How Pope Francis’ remarks to Rome’s deacons are pertinent to all deacons
Despite the distance we might think exists between the pope and the deacon, Pope Francis’ June 19, 2021, remarks to the deacons of Rome were remarkably germane to our own concerns here. The pope is attuned to the life of a deacon, his family, his parish and his ministry.
Although I encourage you to read the complete text at the Vatican website, I offer here a few items that struck me. Moreover, I believe the pope’s vision is a standard against which we can measure ourselves.
Custodians of Service
First, the pope spoke of the diaconate leading us “to the center of the mystery of the Church.” That breathtaking assertion is amplified by the suggestion that the Church think of itself as being “a constitutively diaconal Church” — that is, service is the heart of the Church, and deacons are the custodians of service in the Church.
Second, note that the pope is attuned to the tension between the deacon’s “ordinary” duties and those to which he might be called because of the decrease in the number of priests. The deacons become substitutes for the priests in some tasks, which, “however important, do not constitute the specific nature of the diaconate. They are substitute tasks.” Were it possible, it would be preferable for the deacon to be “dedicated to duties of charity and of administration” (Lumen Gentium, No. 29). Deacons are not to “be ‘half-priests’ or second-rate priests, nor will they be ‘special altar boys.’”
What does the pope expect of deacons?
• “Firstly, I expect you to be humble.”
• “Secondly, I expect you to be good spouses and good fathers. And good grandparents.”
• “Thirdly, I expect you to be sentinels … to help the Christian community to recognize Jesus in the poor and the distant.”
And, lest we think the pope is speaking only to Roman circumstances, we hear the pope say, for all deacons: “Whatever the need, see the Lord. So you, too, recognize the Lord when, in so many of his smaller brothers and sisters, he asks to be fed, to be welcomed and loved. I would like this to be the profile of the deacons of Rome and of the whole world. Work on this.”
Now, viewing the pope’s challenge from the perspective not as an individual deacon but as the director of deacon personnel (here in Chicago, known as “the vicar for deacons”), I ask you, how does your (arch)diocese’s diaconate measure up to the pope’s challenge? How does the Archdiocese of Chicago? I can offer some thoughts as to where we are. Please, eschew our errors and, if it is helpful, embrace what might work for you to serve your people.
In Chicago, the journey to ordination is by way of the University of St. Mary of the Lake. All preordination formation is accomplished by the university’s Institute for Diaconal Studies and the Instituto de Liderazgo Pastoral.
From the moment of ordination on, the Office of the Diaconate takes on the responsibility of formation for all deacons, whether newly ordained or longer in service. What is important to note is that for all formation endeavors of the diaconate office, we organize everything in recognition of the four elements of formation noted in the National Directory for the Formation, Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons in the United States. All programming looks to deepen formation in the human, the intellectual, the spiritual and the ministerial dimensions.
Even as we come together for several community events, we situate them within the context of the four formation elements. Gathering as deacons and wives, even at a purely social event, such as a community dinner, brings us to reflect on the gift that is the diaconate. We celebrate St. Lawrence, St. Francis and St. Stephen together and do so with, variously, Mass, banquets, convocations and symposia. We witness publicly against street violence with an initiative of the Black deacons — the popular August Sunrise Prayer Service and Mass on the beach at Lake Michigan. The Spanish-speaking deacons and wives gather monthly for education and solidarity.
The archdiocese is blessed to have its own retreat center, and, accordingly, we are able to sponsor nine or ten retreats annually. There are four in Spanish for deacons and wives; four in English for deacons and wives; one or two for deacons only; and a retreat for the wives and widows.
Serving as something of a “diaconate senate,” Chicago’s diaconate is ably assisted by its Diaconate Council. This body of about 50 deacons, with representation for the wives as well, serves as a vital part of the communication — in both directions — between the diaconate office and the community. Moreover, the council, through its fundraising efforts, helps support our educational activities and, importantly, the diaconate’s favored charities.
Thus we can count on the council to represent us well as they make grants to charities, typically staffed or animated by deacons, in the areas of homelessness, the incarcerated, mental illness, men in transition from homelessness, men living on the streets, disadvantaged youth in Central and South America, and assistance to diaconate ministry in Mexico and Guatemala.
Changes in diaconate parish assignments these days are occurring because of the Archdiocese’s Renew My Church project which is fundamentally realigning and reconfiguring the parish landscape. Yes, that means that some parishes are united with other parishes; some buildings are closed and sold. As parishes merge and realign, deacons often find themselves as signs of continuity for the parishioners. With mergers, pastors are often reassigned and the people can feel bereft with the transitions.
It is the expectation that the deacon remains in place for a period of time (right now, we are saying a minimum of six months) to accompany the parishioners with the new reality. Six months is, admittedly, not a long time. However, given the fact that the realignment process takes months before the final implementation date, the parishioners are attuned to the fact that things are changing.
Returning again to Pope Francis’ remarks, we see “the diaconate … leads us to the center of the mystery of the Church,” and “we should speak of a ‘constitutively diaconal Church.’” If the diaconate leads to the center, each deacon must be on his game.
To be fully formed, we pursue learning skills of doing the tasks assigned (the ministerial pillar). We ground everything in prayer (the spiritual pillar). We have to be, among other attributes the pope requires, men of humility (a dimension of the human pillar). Finally, out of love for those whom we serve, those whom Jesus first loved, deacons will want to pass on the wealth of the Tradition and the wisdom of the Church (and we need to know what we are talking about — the intellectual pillar).
Service as a deacon, who is often a husband and father and a worker, can take on a thousand different looks. At Chicago’s Office of the Diaconate, we endeavor to have the work that we do for the deacons be a part of how the deacons, aided by their wives, their families, their parishioners and their bishops, become ready to fulfill those expectations articulated by Pope Francis. No doubt that is the case throughout the United States.
DEACON RICHARD F. HUDZIK, D.Min., is Vicar for Deacons for the Archdiocese of Chicago, a husband, father, grandfather, YouTuber (“Handing on the Faith”) and former attorney.
A Diaconal Church
Pope Francis spoke of a “constitutively diaconal Church” in an address to deacons on June 19. He explained; “If we do not live this dimension of service, every ministry is emptied from within, it becomes sterile, it does not bear fruit. And little by little it becomes worldly. Deacons remind the Church that what St. Theresa discovered is true: the Church has a heart inflamed by love. Yes, a humble heart throbbing with service. Deacons remind us of this when, like the deacon St. Francis, they bring God’s closeness to others without imposing themselves, serving with humility and joy. The generosity of a deacon who gives of himself without seeking the front ranks has about him the perfume of the Gospel, he tells of the greatness of God’s humility in taking the first step — always, God always takes the first step — to meet even those who have turned their backs on him.”