Deacons: Bringing it Home

Pope Francis poses with cardinal advisers during meeting at Vatican

In news from the Holy See today, it was announced that the nine special Cardinal-advisers to Pope Francis (known colloquially as the C9) have wrapped up their latest three-day meeting in Rome.  You can read Vatican Radio’s account of the meeting here.  The overall topic is the reform and restructuring of the Vatican bureaucracy itself.  Amid the several major areas discussed, ranging from finances to communications to decentralization, several interesting bits were mentioned which directly concern deacons.

In the news conference reporting on the meeting, Director of the Holy See Press Office, American Greg Burke included:

Among other proposals, the possibility of transferring some functions from the Roman Dicasteries to the local bishops or episcopal councils, in a spirit of healthy decentralization.

For example, the transfer of the Dicastery for the Clergy to the Episcopal Conference for examination and authorization for: the priestly ordination of an unmarried permanent deacon; the passage to new marriage for a widowed permanent deacon; the request for priestly ordination by a widowed permanent deacon.

married deaconMany people might be unaware of the history behind these three items, so let me cover each briefly.  Before doing that, however, we should keep one traditional factor in mind.  Throughout the Catholic tradition, East and West, it has been a well-established principle that “married men may be ordained but ordained men may not marry.”  Following ordination, then, the longstanding norm (until the 1984 Code of Canon Law) was that, once ordained, a man could not marry — or marry again, in the case of a married cleric whose wife has died.  In other words, the very reception of Holy Orders constitutes an impediment to entering a marriage.  The 1984 Code (c. 1078), however, permits a request for a dispensation from the “impediment of order” which would then permit the widowed deacon to re-marry.  More about this below.

USCCBThe three issues mentioned today are all questions that up until now have required a petition from the cleric involved to the Holy See for resolution.  None of them were things that could be decided by the local diocesan bishop or the regional episcopal conference (such as the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops).  So let’s take a closer look at these three situations.

  1. “Unmarried permanent deacons”: There are some people who wrongly assume that all so-called “permanent” deacons are married men.  This is inaccurate, and international statistics suggest that somewhere between 4-10% of all permanent deacons are, in fact, unmarried.  When an unmarried candidate for the diaconate approaches ordination, he makes the same promise of celibacy made by seminarian candidates for the (improperly called) “transitional” diaconate.  The situation addressed by the C9 concerns these celibate permanent deacons should they later discern a vocation to the presbyterate.  Many Catholics are surprised to learn this, but the Church rightly teaches that each Order is its own vocation: that a call (vocation) to serve as Deacon does not mean that Deacon necessarily has a vocation to the Presbyterate or Episcopate.  Deacon formation programs are not helping men discern a general vocation to the ordained ministry; rather, the focus is on the particular vocation of the diaconate.  So, if a deacon later discerns a possible vocation to the presbyterate, he must enter into a formation process for the priesthood to test this vocation.  In the US, the need for this careful discernment and formation is detailed in the USCCB’s 2005 National Directory for the Formation, Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons in the United States.  Up until now, the diocesan bishop (or religious superior) had to petition the Holy See to permit the subsequent ordination of that celibate permanent deacon to the presbyterate.  What the C9 is rightly suggesting (in my opinion) is that such decisions might be made at the more appropriate level of the episcopal conference, and not the Holy See. (I would think that should this idea go forward, the decision will ultimately be referred back to each diocesan bishop as the authority best positioned to know the situation and the people involved the best.)  NOTA BENE: This particular situation involves permanent deacons who have never been married before; the situation of a widowed permanent deacon will be covered in the third item below.
  2. US Bishops“The passage to new marriage for a widowed permanent deacon”:  This is a situation which has been faced by many of our deacons over the past decades.  Obviously a married man cannot and does not make the promise of celibacy prior to ordination as a Deacon: we do not promise a hypothetical: “I promise to embrace the celibate life IF my wife predeceases me” is not part of our liturgical and sacramental lexicon.  However, once ordained of course, that married deacon is impeded from entering another marriage.  First, of course, because he is already  married!  But if his wife dies, he is still not free to marry again because he has assumed that “impediment of order” I mentioned above.  St. John Paul II developed three conditions under which a widowed permanent deacon might petition for a dispensation from the impediment of order (notice, by the way, that this is not a “dispensation from celibacy” since the married deacon has never made such a promise from which to be dispensed in the first place).  These three reasons, which need not concern us at the moment, have taken various forms over the years, including some revisions by Cardinal Arinze which made the likelihood of obtaining such a dispensation most highly unlikely.  The petition for this dispensation right now begins with a petition from the widowed deacon to the Holy See, via his diocesan bishop (or religious superior).  What the C9 is suggesting is that in the future, this petition would go from the Deacon to the Episcopal Conference (or, if the Conference develops such procedures) to the diocesan Bishop.
  3. The last reference is to “the request for priestly ordination by a widowed permanent deacon.”  Here we find the widowed deacon discerning a different path.  Rather than discerning a new marriage, he is discerning the possibility of a vocation to the presbyterate.  In a sense, then, he is in the same position as the deacon above who was never married.  In the past, such petitions were handled by the Holy See; if the suggestion of the C9 is accepted and implemented, such decisions would be made at the local (Conference or diocesan) level.

Finally, notice that the C9 specifically mentions the Episcopal Conference as the possible new decision-maker, while I have suggested the possibility of the diocesan bishop in some cases.  What I am envisioning is that the Conference might well develop procedures and policies which might further delegate such matters, under certain circumstances, to the diocesan bishop.  For example, in 1968, it was the Episcopal Conference which received authorization to ordain (permanent) deacons.  The Conference then extended that authorization to each Bishop for his decision on the question.

The question of “healthy decentralization” is a wonderful one, and it is intriguing that the diaconate is part of that conversation!

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A Great Book for Prayer

Sorry for the absence from the blogosphere, but I’ve been engaged in several different things that hit at once.  However, I’m very happy to return now with a warm recommendation for a great gem of a book by Diana Macalintal.

Macalintal Work of Your HandsDiana has added to her repertoire The Work of Your Hands: Prayers for Ordinary and Extraordinary Moments of Grace (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2014).  As Fr. Jim Martin, SJ, writes in his blurb for the book: “Every feel tongue-tied in prayer?  Ever wonder what you could say to God and how you could say it?  Let Diana Macalintal help. . . .”  Jim, as always, is so right.  This is a wonderful collection of prayers covering a beautiful array of situations, and my only complaint (Diana, are you reading this?) is that it ends too soon!  I hope that there will be many follow-up collections to come.

Monsignors and Serving the People of God UPDATED

monsignors

A Ceremony “Robing” New Monsignori

Big “insider baseball” church news was the decision of Pope Francis to eliminate all but the lowest “rank” of Monsignor, and then to restrict even that form to diocesan priests over 65.  There have been all kinds of interesting reactions to this news!  One one side of the spectrum are those who find the move refreshing and a good first step at eliminating a sense of medieval-ism and careerism within the clergy; on the other, heads are exploding over this smack to the side of the clerical heads of those who found becoming a monsignor an affirmation of their personal and ecclesial worth.  One priest-blogger criticized that this decision was not made by the Pope in any kind of consultative manner and that perhaps it would be best for such matters to be dealt with on a local (diocesan) level.  Sorry, Father, it couldn’t work that way: “Being a monsignor” was always a PAPAL prerogative; it was his “gift”, although bishops would nominate men for the honor.  As the maxim has it, “he who gives, takes away.”  Furthermore, the pope DID consult on this decision.  He put a months-long moratorium on making any new monsignors, and I think it’s safe to assume he discussed this with his special group of Cardinal-advisors at their recent meeting.  This shouldn’t have surprised anyone at all!

For those new to this kind of thing, what are we talking about here?

First, Christ didn’t name “monsignors” (monsignori if you want to sound like Father Z).  This was a creation by church leadership as the “course of honors” (cursus honorum) developed through the post-Constantinian marriage of church and state which lasted until the American Revolution.  Just as secular honorifics and structures were created, they were paralleled in church honorifics and structures.  The word itself simply means “my lord”, and in some countries, it is actually a title used for a bishop.  It has absolutely NO connection to the sacrament of Holy Orders, although it is restricted to men who are in the Order of Presbyters.  As a deacon, of course, I never had any hopes of ever being a Monsignor anyway!  But people should understand that if their pastor went from being called “Father” to “Monsignor”, it didn’t mean that he had any more “sacred power” than a simple priest.  It was purely an honorific, usually given to two broad categories of priests: those who were younger and being signaled as those who might someday become bishops, and on those older men whom the bishop wanted to thank for a ministry well served.  As one priest-friend put it when he became a Monsignor, “I asked the bishop why he had done this.  He told me he wanted to thank me.  I asked him, ‘Why not just take me to dinner?’ I can’t even spell ‘Monsignor’!”  Later, my friend was named a bishop.  After his episcopal ordination, he e-mailed me that “at least I can spell ‘bishop.'”

Second, a bit of contemporary perspective.  As I’ve written about before, I’ve been around church and ministry for my whole life, and was in the seminary myself for high school and college (1963-1971).  Even before that time, the majority of the priests I knew in my diocese detested the idea of becoming a Monsignor.  On the one hand, we had a great Monsignor in our parish, and we all loved him.  He was Monsignor Patrick O’Connor Culleton, ordained in Dublin in 1901, came to our Diocese in Illinois early on, and became pastor at our parish in 1920; he remained pastor there until his death in the late 1950’s.  He was the pastor when a young newly-ordained priest named Fulton Sheen came to the parish for his first assignment.  Sheen always said that the Monsignor was the holiest priest he’d ever known.  But the younger priests — most of them anyway — wanted nothing to do with this kind of honorific, claiming that it was a relic of a time gone by that had no relevance whatsoever in the Church serving in the modern world.  It made no difference at all when one was marching for civil rights, or visiting people in an inner city slum.  In short, monsignori were seen as belonging to a different era in the life of the church.

The bishops at the Second Vatican Council agreed.  They were dead set against retaining structures and processes that no longer served any practical, pastoral use in the life of the church, and they directed the Holy Father to streamline things.  Pope Paul VI took this task on, and in 1972, the whole sacrament of Holy Orders was restructured, eliminating in the Latin Church the Rite of First Tonsure, the four minor orders and the major order of the Subdiaconate.  The diaconate was now to be exercised permanently and could be opened to both celibate and married men.  The same pope also reduced the number of “classes” or “ranks” of monsignori.  No one really knows just how many classes there were!  Some sources tally fifteen different classes of monsignor, others have twelve or thirteen.  Popeprotonotarios_zpsc9e4a1b2 Paul reduced them to three only.  Now, Pope Francis has reduced this list to one, and then only for diocesan priests over the age of 65.

What difference will this make?

1) On a practical level, absolutely none.  A priest is a priest is a priest.  That’s always been the case, sacramentally.  This doesn’t change that.  The best news is that priests don’t have to go out and buy all the fancy rig that was associated with being a monsignor.

2) For those men who actually wanted to be monsignori (and, at least in my humble experience, that’s been thankfully a very small number!), it will mean that they can now refocus their efforts on being the best priests they can be without waiting for a title or new clothes.  In honor of their non-selection as monsignori, perhaps these men could join their deacons and lay folks in paying an extra visit to a homeless shelter or in lobbying for a change in unjust laws or for immigration reform.  I’m not saying that these men are not doing good things already; but if they’re not going to have to worry about being a monsignor, they’ll be free to focus on other things.  Like getting the smell of the sheep on their clothes.

Cassock_purpled_zpsc36574403) There IS a negative side to this.  Our good priests DO deserve some kind of recognition and support for their ministry; all people who serve do!  We do need to support our priests and acknowledge their service and commitment.  Some bishops, out of a lack of any other ideas, thought that at least by getting the pope to name a priest a monsignor, this could be a small way of doing that.  But here’s a chance for some grass-roots creativity and initiative!  Being a monsignor was no way to recognize anyone, and in some men it just created more difficulties that it was worth.  What CAN we do, in a positive way, to acknowledge someone’s service?  No one who serves AS CHRIST SERVED needs or wants recognition.  The only human recognition Christ got was to be nailed to a cross, after all.  Still, as human beings, it’s nice to know when something we’ve done has been effective.  What can we do, what can YOU do, to show appreciation to ALL who serve in the name of Christ and in the name of the Church?

UPDATE

As I continue to follow the various blog responses to this issue, I was struck by something.  It seems to me, anecdotally and not based on any scientific analysis, that most of the folks OBJECTING to the loss of new monsignors are people who are converts to Catholicism.  By and large, so-called “cradle Catholics” like myself are all in favor of it; those who have come later to the Church seem to be suffering the loss.  File in the “interesting, for what it’s worth” categories.

Happy New Year!