole family.”
A man hoping to enter the permanent diaconate “must answer first to God’s call to personal holiness,” the bishop wrote. And if the candidate is married, it needs to be asked whether his wife shares his desire to pursue holiness.
The permanent deacon’s family “will model what a Christian family is” in the heart of the parish, Bishop Sample said. He added, however, that “only God’s help through family prayer, undertaken steadily and daily, can support such a difficult task” in present-day culture.
With that in mind Bishop Sample called upon both the permanent diaconate program and the deacon community “to work with the deacon’s family to clear hurdles to a true Christian family life.”