The purpose is service
Local deacon reflects on changes since Paul VI restored diaconate
By Dcn. Reinhart Wessing
(Dcn. Wessing, now retired from active ministry, is the longest-serving permanent deacon in the Green Bay Diocese. He was ordained in October 1973, one of the first four men to undertake the permanent diaconate locally. He still provides ministry at St. Thomas More Parish in Appleton. Here he reflects on the changes and continuity of over a quarter century of the restored diaconate.)
"The old order changeth, yielding place to the new,
And God fulfills Himself in many ways,
Lest one good custom should corrupt the world."
Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Morte d'Arthur
"The basic fact of today is the tremendous pace of change in human life."
Jawaharlal Nehru, Credo
No area of our lives or the life of the church can escape the inescapable element of change.
The basic ministry of the diaconate is still the same as it was for the first seven ordained by the apostles -- a ministry of charity. The restored permanent diaconate from the time of Pope Paul VI is different in its applications to our modern world. And it has changed since then, too. It will change more in the future as the need arises, we can be sure. (See accompanying article this page.)
I've been ordained for 28 years (Oct. 20, 1973) and there have been lots of changes just since then. I never expected to become a Parish Director, but I did in 1988. Then-Bp. Adam Maida, now cardinal archbishop of Detroit, appointed me, with the comment, "Take good care of St. Ann's Parish in St. Anna for me, and I'll be very happy."
In those early days, we were pioneers, learning as we went along. The training program has changed much over the years. The amount of experience anyone then had was just a few years. Chicago and Washington, D.C. were only a couple years ahead of us in Green Bay. Bp. Aloysius Wycislo, then bishop of our diocese, had a vision of the need for more trained ministers to serve the People of God. And time has proved him very correct.
In those early days, there was a feeling that we didn't need another layer of highly educated clergy. We needed down-in-the-trenches types of people who had a gift for and a desire to minister to the hurting, the needy, the suffering as listening, caring companions on the journey of life. Techniques for doing that over and above natural ability were provided by diaconate training.
'Feet washing ministry'
We were supposed to bring the fruits of that "feet washing ministry" to the altar whenever we assisted at Mass. It was said that those fruits were our gift to the Lord in the name of the whole parish, because we stood as the representative of all the ministry done by the parishioners.
Nowadays, quite a few deacon candidates earn their master's degrees in some field of theology. I think that's wonderful. That's needed for credibility, in many cases, with the greater involvement of deacons in the wider field of parish minister. But not in all cases. And those without a master's degree should not be discriminated against. Nor should those with a master's think they are better than those without one
Service is still the primary objective of the permanent diaconate and that can be done splendidly with various levels of "book learning." A lot of it is natural ability. A feel for the needs of people.
I, myself, never went for a master's degree. I enrolled in a program that led directly to a doctorate. I made the very bad mistake, though, of putting it on hold when I was appointed parish director at St. Ann's.
As happens with most folks who do that, I never did finish it. I have two courses, a project and the dissertation, or as they call it now, the "major paper" still to do. I'm often sorry I did that, after all the time, effort and money I put into it. I'm sometimes tempted go finish it. But then I say to myself, what good would it do now? I'm retired. What practical purpose for it now? It seems like purely an ego trip to do it now. So I haven't. I'm probably getting too old anyway, at 74.
On call 24 hours
What I think is very wonderful of the more recently ordained deacons is their willingness to make great sacrifices in accepting fulltime parish ministry positions. And I don't mean just in terms of money. I mean time and willingness to be on call 24 hours a day. If anything prepares deacons for eventual ordination to the priesthood it's that unequivocal giving of self for the good of others. That is part and parcel of being a priest, and it will never change.
Most deacons are married and have families and it's amazing how some are able to balance time and loving care for all those special interests and not collapse in the process. Wives and children are entitled to loving care and concern. One of the big items we always looked at very, very carefully when I was director of the diaconate program for the diocese was the man's family life. The wives' liaison Ssee accompanying article this page.) was especially important in that evaluation.
Not only have great strides forward been made in the diaconate training and ministry, but I think they are very much needed in our post-modern world. With technology and cyberspace a reality and not a crazy dreamer's dream that would get him stuck in a padded cell years ago, we need change in the permanent diaconate, too.
However, my sincere hope is that people, their needs, their feelings, their hurts and their hopes will always take first place in diaconate ministry. If those things get lost along the way, there's no chance we will be doing the real work of the Lord, Jesus the Christ, with whom we profess to be co-ministers. So long as technology and cyberspace aid and assist in our ministry we all come out winners. Then we are really doing the will of Jesus in our original purpose of service.