Blazing a trail for the permanent diaconate
— In the second part of the SCO series, MARTIN DUNLOP talks to two men, who both currently play a pivotal role in the formation of candidates for the permanent diaconate in Scotland, about the formation process and it aims
As Cardinal Keith O’Brien highlighted in the first part of the SCO series on the permanent diaconate, successful candidates will have ‘a key part to play in the New Evangelisation’ in countries with Christian roots, an initiative that Pope Benedict XVI has urged the Catholic Faithful to embrace.
The Scottish bishops, inspired by Archbishop Mario Conti of Glasgow when he was Bishop of Aberdeen, were among the first to recognise and meet the need to have an interdiocesan programme for the permanent diaconate. Their pioneering work in this area led to a groundbreaking national permanent diaconal formation programme that comprehends all the dioceses in Scotland, led by Director of Studies Deacon Tony Schmitz. This has attracted global interest. The academic component is provided through a distance learning degree programme by Maryvale Institute in Birmingham that has also attracted global interest.
Bernard Farrell-Roberts, director of diaconal formation at Maryvale, agrees with Cardinal O’Brien’s words, that permanent deacons have ‘a key part to play in the New Evangelisation,’ and he believes the role of the permanent deacon is ‘to bring the Faithful to the Eucharist and the Word of God—Christ.’
Many Massgoers will, by now, be more familiar with permanent deacons and the developing role they have in the life of the Church. The process of formation of permanent deacons, however, may not be as familiar, something that Deacon Schmitz, director of studies for the permanent diaconate in Scotland, hopes to rectify.
Candidates and formation
Permanent deacons come from all walks of life. Deacon Mario Vannini of Motherwell Diocese, for example, manages to balance his ministry for the Church with his family life and his job as a hospitality teacher at Cardinal Newman High School in Bellshill.
As Deacon Schmitz told the SCO, cases such as Deacon Vannini’s are none too rare in today’s Church.
“We have had a consultation psychologist, a social work director, a bus driver, several teachers and lecturers and a head-teacher over the years,” Deacon Schmitz said.
As parishioners become increasingly aware of the presence and role of permanent deacons, interest in the process candidates go through prior to being ordained into the diaconate is growing.
Deacon Schmitz explained that the formation process for a permanent deacon begins with an enquiry to the applicant’s parish priest or the diocesan diaconate vocations director. At this very early stage, an applicant will give brief personal and family details and a summary of their reasons for their application to join the diaconate.
The vocations director then may make a pre-arranged visit to the enquirer’s home to further discuss the permanent diaconate with the individual and with his wife, if the applicant is married.
It should be noted at this point that although married men can become permanent deacons, a single man that has been ordained as a permanent deacon cannot go on to marry following on from his ordination.
After an interview with the bishop of the diocese, the candidate for the permanent diaconte will then begin his discernment year.
During this year, the candidate will attend three residential weekends, led by Fr Allan Cameron, during which he (and his wife, if married) will receive comprehensive introductions to the diaconate programme.
Deacon Schmitz noted that ‘around 75 per cent’ of applicants who begin the discernment year continue their formation towards ordination to the permanent diaconate.
“The studies are quite demanding,” he said. “The applicants will be thinking thoughts such as: ‘Is my family at the stage where I can commit to this?’”
For applicants that complete their year of discernment, they and their wives will undergo a suitability interview, conducted by the diocesan bishop and his diaconate formation team. Successful applicants will then attend a summer study school programme, which takes place at St Mary’s Monastery, Kinnoull, Perth before beginning a four-year formal course of studies, which begins in September each year.
The four-year course for an applicant to the permanent diaconate includes doctrinal, pastoral, personal, intellectual and spiritual formation. The distance learning programme—run through the Maryvale Institute in Birmingham—is key to the formation of permanent deacons, who are expected to commit 15-20 hours per week to home study and complete a number of written assignments under the guidance of a tutor.
Mr Farrell-Roberts, who has been director of diaconal formation for Maryvale Institute for four years, said that he believes the success of the diaconate formation programme is not just down to ‘the excellent academic resources and methodology we have, but also that we see ourselves as serving the Church in the solid and complete formation of deacons.’
“There is a tremendous need in the Church today for a robust system of diaconal formation that works—more than 50 ordained deacons demonstrate that our programme does,” he said. “All the members of the formation team consider it a privilege to be involved in the formation of these men.”
Deacon Schmitz highlighted that, in addition to the completion of his studies, the candidate is expected to participate fully in the liturgical and parish life of his local church, and also noted that Pope Benedict XVI has said he is an enthusiast for the permanent diaconate—‘because it seems to me that it enhances the riches of the Church’s sacramental ministry. At the same time, it can also serve as a link between the secular world, the professional world and the world of priestly ministry, since many deacons continue to carry out their professions and keep their posts—both important and simple position.’ The Holy Father also values the permanent deacon’s great flexibility and the variety of things they are able to do’ in Church life. This variety of tasks is reflected in a permanent deacon’s training and formation, and prospective deacons are made aware of the areas they may be asked to work in, be it a parish role, Catechesis, RCIA, working in prisons, hospitals, or even as the chancellor of a diocese or working with the Armed Services.
Blazing a trail
Deacon Schmitz said that he is hopeful that six applicants will begin their studies for the diaconate this summer. There are currently seven candidates in their final year, soon to be ordained as permanent deacons.
Among these seven candidates is a trainee deacon from Gibraltar and one from northern England, which is testament to the strength of the Scottish study programme and how well it is perceived, even as far afield as Australia and the US, as Deacon Schmitz revealed.
“We had four academics from Minnesota in the US attend our last residential programme in March this year,” he said. “They were interested in our distance learning programme and wanted to see how it works.
“An Australian priest, appointed to take charge of the permanent diaconate programme in Brisbane, has also visited me and asked us about our programme.”
As the role and duties of a permanent deacon grow, so too does the need for his training and formation to be adapted.
Mr Farrell-Roberts explained some of the changes that have taken place to the training programme since permanent deacons were introduced in the Scottish parishes.
“At first the dioceses ran their own programmes, as they did in England and many other parts of the world,” he said. “The problem with this was that the dioceses had to make use of the resources and funding available to them at any moment of time. This resulted in a very uneven level of formation.
“The Scottish Bishops were the first to recognise the need to have an interdiocesan programme where they joined their resources together, and gained the resultant savings in costs. This led to the formation of the Scottish programme, with Maryvale being brought in to ensure a consistent level of professional higher educational teaching, methodology and materials. The same pattern took place in England leading to the launch of the complete Maryvale Formation programme three years ago.”
He further explained the role of the permanent diaconate in New Evangelisation.
“[Christ] is the essential link that the New Evangelisation requires to bring people from one of the deacon’s ‘locations’—local society—the other—the Church,” he said. “This role can only come about if the deacon has a full knowledge of his Faith and has given himself to God, immersing himself in God’s love.
“He is then able to pass this on to others. The prime targets I believe of the formation programme are: to enable the deacons to carry out their ordination promise to faithfully teach the teachings of the Church as taught by the Church; to help form deacons who are able to give themselves fully to God, and therefore become servants as Christ is servant, reflecting His love; and to enable the deacons to be able to fully carry out the three ministries of the deacon: on the sanctuary in their liturgical function, in their teaching and preaching as they catechise and bring the Word of God to others, and in their loving service of charity to all, as they attract others to God.”
The training for a permanent deacon does not stop following his ordination, however, as there is a national programme of ongoing formation for all deacons in Scotland, which includes two overnight events and a weekend retreat each year.
In recent years, several deacons, with the support of their bishops, have also chosen to continue their formal study for a year after ordination in order to complete the degree of BA in applied theology (diaconal ministry.)
The formation programme for permanent deacons in Scotland, is, perhaps, most aptly summed up on the Scots Deacons website (address below) with the statement: “All who have participated in the diaconal training period would readily agree that it has been a great stimulus in both their spiritual and sacramental lives.”
—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.
—Deacon Schmitz will be speaking on The Permanent Diaconate: A Partnership in Ministry on June 13 at the 50th International Eucharistic Congress in Dublin. http://www.iec2012.ie/index.jsp?p=108&n=144&a=2121
Pic: Paul McSherry