Worcester diocese suspends diaconate for new candidates


The Worcester diocese has stopped accepting new men into its permanent diaconate program – at least temporarily – Deacon Anthony R. Surozenski, director of the Office of Diaconate, said this week.

This will allow time to assess whether more deacons will be needed and whether assignments and funding will be available for them, he said.

It also allows time for studying how to better apply national Church norms to deacons’ ministry and finding ways deacons could help meet needs that they are not currently addressing, such as hospice and truck stop ministries, he said. The Diaconate Advisory Board will study how to improve the diaconate, Deacon Surozenski said.

Currently 32 men are at different stages in the five-year preparation program; they are to continue formation and be ordained as scheduled this year and through 2015, Deacon Surozenski said. No others were ready to begin the program.

Deacon Surozenski said he suggested to Bishop Robert J. McManus that they needed to look at the diaconate. Bishop McManus, on a Holy Land pilgrimage, was not here to comment.

“We don’t know what the diocese is going to look like and what the needs are going to be,” Deacon Surozenski said, explaining the decision to halt the program. “Parishes are merging, some parishes are closing, new parishes may be evolving. We have to take a look at the big picture for ministry service for deacons.

“If all goes well, there should be 135 active priests by the year 2015 and there should be 98 deacons.” There might be an additional 17 deacons officially retired but still serving.

A deacon and a priest working with the diaconate nationally put the Worcester diocese’s situation in context.

The United States has 17,165 permanent deacons, more than 50 percent of all the permanent deacons in the world, said Deacon Gerald W. DuPont, president of the National Association of Diaconate Directors.

He said he did not know of any dioceses permanently stopping their diaconate program.

“On the whole, the diaconate in most dioceses continues to grow; it’s not being pulled back,” he said. But he said his impression is that roughly 10 percent of the dioceses in the United States are taking or have taken a “breather,” such as when the number of deacons approaches the number of priests or there are financial difficulties.

The Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, where he is director of the Office of the Diaconate, did that about 15 years ago, he said. The diaconate was reinstated after two years, he said.

“In general it is a common practice for bishops to ordain one class” of permanent deacons before beginning another class, said Father Shawn McKnight, executive director of the Secretariat of Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Assessment is needed with diaconal ministry, because it is new, he said. Although it began in the early Church, it was absent for 1,500 years before being restored after Vatican Council II, he explained. Deacon DuPont said the 50th anniversary of the diaconate in the United States will be celebrated in 2018.

The Worcester Diocese’s first permanent diaconate class was ordained in 1978. Some years there were no ordinations; the longest stretch was between 1984 and 1990. But since 2001 there has been a class ordained each year except for 2006, when the traditional December ordination Mass was moved to the following April, Deacon Surozenski said.

He said eight men are to be ordained deacons this year, eight next year, four in 2013, five in 2014 and seven in 2015.

“Our question is, ‘Do we have enough at this time?’” he said.

When churches are closing – in part for lack of practicing Catholics – why have fewer people doing outreach?

Deacon Surozenski said most deacons have a liturgical ministry in a parish and it costs a parish nearly $3,000 a year for a deacon – for out-of-pocket reimbursement, a retreat and a financial assessment for the diaconate program. He said there are at least 70 parishes with one deacon, a few with more, and all have been paying the assessment.

Sometimes another institution the deacon serves, such as a hospital, might pay these costs, he said. But deacons usually enter such ministries on their own initiative; the diaconate program does not arrange the training.

Deacon DuPont said that, in his archdiocese, deacons perform more than 40 ministries – such as at hospitals and prisons – in addition to parish ministry. They receive training for these through continuing education courses, and sometimes one of these is their primary ministry and the parish secondary.

In this new model, the deacon sees a need, asks permission to address it and involves laypeople, he said. When the laity can take over the project, the deacon moves on to address another need. If a parish is dying, a deacon trained in the new evangelization could start revitalization. The deacon brings the Church to the marketplace, evangelizing the world, and the marketplace to the Church, evangelizing the Church, he said.

“I think that’s going to become the norm in the future, because that’s where the need is” and that’s the direction in which “The National Directory for the Formation, Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons in the United States” seems to be moving, he said.

Deacon DuPont gave a brief background.

From 1970 to 1985 deacons performed liturgical ministry, in line with the first USCCB document on the diaconate, “The Little Green Book.” In 1985 the USCCB published “The Red Book,” which placed more emphasis on deacons doing charitable work.

In 1998 the Vatican published “Basic Norms for the Formation of Permanent Deacons” and “Directory for the Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons,” he said. From this, each bishops’ conference around the world was to generate its own document, which would be particular norm for that country, he said. The United States “National Directory” was published in 2005 and reissued in 2010.

“It is possible to have too many deacons;” needs will determine the number and type, Father McKnight said. “You can never have too many lay people.” Deacons assist priests and serve laity, but are not replacements for either, he said. If there are too many deacons, it will be hard to identify their ministry.

Deacon Surozenski said that locally efforts are made to give deacons assignments no more than a 30-minute drive from their homes, because otherwise “it’s difficult to really get invested in the parish.”

He said there are many men in formation from areas where there are already plenty of deacons, but there is a need in the western part of the diocese. There are also several men in formation from the Hispanic community and three from the Vietnamese community, but none from the Brazilian or African communities, he said.

“It has been traditional that the pastor requests a deacon,” he said, raising another issue. “If the request is not there, it would be difficult to put someone there.” Some priests don’t want, or see a need for, a deacon, he said.

“We have a place for our deacons all the way up to the class of 2012,” he said, but he still needs placements for those being ordained later.

“A class could be started prior to 2015 if the bishop deems it necessary,” he said.

The diaconate office is to remain open. Deacon Surozenski said he and Deacon Peter and Gail Ryan will continue their part-time positions. Deacon Francisco and Fanny Escobar are retiring from the diaconate office in June. Deacon Ronald and Kathleen Buron volunteer in the office.

Printed with permission from the Catholic Free Press, newspaper for the Diocese of Worcester, Mass.

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