Deacons for the Diocese of Bathurst
Five years ago, we began a new chapter in the life of our local church with a program for discerning and forming vocations to the permanent Diaconate.
The program bore its first fruits on 9th August, when Charles Applin and Terry Mahony were admitted as Candidates for Ordination early next year.
However, the fruits of the program had already been evident in the lives of the men and their wives who have participated. Whether or not they have continued along the road to ordination, they have gained new knowledge and skills in understanding their faith and sharing it with others. In addition, the Formation Team and I have learnt valuable lessons, not only about the Diaconate in particular, but also in the development of programs for adult faith and ministerial formation for Catholics in general.
The Story of the Bathurst Program
The Formation Team was led by Father Pat O’Regan with Sister Mary Comer rsj, Sister Patricia Powell rsm, Father Tony Mannix cm, Mrs Maureen Horth and Mr Tony Eviston. They have guided the program through three stages.
The first six months was the enquiry stage, with regular meetings to explain this special call in our Church. From the beginning, we asked for the participation of the wives. Before their husbands could be ordained deacons, they would have to give their consent. We wanted that consent to be fully informed. As participants came to understand it better, some decided that it was not for them, at least not at this point in their lives.
We then moved into a more demanding stage, introducing those who wished to continue to the basics of formation and discernment. We began to explore the four components: spiritual, academic, human and pastoral, which would shape the journey ahead. After a year, participants and their spouses discerned, with the Bishop and the team, whether or not they were ready to embark on a fuller program, which would require a substantial commitment of time and effort. Some were ready then, some not.
In the third stage, the team enlisted the help of spiritual directors, psychologists, expert presenters and pastoral supervisors. The aspirants (as they were now called) enrolled in theological studies with the Australian Catholic University, augmented with lecturers brought to Bathurst for weekend courses. Whenever possible, we also made these lecturers available for sessions with the wider community.
A great feature of the program, which by now had seven men in it, was the way that the group worked and prayed together as agents of formation and discernment for one another. Once again, the involvement of their wives was vital and enriching.
Towards the end of the third stage, two of the aspirants made conscientious decisions not to go ahead. However, they have completed a thorough course in ministerial formation, which will enable them to make important contributions to the life of the Church. In addition to the two men about to be ordained, three others are continuing to discern, with the Bishop and the Team, when and if they may be ready to proceed to Ordination.
Who are Deacons and what do they do?
Deacons played an important part in the early centuries of the Western Church. They were at the service of the bishops in liturgy, administration and care of the sick and the poor, keeping contact with those on the edges. In the East, that continued in many places, but in the West their responsibilities were taken over gradually by priests and religious men and women. On the eve of the Second Vatican Council, the diaconate in the West had become a brief formality on the road to priestly ordination.
Vatican II and Pope Blessed Paul VI revived the possibility of a distinctive, “permanent” ministry of deacons, open to married men. It was left to the bishops to judge whether and when this ministry would be suitable for their local churches. Although the Popes have definitively taught that the Church is incapable of ordaining women as bishops or priests, there has been no such final word on the possibility of women deacons.
The renewal of the Diaconate is not merely a restoration of something that existed before, but the chance to write a new chapter in the way we carry out the mission entrusted to the Church. We are still learning what the Diaconate might be, remaining faithful to the shape of the Sacrament of Holy Orders to which it belongs.
In the Church today, deacons can baptise, preach, officiate at marriages and funerals. There are specific functions in the celebration of the Liturgy reserved to them. They cannot say Mass or administer the sacraments of Anointing, Penance, Confirmation or Ordination. However, this is a limited way of understanding who the deacons are and what they can do.
What distinguishes the deacon is the life-long character of his ordination and the associated promise of obedience he makes at the time. He then enters into a new set of relationships within the People of God. Deacons, like bishops and priests, may join in many activities and serve in ways which could also be done by lay faithful: but they represent in them a particular sacramental presence at the service of ecclesial communion. It is not so much what they do, with us and for us, but who they are, with us and for us.
In the coming months, there will be more to say about this unfamiliar, but potentially enlivening ministry and how it will develop in the Diocese of Bathurst. For now, we are united in prayer with and for the men being called to this service.
Bishop of Bathurst