Can a church do without deacons?

Discerning Deacons Young Adult Delegation to Rome meets Synod delegate Deacon Geert De Cubber of Belgium following the opening Synod Mass, Oct. 4, 2023.

During the first session of the Synod on Synodality, I happened to be the only Roman Catholic permanent deacon. I was told several times by some of the bishops present: “We do not need deacons, because we still have enough priestly vocations”. A recognizable reaction perhaps, but at the same time too short-sighted. It makes us wonder whether we can form a church without deacons. But can we, actually?

Potentially strong ministry
The episcopal comment above made clear that not everyone understands what exactly a deacon does or is, so I felt obliged to briefly explain to the synod what the permanent diaconate means to me. As a permanent deacon, I am neither a priest nor a priest-to-be. My vocation as a deacon is rooted in Christ, in my marriage, and in our family of three children. Although liturgy is important, a deacon’s primary vocation is not ceremonial or liturgical. The vocation of the deacon is to bring the diaconia into the catechesis and into the liturgy. Some way or another, it also belongs to the deacon’s vocation to bring the catechesis and the liturgy into the diaconia. It makes the diaconate a potentially strong ministry, especially in a suffering world like ours.

Building bridges
The sacramental presence in the world of Christ – through the ordination of the permanent deacon – is so important. As a matter of fact, many deacons have a (so-called) secular job. And that is fine. All they need to do is make sure that Christ and the Gospel is made present in their working environment. They don’t have to make that explicit through the words they speak or the clothes they wear. They can make it explicit by the way they behave, by the way they treat others, by the way they speak up, especially for those who are not given a voice in their working environment. The social teachings of the Church – often referred to as a source of Christian life – can assist the permanent deacon in his mission to build bridges between Church and broader society, especially in a secular world such as that of the West. Being a permanent deacon is about reaching out and listening to people in the periphery. A deacon brings Christ to the periphery, and the periphery into the heart of the church.

Vocation of its own right
Inevitably, a deeper reflection on the diaconate raises the question of women’s inclusion in the diaconate. The Instrumentum Laboris for the synod asks a very simple question about this. “Is it possible to envisage this?” For me, there is a simple answer to that simple question: “Yes, it is”. If, however, at some point it is decided to ordain women as deacons, we must ensure that they are not clericalized and that they are not considered as a solution to the lack of priests. A deeper understanding will show that it only works if you think of the diaconate as a vocation of its own right. So, once more: Can a church do without deacons? The answer can only be: no, she cannot. A healthy church needs deacons.

Deacon Geert de Cubber

Deacon Geert de Cubber

Geert De Cubber (1974) was ordained a permanent deacon in Gent (Belgium) in 2013. He is a non-bishop Member of the XVIth Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on Synodality.

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“[I hope the Church ordains women to the diaconate] to bring a wider witness and expression of God’s life, love, and presence to the people of God. Women’s voices and leadership will heal, encourage and empower the lives of men, women, and children. It will call forth a new understanding of church vocation and enrich Catholic family life.”
Deedee Van Dyke
Catholic Chaplain, Joliet, IL
“The first Apostle was a woman, Mary Magdalena. She continues to remain a tower of strength for women in ministry today. If more women were ordained to the diaconate in the Roman Catholic Church, I believe we would have more meaningful and spiritually enriching homilies, and our liturgies would embrace and welcome all to the Eucharistic table.”
Sonja Grace
“If I was ordained as a deacon, it would not be a means to an end, but rather it would be a continual invitation to a deeper and broader journey with Christ. Deacons are asked to become outwardly more visible as hands in service to the Church. To respond to such a vocation would be a treasure, a deepening of my inner faith life enriched by the outward experiences of ministry and service. Both the inner and outer journey become a longing to seek and know the Christ we are called to serve.”   
Nina Laubach
Student, MDiv program at Princeton Theological Seminary

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