Called to serve in a different way
— In the first part of a new SCO series, IAN DUNN explores the role of the permanent diaconate in the future of the Church in Scotland—and in the New Evangelisation of the Catholic Faith globally—by speaking to Cardinal Keith O’Brien, Archbishop Mario Conti and Deacon Charles Hendry
many Catholics in parishes across the country will know, members of the permanent diaconate are playing an increasing role in the life of the Faith.
Every priest is a deacon at one stage, but since the Church revived the role of the permanent deacon at the Second Vatican council—and since the Scottish bishops adopted the vocation at the behest of Archbishop Mario Conti, then Bishop of Aberdeen—these men of Faith have re-emerged into the life of the Church.
Today, all eight dioceses in Scotland have active deacons and their numbers are steadily rising, as these men of faith, often married and with considerable life experience take on key miniseries’ within the Church.
As Pope Benedict XVI urges Catholics in the West to embrace the New Evangelisation as a response to the increasingly secular and de-Christianised countries in which we live, many within the Church believe permanent deacons will have a crucial role to play in the future of the Faith.
Cardinal Keith O’Brien, Scotland’s most senior Catholic clergyman, believes in the future of the permanent diaconate.
“I do think permanent deacons will have a key part to play in the New Evangelisation,” Cardinal O’Brien, president of the Bishops’ Conference of Scotland, said. “They are ordained as deacons for the role of being preachers of the Word of God and, as preachers and teachers, they will have a very positive role to play.”
The cardinal, Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh, said that while this role would be crucial it was important to recall that ‘those men who have already applied to become permanent deacons are very fine men who simply are answering the call of Almighty God to be permanent deacons.’
“We should not regard being a deacon as an ‘alternative’ to ordination to the priesthood—but rather it is a very valid part of the Sacrament of Holy Orders—instituted for the specific purposes outlined in the Rite of Ordination and in the Code of Canon law,” he said. “In answering God’s call and in being ordained to the permanent diaconate, they will continue their ministry in their own right—whether or not there is a shortage of ordained priests in our country or in any other country.”
In that special role, the cardinal said Scotland’s permanent deacons had great gifts they could bring to bear for the Faith.
“I know that a number of permanent deacons are of use in various ways at diocesan or even at national level,” he said. “Indeed one of my own permanent deacons has an apostolate in the Scottish Catholic Inter-Diocesan Tribunal— bringing to bear, not only his training as a deacon, but also his life as a married man and father of a family.”
As time goes on the cardinal said, he hoped and believed the permanent diaconate his own archdiocese would ‘continue to help the archdiocesan apostolate in general, having specific roles to play there, as well as helping in the parishes to which they are assigned’ for the ultimate betterment of the diocese.”
That progress of the permanent diaconate in Scotland is a source of pride to a figure who has been instrumental in its re-establishment, Archbishop Conti of Glasgow.
While Bishop of Aberdeen, his was the first diocese to reintroduce deacons and he confesses to being ‘delighted at the progress of the permanent diaconate in Scotland’ since.
Modestly, however, he says that all the bishops of Scotland had a role to play.
“I have to pay tribute to my colleagues at the time who, though not themselves anticipating restoring the permanent diaconate in their respective dioceses, agreed, as they were required to do, to its reintroduction in Scotland so that we might benefit from it in the Diocese of Aberdeen,” he told the SCO. “Over the years one diocese after another has followed suit, learning from the earliest experiences of the value in the pastoral life of the Church, of the permanent diaconate.”
The archbishop’s desire to see the permanent diaconate alive and kicking in Scotland came both from his awareness that the Second Vatican Council had suggested the restoration of the permanent diaconate and from his personal experiences as a parish priest.
“I was a parish priest in Caithness with a whole county as my pastoral responsibility,” he said. “I was fortunate in having some very fine lay persons, particularly at St Anne’s Thurso, where the majority of those who were working at neighbouring Dounreay were housed. There were many there who were well qualified, from skilled metal workers through to chemists and atomic scientists.”
One man in particular stood out, and the archbishop commented that he could be considered one of the ‘proto-deacons’ of Scotland, the Rev Jacques Cooke.
“His colleague, Rev John Futters, located in northern England, enabled me to consider the programme then in operation in the Diocese of Lancaster and through their good offices both Jacques and John undertook their studies and became those first aspirants to the permanent diaconate and the first to exercise that ministry after the years of study which were required of them at great cost to themselves in terms of time and expense,” the archbishop said. ” My expectations were related to the benefit, not only of those studies to their already devoted service within the Church, but their reception of the grace of the sacrament.”
That story indicates that deacons did not return alone to Scotland but rather remerged as part of a wider trend within the broader Church.
“We were not the first to introduce the permanent diaconate—not even in the UK,” Archbishop Conti said. “Perhaps we have helped to forward it within the British Isles. It is significant perhaps that, in latter years, we have taken advantage of a course at Maryvale in Birmingham that recently received from the Holy See recognition as an Ecclesiastical Institute of Religious Sciences. I hope that some of the tasks which we have given to our permanent deacons have demonstrated that their principle ministry is not liturgical but in the practical application of the Gospel, in the fields of charity and pastoral care.”
And the archbishop also believes those deacons who have been ordained in Scotland in recent years will play a key role in the New Evangelistion.
“It is clear that the deacons who have been ordained over these years have already demonstrated their mettle and they are engaged in a whole series of works within their dioceses and parishes which assist in the work of evangelisation,” he said.
“Since some of them have continued to work professionally, they are in contexts and have opportunities which many priests do not have, namely to be, after the example of worker priests in France, ministers of the Gospel, working shoulder to shoulder with others in a secular environment and being able to set them an example of devotion to Christ and providing occasional teaching when their opinions and counsels are required.”
This is a theme that is taken up by Deacon Charles Hendry, of Dunkeld Diocese, and the national director of the permanent diaconate programme in Scotland.
“In the New Evangelisation, deacons can be heavily involved,” he said. “Because many deacons are in employment, they encounter people in the workplace who would not otherwise meet ordained ministers of the Church so it may be that a deacon can make contact with, and evangelise people who would have no other contact with the Church.”
However he believes there is no set path for a deacon to follow to fulfil this mission.
“Every deacon is different,” he said. “They all have their different gifts and talents they bring to the role so there is no one size fits all approach. My philosophy is a simple one: that we are here to be of service to the parish priest and the bishop the best we can.”
For his part, that involves a healthy role in St Peter and Paul’s parish in Dundee where he assists with marriage and baptism preparation, performs a number of baptisms and funerals each year and was recently appointed chaplain to Dundee’s two universities.
He is keen for more Catholic laymen to consider following in his footsteps.
“I think we know now that it is not just becoming a priest or joining a religious order that can be considered a vocation,” he said.
“Marriage is also a vocation for example, so I think we should talk more about vocations to the diaconate particularly when talking to middle aged or older men, so they know there is another way of serving the Church, because planting that seed could make all the difference.”
Such steps may be small but he believes this is a marathon, not a sprint.
“Many Catholics in Scotland will still have never met a deacon or seen one exercising their ministry,” he added. “When I was ordained ten years ago there were 25 deacons in Scotland, now there are 70. That is not huge growth but you don’t want to do things too quickly. It is better to take your time and do things the right way. So that the best way for us to promote the permanent diaconate is to let others see it in action.”
— For further information go online and visit http://www.scotsdeacons.org.uk. Catholic men interested in finding out more about the permanent diaconate should contact their parish priest or diocesan diaconate vocations director in the first instance.
— Pic: Paul McSherry