What about the Wives?
Distinguishing the roles of a deacon wife
“Just tell me what I have to do, and I’ll do it!” In my experience with wives of men in formation for the diaconate, one thing women consistently find frustrating is the lack of a clear definition of the role of a deacon’s wife.
Women are generally accustomed to shouldering the responsibility for innumerable details within our families and often in our jobs as well. We make lists and check things off. When we finish tasks, we experience (however short-lived) a sense of accomplishment.
But in this lifelong journey with our husbands’ call to holy orders, we may seldom check something off the list and say, “Okay, did that, now it’s time to move on to the next project.”
Spiritual formation operates in another realm. There is neither graduation nor a diploma.
Formation does not end the day a man is ordained. Instead, the prescribed part of formation specified by the Church is designed to equip both of us with the tools we need to continue growing in our formation as a deacon couple.
The Gift of Self
The one thing required of us, as wives of deacons, is also required of every authentic disciple of Christ: a generous gift of self. Far from being a one-time gift, it is a gift we offer anew each morning and at dozens of inconspicuous moments throughout the day. It might come in the form of a smile and a willing heart when our husband once again interrupts what we are doing to ask if we are ready to pray vespers. It might be mustering up creativity and enthusiasm to help our daughter plan a private dance recital for her deacon father who has to miss her class recital due to a ministry commitment. It could be spending some quiet moments in the adoration chapel or being present to a lonely parishioner before or after a Mass while we wait for our husband.
Rooted in Christ, from a place of security in him, we can refuse to allow the enemy of our souls to confine our vision to two narrow choices of either diaconal service or family life. Instead, we are open to a generous new way of living, one in which we embrace both our husband’s vocation as a deacon and our call to the sacrament of marriage and family life.
Church documents provide very few, and rather general, answers to the question of what constitutes the deacon’s wife’s role. As wives who are concerned with the practical stuff of everyday life, we may find these answers unsatisfying and respond with more questions. Who’s judging whether or not I’m a good enough Catholic wife and mother? How good is good enough? Does supporting my husband mean never complaining about anything in the diaconate community or the Church? How many meetings can I miss and still be counted as supportive or actively involved? Who’s going to know whether or not I’m honest in my communication with my husband?
Such questions may arise from a flawed “performance perspective.” Even though we know it’s not the same, we tend to approach diaconal formation and diaconal service as if the bishop were an academic dean with the power to grant degrees to students who meet his rigorous requirements and withhold diplomas from those who fail to meet the standards.
But the bishop is not an academic dean, and the Church is not an institution of higher learning. He is Christ’s own representative, tasked with prayerful discernment regarding which men are called to service as priests and deacons.
Our hypothetical questions also fail to consider the true nature of our relationship with Christ and the Church he founded. The Church is our mother, and we are her children. It’s a deeply intimate and personal relationship; a love relationship. Holy Mother Church wants to look after all her sons and daughters. She wants to lead both men and women on the path that will lead us to the very heart of the Blessed Trinity where we can enjoy forever the Love That Never Ends. She is a sheltering, nurturing mother, never imposing impossible demands. She does not abandon us but gives us everything we need to succeed in what she asks.
The Church never fails to nourish her children. Parishes and Catholic apostolates provide many opportunities for us to find food for our souls. Holy Mass, spiritual reading, adoration, Bible studies and retreats are readily available to those who seek. If we simply “come to the table” we will find food and healing for our souls.
We’re instructed that a deacon’s wife is to be the best Catholic wife she can be, living an exemplary marriage in this age when the witness to married life is crucial. Such advice is probably meant to inspire; however, it is so broad that it’s difficult to know where to begin in practical application.
Let us consider the above recommendation in light of the only verse in sacred Scripture that addresses women in the context of requirements for deacons. This short verse is particularly helpful because it outlines definite characteristics to which wives can aspire and behaviors we can avoid: “Women, similarly, should be dignified, not slanderers, but temperate and faithful in everything” (1 Tm 3:11).
The dignity mentioned here is that which is conferred on us at our baptism. It’s the dignity of God’s own daughter who has received the gifts of faith, hope and love and lives in light of the gifts she has received. When we know to whom we belong, we respect ourselves and call forth respect from others in a way that can rightly be called dignified.
Dignity shines on the face of a woman who prays faithfully, who lives with the certain hope that her life matters and who chooses to love, especially amid difficult circumstances. She knows both her own poverty and Christ’s abundant supply. Her dignity is in Christ, and owning that dignity eliminates the temptation to slander. When we know our own value, we are not threatened by what others think, say or do and are more likely to say things that build up rather than using words to tear down the reputations of others.
Temperance and faithfulness are specific virtues we can study and put into practice no matter the circumstances in which we live. Temperance and faithfulness, like all virtues, flow naturally from ongoing intimacy with Christ. When we put into practice what we learn from this verse, we will not have to wonder whether we measure up to the Church’s expectations.
We also hear often that wives are to support their husbands in the discernment process. Formally, this requirement is met through a handwritten letter to the bishop at various stages of formation. The Church has a profound respect for the many distinct personalities and family relationships who respond to the call to diaconal life. Families thrive best when not hampered by detailed requirements that could never be applied equally to every household.
It is her wisdom that keeps the Church from spelling out exactly what the wife must do to show her support for her husband. Each wife is to bring her whole self to her marriage and family, honestly sharing the needs and priorities in her unique family and circumstances. It’s important to address even small concerns during formation since after ordination husband and wife must continue to work together to integrate his diaconal vocation with the sacrament of marriage and family life.
It’s not always easy to speak honestly, especially about any inconsistencies we see between our husband’s words and actions. It can also be challenging to simply listen. But if we are to make a generous gift of self, we must continue to grow in our ability to communicate honestly about the decisions that affect our family and our service to the Church.
On the day of his ordination, each of our husbands experiences an ontological change — a change in his very nature by which he becomes conformed in some measure to Christ the Servant amid the Church.
I fully expected my husband, at his ordination, to receive supernatural graces to help him live his vocation, but I was surprised by the graces I received. When the bishop laid his hands on my husband’s head, I knew with certainty that the Holy Spirit was doing something in me too. In the weeks that followed, I became aware of a new generosity that manifested itself in a willingness to share both the gift of my husband and my own gifts with the Church.
As we continue our diaconal journey, gradually our husbands will grow more and more open to being conformed to Christ the Servant. Even after their ordination, this growth continues.
What about us wives? Are we willing to keep growing too? Each time we give our wholehearted “yes,” our heart expands a little more to receive the graces for the next step in our journey.
LANI DALE BOGART enjoys accompanying and mentoring women whose husbands are aspirants or candidates in diaconate formation. She holds a Master of Arts in Theology and Christian Ministry and writes regularly for the Catechetical Review. Her husband, Deacon Doug Bogart, is a formator of deacons for the Diocese of Phoenix.
Can There Be a More Clearly Defined Role of the Wife of a Deacon?
In Church Life Journal, a journal of the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame, Christopher Gruslin wrote a thesis published Dec. 5, 2016, about the role of a deacon’s wife in the Catholic Church.
He begins, “The identity of the wife of the permanent deacon exists in a uniquely uncharacterized, uncategorized reality. Examining both universal and national declarations and norms only validates the difficulty of finding any substantive (certainly, any consistent) theological understanding of this most particular relationship between marriage and holy orders, wife and husband.”
He adds: “Whereas the husband in this marriage is ontologically changed by the Sacrament of Holy Orders, which confers upon him ‘an imprint that cannot be removed and configures [him] to Christ, who made himself the “deacon or servant of all”’ (CCC No.1570), the wife in this marriage does not in any capacity participate in this particular sacramental characterization. Even as husband and wife ‘are no longer two, but one flesh,’ (Mt 19:6, NRSV) there clearly remains, by means of the husband’s ontological change and specifically ordered diakonia as a cleric whose service is ‘of the liturgy, the Gospel, and works of charity,’ a distinction — a demarcation — that exists within this otherwise unified bond, this one dignified state of sacramental Marriage (cf. CCC Nos. 1588, 1638).”
Gruslin advocates for a more substantive and authentic ecclesial definition of the role and identity of the wife of the permanent deacon.