One of the major developments in the life of the Church, which followed the end of the Second Vatican Council, was the restoration of the order of the diaconate by allowing married men to be ordained. My study of the background at the Council was that the discussion of the Council Fathers envisioned a vibrant and vigorous married diaconate in countries throughout the world where a celibate priesthood would, by sheer terms of numbers, require assistance from the diaconate (too few priests and no major increase likely). I clearly remember in a small group conversation, the Apostolic Delegate to the United States in the seventies, Archbishop Jean Jadot, a Belgium by birth who had been sent to the US by Pope Paul VI, noting the immediate interest in the US of the permanent diaconate and saying that in the Cameroons, where he was assigned prior to arriving on our shores, the Church would never consider ordaining married men, period. It preferred instead to build up catechists in lieu of an ordained diaconate. That prediction has remained largely true and intact in mission countries.
In the years since the Council, the United States has led all other nations in the world in the number of ordinations of married men to the diaconate. It all began in a period when a shortage of priests was considered on these shores unthinkable (perhaps it was indeed the presence of the Holy Spirit which encouraged this local Church to pursue the restored diaconate). The service of these generous men and their equally generous wives and families, who share their husbands and dads with us, has been laudable, helpful and gifted. Deacons may baptize, witness marriages outside of Mass and communion services, preach, and assist at the altar. But, in our living out the post-conciliar married diaconate, they are especially helpful to their parishes in preaching, in preparing the faithful for baptism, confirmation, and marriage, and in conducting wake services and graveside ceremonies. They may not administer the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick since that sacrament includes the hearing of confessions and sacramental reconciliation. What they can do to be helpful far outpaces what they are not able to do and therein is to be found the blessing.
On May 2 of this year, our first diocesan class of “married” deacons will celebrate their silver anniversary of ordination. On that day twenty-five years ago, thirty men were ordained deacons for the Diocese of St. Petersburg at the Cathedral of St. Jude the Apostle by Bishop W. Thomas Larkin. Throughout their formation, this class was guided and directed by Monsignor Colm Cooke, who was assisted by Joan Morgan (our present diocesan Chancellor). Some of those ordained have died subsequently, some are now mostly retired, some have lost their spouses in the intervening years, and two have left diaconal ministry. On Saturday last, we had our annual Mass of Recommitment for our deacons. I am not certain of the exact number, but I think there is somewhere in the neighborhood of 120 active and with faculties to function as deacons here. We have had five other ordinations for the diocese in the twenty-five years since and currently have about fifteen in some stage of education and formation. They are here as a ministry to stay and most of your priests and pastors would strongly support their presence and assistance in our local Church. I know I certainly am grateful to them and to their wives and families. Almost all, at one time or another in their ministry as deacons, have held “day jobs” and since the diaconate does not pay a salary (unless they are in full-time employment by a parish or institution), they depend on outside employment for their daily bread.
Many deacons come to us, as do many parishioners, from other dioceses and while, perhaps retired from their former and principal employment, they still wish to be helpful to the Church. After the necessary background check, we accept them and grant them faculties.
So even though the diaconate was not restored for service in the “first world” by the Council Fathers, the Church in the United States and in St. Petersburg and our five counties owes it a lot. Blessings, please, Lord, on all our deacons and their wives and families as we take note this year of the ordination of our first class twenty-five years ago.