Deacons: clericalised laymen?

Oct 2, 2018 | 21 comments

Down and Connor diocese will very soon have its first group of nine Permanent Deacons and already the process of their being clericalised has begun, in spite of Pope Francis decrying clericalism in the Catholic Church!

One wonders why all the deacons are men. There is now good evidence that the early diaconate had both men and women. Why a long period of discernment and long period of intense training for a role that any lay person can currently perform (except preach during Mass) – and many do, with little or no training? When I was appointed Reader and later an Extraordinary Minister of the Eucharist absolutely no training was given, no prior explanation was given to the local congregation and no leaflet from the bishop by way of explanation. After such a long period of discernment and training why were these men not ordained as married priests rather than deacons?

Last Sunday a professionally designed and produced leaflet from the bishop was distributed to the congregation which was then read out by the presiding priest in place of the sermon. One of the tasks listed for the new deacon was The Ministry of the Altar, when the deacon would assist the priest at the altar during Mass and distribute Holy Communion, as well as distributing Holy Communion in hospitals and in the homes of the sick, housebound and the dying. Why does he act as a glorified altar server, all dressed up in dalmatic vestments standing next to the priest at the altar as if it was a concelebrated Mass, other than clericalising him in the eyes of the congregation. The wearing of black suits and Roman collars helps reinforce that clericalisation. Why is he distributing Eucharist at Mass, in hospitals and in homes when that is already being done by lay people?

Instead of laicising the clergy the Church now engages in clericalising the laity!

The parish bulletin informed us that a reception was being planned for the new deacon after his first Mass officiating as a permanent deacon. Interestingly, when Readers of the Word and Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist are commissioned not a word is said to the congregations and certainly no ‘celebration’ has ever been organised by the parish to welcome them to their new role.

The Deacon: What need is he fulfilling?

None of this diminishes my admiration for the individual Permanent Deacons, for the long time they have spent in discernment and training, for the ongoing support of their wives and families and for the service they have volunteered to offer to their local parish communities. My worry is about increased clericalisation. My query is about how their presence solves the urgent problem of the increasing absence of Sunday Mass due to an ever decreasing number of priests, why the permanent deacons are being clericalised by standing beside the priest at the altar in full diaconate vestments during Mass as if they were concelebrating, why the black suits and Roman collars and why are they distributing Eucharist at Mass when that is already being done by lay people.

The New Testament makes clear that the diaconate was instituted to serve the needs of the poor, a role now performed very adequately in almost all parishes by the lay Society of St. Vincent de Paul. What is badly needed in parishes is a good number of well trained laity to lead programmes of adult catechesis and scriptural spirituality. These programmes will be deeply informed by the spirit of the Second Vatican Council and lead to parishioners seeing their baptismal role as being active apostles for Jesus the Christ and the spread of His Kingdom on earth, for which they are fed and strengthened by Eucharist and encouraged by their parish community.

Aidan Hart, Oct 2nd, 2018


  1. Martin Murray

    I have to stand with you on this one Aidan. Any hesitation to do so stems only from my respect for the deacons themselves. I wish them well and hope they are not treated as cheap labour mopping up the loose ends or less pleasant aspects of parish ministry.

    The danger lies in the fact that we are so desperate for reform in the church that we may be sleepwalking into accepting the introduction of another stratum of clerical ministry as the best or only strategy for the future. There is also the suspicion that it is a way of maintaining the old hierarchical system of authority and control that has outlived it’s usefulness and is unfit for purpose. In other words, business as usual.

    If it does have merit, it probably lies in allowing the punters in the pews to get used to married men in clerical garb leading and preaching. A first step in achieving acceptance for married priests.

    But of course as you point out it does nothing to address the gender issue. On the contrary, by restricting it to males, the introduction of the permanent diaconate may well given both patriarchy and clericalism a shot in the arm.

    Time will tell if this is a positive or negative development.

  2. Martin Murray

    One also has to wonder if the disproportionate amount of both training and celebration that you point out serves only to widen the gap between clerics and laity rather than narrow it, giving continuing credibility to the dangerous notion of ontological difference between us.

  3. Mary Vallely

    There is no doubt that the creation of the Permanent Diaconate has just given us another level of clericalism with fewer fine garments, mind you. Ironic, isn’t it, just when Pope Francis has warned us of the dangers of the disease of clericalism too!
    Armagh diocese ( ok, archdiocese to be precise) has had two separate PD ordinations so there are now about 10 PDs working in the diocese. Like Martin, I won’t take away from the genuine commitment and sincerity of these men. I know two of them well and they are good men. However I refused to attend the ordinations as the whole idea of another male layer of authority in the Church fills me with anger. The training is very rigorous and I am aware of the cost to the men in terms of work load and stress. The fact that the wives must be totally supportive is an added strain. They must be unquestioning Catholics. Thank God my husband has no such yearning as he would never stand a chance with his non- passive wife!
    I watched some of the ceremony on the cathedral webcam and was perplexed as to why the widower among the five last men to be ordained had to promise the Archbishop before the altar never to remarry. Deep down I wondered at the reasons…. and am reluctant to express my real thinking here. Chauvinistic in the extreme I believe.
    I concur with both Aidan’s and Martin’s misgivings and share their anger at why women are shut out from this ministry. ( never mind those devoted religious sisters who have pledged their lives to serving God ). I watch with astonishment sometimes at how the deacon can appear to take over from the priest on the altar. The deacon must read the Gospel, must give the homily and must dismiss the congregation. I believe that this can cause tensions between some ordained and their deacons and lead to unhealthy feelings. I just cannot support the idea of permanent deacons in its present form and it is yet another snub to the Phoebes in the congregation.

    • Aidan

      Mary,women may not only have been cut out of the Permanent Diaconate but, if those deacons take over the running of the Celebration of the Word and Communion on Sundays when a priest is not available to say Mass, they will also be cut out of that ministry. Celebrations of the Word and Communion should be run by the current female and male Ministers of the Word (sometimes called Readers), with a little extra training (a role for the new PD?) and guidance from diocesan-prepared booklets. That would help underline to the congregation the ‘priesthood of all Christians’ and that a Roman collar is not required to lead the parish in proclaiming the scriptural Word of God and leading them in prayer on a Sunday or any other day of the week.
      Here is an example of a service for the Celebration of the Word and Communion, prepared in 2013 by the Bishops Conference for England and Wales, with lay men and women in mind for leading the services;

      It is interesting that the English and Welsh bishops in 2013 allow the lay person leading such a Sunday service to give a reflection (sermon?) on the Sunday Bible readings.

  4. soconaill

    Well said, Aidan. Clericalism is essentially a view of the church as a support system for clergy, the ‘stars’ of the ecclesial buildings within which they ‘perform’. It views the ‘merely baptised’ primarily as ‘audience’ for and dependents of clergy, and frowns on them becoming active ‘on stage’. The diaconate will emphasise the clear difference between clergy and people and keep ‘the laity’ in their pews, while preserving the superiority of the truly elect celibate priest.

    Even more tragically it will postpone ‘the field hospital’ – the church’s transformation into an outward-focused community, sensitively compassionate toward the socially powerless and therefore socially transformative also.

    One of the Down and Connor deacons addressed the St Malachy’s (Coleraine) congregation last Sunday to ask for prayers and to assure us that by our baptism we are ALL priests and deacons. What that might qualify and call us to do – apart from just turn up in church to hear this – is to remain a mystery in perpetuity.

    I have had enough of this, and will no longer give financial support to a clerical system that will never rise to the challenge of realising the role of the baptised Christian in the world outside. I belong to the Catholic diaspora now, in search of others equally alienated. The Irish Catholic clerical system will never change so long as it is confirmed in its own complacency and aloofness, rather than allowed to decay as soon as possible to a point of such weakness that it will have no option but to wise up.

    • Aidan Hart

      Sean, your struggle applies to all of us. When faced with the moral corruption scandal of so many priests, bishops and Cardinals around the world and clericalism everywhere, emanating mostly from the Vatican and spreading down to most parishes, we are faced with the question – why or how can I still belong to this organisation?
      For myself, I’m rescued by the Old Testament. God physically rescued the Israelites from degrading slavery in Egypt and made them his ‘special’ people to prepare the world for the coming of His Messiah. They hadn’t got to the land God had promised them before they began to rebel against God. Throughout their long history they were constantly misled by the temple priesthood and lay professional prophets who fashioned their religion to suit themselves. The Old Testament is a long story of God’s faithful promise and humanity’s constant ingratitude and unfaithfulness. When you have time read:

      Jeremiah 5:31- 31, 6:13 ff, Jeremiah 6:13, Jeremiah 23:11, Lamentations 4:13, Ezekiel 22:26ff, Hosea 6:9 and Zephaniah 3:3-4. And it was not just the priests and prophets who corrupted their religion but also many of the lay people.

      Jesus repeated the same condemnations and yet talked about the Jerusalem temple being “His Father’s house”.

      There is the dilemma and also the answer, at least for me. I see my Catholic religion as both corrupt and ‘my Father’s house’. I’m not saying that the ‘Father’s house’ is only for Catholics. Jesus has told us that the Father’s House “has many rooms” ( John 14:2), but it is ‘the Father’s house’ for me. It is the part of God’s ‘House’ I was baptised into, am constantly fed by ‘Eucharist’ and Sacred Scripture and the one in which I am called to grow and bear witness to its inner faith in Jesus the Messiah and His Kingdom.

      Grow and bloom where you were planted!

      When the outwardness of religion becomes the end rather than the means and replaces inner faith, trust and love in Jesus the Christ, which it should serve, when privatised and individualised religion replace supportive community and witness to God’s Kingdom, then corruption and clericalism eventually arise, made easy in the absence of open accountability and local synods which include female and male laity.

      Our role as laity is to use the blessing of the ACI website, in its articles and responses and links to other such sites, to fight for the above; in the stark words of Ephesians 5:11-20 “Try to discover what God wants from you, take no part in the futile works of darkness but, on the contrary, show them up for what they are.”

      (My apologies for the length and preachiness of this response but it is from the heart.)

  5. Martin Murray

    Neither can I see how the permanent diaconate contributes anything to the move towards the synodal model of church envisaged so long ago by Vatican II and more recently by Pope Francis.

  6. Anthony Neville

    The description of the activities of the deacons is indeed worrying. I have not had the experience of seeing one in action. It is pointless if they are just going to take over the functions of the laity. We had no Mass for two weeks recently but had prayer service with Holy Communion each day, conducted mainly by women, without any direction, training or guidance from diocese or clergy.

    For Mary’s information, it was not just the widower who had to promise not to re-marry, I understand married candidates have to promise to remain celibate if their spouse dies.

    • Eddie Finnegan

      And – Mary, Anthony and Aidan – if a PD’s long-suffering or passive spouse sooner or later catches herself on and leaves her clericalized hubby, what becomes of his permanent diaconate status? Or should he just man up and take the blame?

  7. Mary Vallely

    Eddie, this is where a little flexibility, common sense, compassion, tolerance and understanding come into play. It’s a very tall order I think for any wife to bend her will totally to her husband’s desire to follow the rigid code of the PD. I don’t see why the PD whose wife decided she could no longer stay devotedly by his side should be punished by having to step down from his post.
    After all the Church has long turned a blind eye to many clerical indiscretions although the abuse of children and vulnerable adults is something for which there should be no tolerance shown at all.
    To me the PD being restricted to married men of a certain age ( who must never remarry if widowed ) is a ridiculous rule showing the deeply ingrained misogynistic attitudes in the RCC. Then again, I would say that, wouldn’t I, being a mere Mary!


    Jesus asks whether there is faith on earth, not whether women have been ordained (Lk 18,8). The Church needs to get over and beyond fussing and clucking over this issue to work at what we could accomplish for “faith on earth” with the grace of the Holy Spirit, ordained deacons, priests, bishops, popes and women!

    • Martin Murray

      “Fussing and clucking”. Interesting choice of words Jerome. Despite the misogynist tone, what you say might be fair enough if it weren’t for the fact that all decision making is held within the ranks of the male celibate ordained. No wonder the church is dysfunctional.

    • Aidan Hart

      Jerome, with respect I would say to you that Sacred Scripture never sees faith in isolation from the rest of our lives. Faith built upon injustices to the laity, and to women in particular, is more about the human aspects of dysfunctional ‘religion’ (as Martin says) than about faith emanating as a supreme gift from God; there is a big difference between these two concepts. Some of the Old Testament prophets were very strong in their condemnation of social injustices being practised and tolerated in Israel at that time.

  9. Michael Patrick McDonald

    I am a diaconate candidate in my 5th year of training. God willing, my ordination will be this fall. I live in the USA. Candidates who have a college degree seek a Master’s degree in Theology. Keep in mind that priests usually have or seek a doctorate in divinity. There are Four Pillars of Formation: human, spiritual, theological and pastoral. You may say that a layperson has at least some knowledge of these four pillars. But I can assure you that lay persons DO NOT have these skills, that are learned, the same as the trained deacon. The Human pillar develops the personality so that it is a bridge and not an obstacle in helping others encounter Christ. The Spiritual pillar establishes and nurtures the practices that advance our personal relationship with Christ and our commitment to the Church and its mission in the world. The Theological pillar intensifies our knowledge of the faith, tradition and the doctrine of the Church, through intensive, systematic study. The Pastoral pillar develops our capacity for ministry to others, witnessing the Gospel to all, especially the poor, needy and those on the fringe of society.
    The most difficult pillar for me to learn is the Pastoral pillar. In that, I have learned to council grieving parishioner at a wake service or conduct a graveside service. That is something lay people are not trained to do.
    As far as the appearance at mass, notice how the deacon stands a few feet back from the priest at the alter, similar to the way a server would stand away from the table at a restaurant. That’s because the deacon is the head waiter, not the celebrant or co-celebrant. Also, in the USA deacons in most diocese are not permitted to wear the roman collar. Many bishops wish to avoid the appearance of clericalism. Instead, many deacons wear a deacons cross, either as a pin or embroidered emblem, to show that they are a deacon.

    • Aidan Hart

      Thank you Michael for that full and helpful explanation of your training as a Permanent Deacon in America.

      As I said in the above article, I have great admiration for the individual permanent deacons who go through that long training to be more effective and committed servants of Jesus the Christ in their parish community.

      However, nothing you said takes away from my main point that Permanent Deacons are doing nothing that a lay person could not do and, with adequate training (in terms of months and certainly not years), could do just as well. It seems to me that the PDs are as over-trained for their role as current lay ministers of the Word and Eucharist and lay members, both male and female, of various parish apostolic ministries such as the St. Vincent de Paul, Legion of Mary, Scripture Study, Choir etc, are under-trained and un-commissioned in most Catholic parishes in Ireland and throughout the UK. Also, my argument is that the current crisis-need is not for clericalised Ministers of the Word and Eucharist (i.e. Permanent Deacons) but for ordained priests, married or celibate, to celebrate Sunday Eucharist and for appropriate selection (male and female), training and commissioning for all lay ministries.

      My sincere apologies Michael if any of that gives the impression of belittling your commitment and strong sense of dedication to apostolic ministry. That is certainly not my intention. Best wishes for your continued study and eventual ordination as a Permanent Deacon.

    • Deacon Joe Kralik

      Michael, Hopefully, since your writing of this post, you have been ordained. I too am an ordained deacon in the USA and I appreciate your insight into the diaconate formation. But to clarify one of the statements that Mr. Hart made, the diaconate program is not training, it is formation. It is a calling that is discerned by both the candidate and the diocese until the day of ordination. Just because a man performs well on a few tests does not guarantee that he will be ordained. Even in my class, there were two men who the diocese discerned out of the program months before ordination, which was over six years since they began their discernment process. It’s not like a degree in the sense of graduation after you’ve completed the 5-7 years of formation. No, it’s a discernment to ensure that the calling is genuine and that a man’s heart if formed to serve God in the capacity of ordained ministry.

      The one thing that seems to be missing in this piece is the history of the permanent diaconate. While the permanent diaconate was dormant for a few hundred years, its roots go back to the Acts of the Apostles and the seven men who were ordained in the first century. Stephen, one of the first deacons, was stoned to death for preaching the Gospel.
      Some well-known saints who were deacons include St. Francis of Assisi and Pope St. Gregory the Great, a Doctor of the Church. Yes, they were deacons and not priests! The permanent diaconate is nothing new. But just like so many other aspects of our faith, there is a lack of knowledge and understanding of the diaconate, permanent and transitional, that many of the laity simply don’t understand.
      A few facts for the laity to consider:
      – There are two types of deacons, permanent and transitional
      – All priests are ordained transitional deacons one year before being ordained a priest
      – Both transitional and permanent deacons receive the Sacrament of Holy Orders
      – Both transitional and permanent deacons are clergy and the Rite of ordination is identical
      – Bishops often wear a dalmatic under their chasuble to embrace their ministry of service that is rooted in their diaconate ordination
      – The faculties that a deacon has are similar to that of a priest, with the exception of not having the faculties to say Mass (consecrate the host) and hear confessions (Sacrament of the Sick and Sacrament of Penance)
      – The deacon’s role at Mass is to proclaim the Gospel, even if the Pope is celebrating the Mass. When a deacon is present at Mass, they are to read the prayers of the faithful, they are the minister of the cup, they are an ordinary minister of the Eucharist and, as such, an extraordinary minister should not take their place, and deacons have the faculties to purify the sacred vessels. Purifying Sacred Vessels may only be done by priests, deacons, and instituted acolytes.
      – The deacon can baptize (laity can only baptize in an emergency when death is immanent), preaches, presides at Funeral Liturgies Outside of Mass, and can receive marriage vows, generally outside of Mass, but there are certain circumstances where they can receive permission to receive marriage vows within a Mass.
      – The priest is ordained as Christ the head, in persona Christi capitas
      – The deacon is ordained as Christ the servant, in persona Christi servi
      – These are two separate ministries with unique callings.
      – The permanent deacon has two ministries:
      – The Ministry of Sacrament and the Ministry of Word
      – The Ministry of Service and Charity

      A good place for the laity to start understanding this is in the GIRM; General Instruction of the Roman Missal. This will explain the role of the deacon. The GIRM also clarifies such items as the Orans position, which many Catholics wrongly stand in during the Our Father. This position is for the celebrant only, not even the deacon or concelebrants are to stand in this position. It means that the celebrant is praying on behalf of the congregation.

      In 1997, Pope St. John Paul II said the following:

      “In eucharistic celebrations deacons and non-ordained members of the faithful may not pronounce prayers — e.g. especially the eucharistic prayer, with its concluding doxology — or any other parts of the liturgy reserved to the celebrant priest. Neither may deacons or non-ordained members of the faithful use gestures or actions which are proper to the same priest celebrant. It is a grave abuse for any member of the non-ordained faithful to “quasi preside” at the Mass while leaving only that minimal participation to the priest which is necessary to secure validity.”

      Two final thoughts:

      To clarify the existence of female deacons. There are two trains of thought: 1. Wives of deacons were often called deaconess. 2. As explained to our class by a Canon Lawyer – There were deaconesses who assisted the priest in baptisms. These woman were not ordained as the men were and their service was simply to assist the priest with full-emersion baptisms of adult females. Since baptisms were often done at adulthood and without clothing, the deaconess was there to assist the priest, who performed the baptism with his eyes closed, to place his hands appropriately on the person being baptized.

      I agree that there is a great need for adult catechesis. We have too many Catholics who are poorly catechized. If the laity knew the intricacies of the faith and the meaning behind every aspect of the Mass, our churches would be overflowing. And that is what we need. We need to fully embrace our faith and become full, active, and conscious participants at Mass every week, if not more often. When we truly understand and embrace the majesty of what is occurring at every Mass and who we are literally receiving in the Eucharist, then we will crave to experience this communion with God every day.

      • soconaill

        Deacon Kralik tells us that Aidan Hart’s article ignores the history of the diaconate, but seems himself to have missed the fact that the original founding duty of deacons was not liturgical or sacramental but charitable and practical – ‘to give out food’ (Acts 6: 2) The closest obvious modern equivalent is the St Vincent de Paul ministry.

        As for St Stephen, he was stoned not for performing the current in-church preaching role of a deacon but for recalling when challenged by the Sanhedrin the history of Israel and for defending Jesus as the true Messiah – something any educated layperson could also be called to do by secularist challenge.

        Aidan’s major worry re the attention being given to the diaconate is ‘clericalisation of the laity’ in the face of Pope Francis’s stern critique of clericalism. That worry is amply justified by the visible taking over by deacons of roles that lay people are equally entitled to fill – e.g. that of eucharistic ministers and lectors.

        It is depressing that Deacon Kralik ignores this problem, and seems to see the role of catechetics as primarily to enhance the lay person’s appreciation of the liturgy.

        Where in Jesus’s separation of sheep and goats in Matthew chapter 25 does he make Mass attendance or liturgical rapture the decisive separator? What of the responsibility given to all of the baptised by Lumen Gentium 34 – to consecrate the world to God?

        Never since Vatican II has the critical importance of that duty – obviously related to Matthew 25 – been realised in Ireland. From bishops down, our clergy have never convened adult lay people to discuss it, or explained to lay people the importance of our own baptismal priesthood.

        The reason is obvious. It has been all but forgotten that Jesus was crucified not for instituting a liturgy but for challenging, bodily, an unjust religious system that excluded the poorest from his Father’s grace and mercy.

        And so, in our own time, when similar gross injustices were perpetrated by ordained clergy on Catholic children not a single bishop anywhere in the world is known to have prioritised the rights of the child before this failure of justice was publicly exposed.

        Does Deacon Kralik not realise what questions then arise over the designation of ordained clergy only as ‘in persona Christi’, and over the elevation of liturgical and sacramental practice above the obligation of justice in the church and the world?

        As the Eucharist was quite obviously food for the onerous challenge of ‘consecrating the world to God’ – inseparable from that call to defend and serve the weakest and challenge injustice everywhere – it is obviously a mistake to make liturgical observance an end in itself.

        When will we hear the ordained emphatically telling us this? Only when clericalism has been seen by clerics for what it is – the downgrading of the merely baptised to the role of awed spectators of those who lead the liturgy.

        As it was members of the merely baptised – victims, and parents of victims, of clerical abuse – who taught Catholic bishops the priority of safeguarding children, there is no excuse for this continuing blindness to the importance of restoring Baptism to its original primacy among the sacraments. Only when this blindness ends will the liturgy recall to church practice those who cannot currently see the point of it.

  10. Mark

    How long will you continue to hate the Church? This is yet another disgraceful attack, this time on the diaconate. Your website is a cancer on the True Church. Imagine that some of you are even priests! Shame on you!

    • Aidan Hart

      Mark, the article seeks to point out what is factually true about the diaconate. Surely, if the current role of the diaconate is already being undertaken willingly and successful by many laypeople around the world why do we need to resurrect the role of deacon? Which problem in the Church is it currently solving? Surely the most urgent need is for priests who can lead the laity in celebrating Eucharist.

      Also, Pope Francis seeks to reform the Church by continuing to implement and extend the decrees of the Second Vatican Council. The ACI website seeks to support him in this vital work, using the voices of the laity to identify what they see in their Church as still in urgent need of meaningful reform. I think the vast majority of our contributors engage with the website, as you obviously do, out of love for the Church and that is why they want to see a sense of urgency in much needed and relevant reforms. Congregations are rapidly diminishing, the young are noticeable by their absence and parishes are increasingly being amalgamated due to a dire shortage of priests.

      The Church is both divine and human and the human side, as with all human organisations, must be continually self-critical to remain relevant and continue to answer the changing needs of its members. Seeking to participate in that process is not to destroy the Church but to continue co-operating through grace with God to keep it true to its role in spreading the Kingdom of God on earth and making people aware of His divine, redeeming and loving presence throughout all of His creation.

  11. Joe

    And what now? The Church is closed. You still have something against a Permanent Deacons?


      Joe, I’m not sure of the point you are making about local churches being closed because of the current pandemic and its connection with permanent deacons.

      I did make the point in a recent ACI article on ‘Eucharist – Presence or Feeding’ about the absence by clergy of encouragement to laypeople to pray as a family at home where God is also powerfully present, a point stressed by Pope Francis in his inspirational book ‘The Joy of Love’ (Amoris Laetitia). Clergy give the impression that the only place to pray is in a church building and at services run by priests or PDs. I often drop into my local church when I’m passing it on my daily walk and for over 30 years there has never been another person in that church when I visit, and those visits are now at various times of the day.


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