What is a Deacon?

Junior Priest, Glorified Altar Boy or...?

deacon-insideHave you ever looked up at the altar at church and wondered who the adult male was on the altar with a diagonal stole that made him look like Star Trek’s Lt. Worf?

This person is what the Catholic Church calls a deacon. At the Second Vatican Council, the Church decided to restore the ministerial role of deacon to the Catholic tradition. In ancient times, deacons served as servants. They ministered to the needs of all in the early church communities. But few people know more than a little about deacons.

Most deacons are married men with families of their own. They are called into the ministry to serve communities in a variety of ways alongside their role of assisting at Mass and preaching the gospel. Deacons are called from the people of the parish community to bring the Word of God to those same people, doing a variety of things: from directing religious education, to serving food in the parish soup kitchen, to leading a letter-writing campaign to politicians. Deacons come from all walks of life. Some have doctorates while others only finished high school. Deacons also have “secular” jobs in the world — their ministry is not their primary occupation.

Two types of deacons

Permanent deacons are the aforementioned married men, but all priests also are ordained as deacons before they transition into their priestly vocations. These “transitional deacons” usually remain deacons for a short period of time (nine months to a year) before their priestly ordination.

Men must be married already to become a married permanent deacon. Single men called to the ministry of deacon take a vow of celibacy and may not marry; married deacons also take a vow of celibacy upon the death of their wife. In special cases, dispensations can be made for deacons to remarry, but these are rare.

Meet a Deacon

Deacon Greg Kandra has been cultivating a career as an Emmy Award-winning television producer at CBS for nearly 20 years. Recently, Deacon Kandra discussed some basic questions that people have about deacons.

Busted Halo: So if deacons can be married men, a strange question to start … Do many deacons feel the call to the diaconate before they get married or after? How did it happen for you?

Greg Kandra: Most deacons, in my experience, feel called to this vocation later in life — in their 50’s or 60’s. Definitely after they’ve gotten married and raised a family. Very often, it’s a “second career,” something they take up after they’re retired and have more time on their hands. Periodically, you’ll find deacons who are single — we had two in my class, but that was two out of more than 50, so it’s exceptional. For me, obviously, it happened when I was in my 40s and had been married for nearly 20 years. And, like a lot of deacons, I found myself attracted to the vocation after a long and winding trek through the desert — I’d been a fairly indifferent Catholic for much of my adult life, but at middle age found myself drawn more and more to traditions that I’d more or less abandoned in my youth. I went searching for a deeper spirituality and sense of purpose to my life. The diaconate was the ultimate result.

BH: Why does a deacon get to be married but a priest does not?

GK: Someone who knows a lot about this stuff, the great Deacon Bill Ditewig, tells me that it has to do with the big difference between deacons and priests: deacons live “in the world” in a way that priests do not, and the bishops of Vatican II saw no real reason why deacons would have to be limited to unmarried (celibate) men.

BH: Why can’t deacons “re-marry”? Why do they vow celibacy if they are single or widowers?

GK: I think it has a connection to the Eastern Rite tradition. Eastern Rite Catholics have had married deacons (and priests) for centuries. In that tradition, a man who is married can be ordained to Holy Orders, but a man who has received Holy Orders cannot later get married. However: I know of at least one case in my own diocese in which a deacon who was widowed was later granted a special dispensation from Rome to re-marry because he had young children. So that rule is not hard and fast.

BH: What challenges do you face having both a family and a ministry?

GK: Sometimes, I feel like the plate spinner on the old Ed Sullivan Show … constantly trying to keep all the plates going without letting anything break! Really, it keeps me busy. I joke that I don’t have a day off — but often it’s not a joke. I have my job Monday through Friday. Then I go home and some nights I have parish council meetings, or I have to preside at Benediction, or teach RCIA or do a wedding rehearsal. And I’ll stagger in the door at 9 o’clock, and then I have to work on my homily for Sunday, or update my blog, or answer emails. My head doesn’t hit the pillow until midnight.

Saturdays, sometimes I have early appointments at the rectory or a wedding. I help with communion at the 5 p.m. Mass, meet my wife after for dinner, maybe a movie: that’s a our “date night.” Then I’m up bright and early Sunday, breakfast with my wife, and to the parish by 10:30 to help with communion. I assist, preach or help with communion at the other three masses that day. Since I’m in rotation for baptisms, I stay late some Sundays for that; then I might be sent out to do a wake in the afternoon. It’s not uncommon to get home at 3 or 4, take a nap for a few hours, then wake up for dinner. That’s my “day of rest.”

BH: How has your wife supported your ministry and what challenges has she had to overcome? How does the church/diocese/parish support and honor your marriage partnership?

GK: My wife Siobhan has been amazing. Literally, I couldn’t do what I do without her. She makes it all possible. She keeps my life organized and centered — and handles a lot of the little headaches of daily life — shopping, housework, meals — and gives the greatest support of all, her prayers. The diocese is very accommodating and welcoming of deacon wives — after all, the wives sign a formal letter giving permission before their husband’s ordination. So the Church knows these guys only become deacons with their wives’ blessings. Many of our annual retreats are geared to deacon couples, and wives are always included in diaconal functions. At the parish, my pastor cheekily refers to my wife as “The First Lady of the Parish.”

BH: Now that you’ve been a deacon and are navigating these transitions between and within marriage and ministry—do you see a possibility that the priesthood might be able to one day have an option for non-celibates?

GK: Sure. It’s already happened. Right now, there are a couple hundred married Catholic priests, men who were Episcopalian or Protestant ministers, and who then converted. They received special dispensations to become ordained. Whether that will be expanded remains to be seen. I suspect it will depend on the needs of the Church, and the people. So far, the faithful have been pretty accepting of it. Of course, a married priest is a different kind of creature than a married deacon — deacons usually have jobs outside the church, and they aren’t on call 24/7. So the balancing act is a lot more complicated for the priests.

BH: What about women deacons?

GK: Significantly, the church remains open to the possibility of women deacons. The Vatican hasn’t closed the door on that argument, as it has with women priests. I think it would be a wonderful gift for the church to have women assist at the altar, and preside at weddings and baptisms, and have them preach. But I’m not sure everyone who has an office overlooking the Tiber agrees with me.

BH: Do people now come to you and your other deacon friends with their own marriage problems, children’s issues, etc?

GK: Oh yeah. And not just in the parish. I get emails because of my blog, too — for some reason, because I’m a cleric, people think I’m an expert on All Things Catholic. But I’ve found what people need more than anything is, often, just someone to listen. And it helps if that someone has walked the same road, and had the same struggles, and understands all the problems that go with family life. I try to address some of that in my homilies, too — to give people a sense that, “I know what you’re going through.” It’s something that they don’t hear very often from the pulpit, and I know it’s something I always want to hear when I’m sitting in the pews.

BH: In what ways has being a Deacon strengthened your marriage and in what way is the reverse true? How has your marriage strengthened your ministry?

GK: Being ordained, by necessity, has focused my life much more on prayer — and my wife and I pray together much more now. We do morning and evening prayers together, and do a rosary every Sunday night. Our lives are much more God-directed, and that can’t help but enrich any marriage. We think about things differently. Our lives more or less revolve around the church and parish activities now, so that has become a preoccupation. And I do find that my two vocations — as husband and deacon — support and enhance each other. Both vocations are, at bottom, about giving, and sacrificing, and offering yourself. I learned to do that, first and foremost, in the classroom of my own marriage, from my greatest teacher, my wife. My first ministry, in many ways, is being a deacon to her. And somehow, with God’s grace, I’m able to carry that out into the world.