Pastoral Letter on the Restoration of the Permanent Diaconate

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Archbishop MillerDear brother priests, consecrated women and men, seminarians, and lay faithful of the Archdiocese of Vancouver:

Jesus told his disciples that he had come “not to be served but to serve” (Mt 20:28; cf. Mk 10:45). During the Last Supper, after reminding his apostles that he was among them “as one who serves” (Lk 22:27), he washed their feet, a duty of servants, setting them an example to imitate (cf. Jn 13:1-17). Jesus himself was the first Deacon, who “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant” (Phil 2:7), thereby giving us a model of all service in his Church.

Within the threefold ministry the Lord instituted to serve his People, besides the priesthood and episcopacy, is the diaconate. Renewing the practice of the early Church, the Second Vatican Council restored the order of deacons as “a proper and permanent rank of the hierarchy.”1  The permanent diaconate is meant to be “a driving force for the Church’s service or diakonia toward the local Christian communities and a sign or sacrament of the Lord Christ himself.”2  Because the deacon is a public and “living icon of Christ the Servant within the Church,”3 his ministry encourages all the baptized to commit themselves to service of the ecclesial community and the world.

“The vocation of the permanent deacon is a great gift of God to the Church.”4 In light of the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, the encouragement of recent Popes, and the recommendation of our Archdiocesan Synod, Presbyteral Council, and Archdiocesan Pastoral Council, I have decided to call permanent deacons for the service of the Archdiocese of Vancouver. This ministry should be encouraged because, as Pope Benedict XVI has said, “it enhances the riches of the Church’s sacramental ministry.”5 Permanent deacons will play a key role in accom¬plishing the Synod’s vision of a mission-driven Church.

Many Gifts and Many Kinds of Service

DeaconsSt. Paul lists numerous kinds of service to which disciples are called in order to build up the Body of Christ: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers (cf. Eph 4:12). Some of these ministries are exercised by both the lay faithful and the clergy, others only by the ordained. Since the Second Vatican Council, we have become particularly aware of the universal call to mission – an inseparable aspect of the universal call to holiness – and have seen a marvellous increase in lay ministries as a result.

Increasingly we recognize that every baptized person has a calling to share the faith with family members, friends, co-workers, and neighbours. Numerous members of the lay faithful teach in our schools, religious education programs, RCIA, and other adult faith formation classes. Lay people promote and lead prayer groups and evangelization courses such as Alpha, ENDOW, Discipleship, and Bible studies. Furthermore, innumerable charitable works in the Archdiocese are now run by generous lay volunteers and full-time workers.

A vigorous lay ministry is, of course, just part of an energetic and evangelizing Church. We need the gift of the priesthood that we have recently celebrated in the Year for Priests; it is an irreplaceable ministry which is central to all that the Church is and does. Moreover, we need consecrated women and men to be signs of the Kingdom of God and to serve the Church with the charisms that the Holy Spirit has poured out upon their communities.

Our Archdiocese is richly blessed by the ministry of our priests and the witness of the consecrated life, including those dedicated to contemplation, just as it is by the ever-increasing role of the lay faithful in the Church’s life. But God never tires of blessing and challenging us. Permanent deacons will add yet another dimension to our witness and service, while supporting the ministries that are already exercised in such fruitful ways. In particular, those deacons who have secular careers and the experience of family life will help to provide “a greater and more direct presence of Church ministers in the various spheres of the family, work, school etc., in addition to existing pastoral structures.”6

Married deacons will bring to the Sacrament of Holy Orders the gifts already received and being nurtured through their reception of the Sacrament of Matrimony. Deacons and their wives will be examples of the fidelity and indissolubility in Christian marriage before a world in dire need of such signs. “By facing in a spirit of faith the challenges of married life and the demands of daily living, they strengthen the family life not only of the Church community but of the whole of society.”7

By its very nature, the ministry of permanent deacons will help all of us – priests, consecrated women and men, and lay faithful – to live our baptismal call of building up the Body of Christ.

What Is a Deacon?

The diaconate is conferred through the bishop’s prayer of ordination and his laying on of hands, “not for the priesthood but for service.”8 By imprinting an indelible spiritual mark, diaconal ordination irrevocably configures the recipient to Christ, Lord and Servant of all, and communicates a specific sacramental grace that strengthens him for his mission of public ministry in the Church.

The ministry of deacons is distinct from that of priests, and does not involve functions proper to priests. Deacons cannot, of course, celebrate Mass, hear confessions, or anoint the sick.

From the apostolic age onwards, the deacon, as a man of the Church, has been closely associated with the bishop (cf. Phil 1:1). His ministry is “a service to the episcopate and presbyterate, to which the order of deacons is joined by bonds of obedience and communion.”9 The ordination rite expresses the special connection between the bishop and the deacon, since the bishop alone imposes hands on the ordinand and invokes the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on him. “Every deacon, therefore, finds the point of reference for his own ministry in hierarchical communion with the bishop.”10 Moreover, at ordination the deacon promises obedience to his bishop, a promise which entails a spirit of trust, mutual respect, and accountability.

The deacon shares in Christ’s threefold mission of teaching, sanctifying, and leading the People of God. While the unifying principle of his ministry is the service of charity, which shapes his service of the Word and of the liturgy, the three duties are inseparably joined together in God’s plan.

Ministry of the Word

Sharing in the Church’s mission of evangelization, deacons are ordained to proclaim the Gospel and preach the Word of God at the liturgy, as well as to be a herald of this Word to the faithful and the world. They will teach by providing catechetical instruction, adult faith formation, and preparation for reception of the sacraments; by giving retreats and spiritual direction; and by counselling and reaching out to inactive Catholics in our community.

Our permanent deacons will also strive to evangelize the world of work and culture either explicitly or simply by their “active presence in places where public opinion is formed and ethical norms are applied.”11 As evangelizers, they are called to “reach and as it were overturn with the force of the Gospel the standards of judgement, the interests, the thought-patterns, the sources of inspiration and life-styles of humanity that are in contrast with the word of God and with his plan for salvation.”12

Ministry of the Liturgy

Together with the bishop and his priests, the permanent deacons will foster the sanctification of the Catholic community, which has the “source and summit” of its life and worship in the Eucharist.13 At the celebration of the liturgy, they are visible signs of the profound relationship between the Church’s worship and her ministry of charity.

Besides their liturgical role at Mass, our permanent deacons will be authorized to baptize solemnly, witness marriages, bring Viaticum to the dying, and preside at funerals and burials, as well as at liturgies of the word and Communion services. They will also be able to officiate at Exposition and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, conduct prayer services for the sick and dying, administer sacramentals, and lead popular devotions such as the Way of the Cross.

Ministry of Charity

Because the deacons’ ministry is a visible sign of the Church’s service to the world, they will dedicate themselves to the works of charity and justice in the Archdiocese. Because “charity is at the heart of the Church’s social doctrine,”14 I will expect them to bring the poor to the Church and the Church to the poor, whether that poverty is material, spiritual or cultural. In fact, the service of charity will be “a fundamental as well as a key dimension for the commitment of deacons.”15

Permanent deacons must be publicly committed to the preaching and practice of justice as contained in the Church’s social teaching. Fostering this doctrine is a duty entrusted in a special way to their ministry.

As well, our deacons will personally serve those in need, such as aboriginal communities, and inspire others to join them in their ministry with the sick, the abused, the dying and bereaved, the deaf and disabled, those with troubled marriages, the homeless, victims of substance abuse, prisoners, refugees, and street people. We shall look to our permanent deacons to spearhead initiatives that promote the common good and foster a culture of life.

Who Will Our Deacons Be?

St. Paul’s First Letter to Timothy lists the qualities that deacons should have, recommending that they be tested before being entrusted with their mission: they must be dignified and honest, faithful in marriage, and must manage their children and households well, “holding fast to the mystery of faith with a clear conscience” (cf. 1 Tim 3:8-13). The Code of Canon Law gives juridical expression to these same qualities: “Only those are to be promoted to Orders who … have sound faith, are motivated by the right intention, are endowed with the requisite knowledge, enjoy a good reputation, and have moral probity, proven virtue, and the other physical and psychological qualities appropriate to the order to be received.”16

The key to the life and ministry of all deacons is a single word: fidelity – fidelity to the Word of God and sacred Tradition, fidelity to the teaching office of the Church, and fidelity to the mission of the new evangelization in the Archdiocese of Vancouver. Our deacons will need to nurture a deep interior life in order to meet their obligations. Carrying out his ministry and apostolic activities, fulfilling family and social responsibilities, and maintaining an intense life of personal and liturgical prayer can only be attained through a profound friendship with Christ (cf. Jn 15:15).

How Is a Call to the Permanent Diaconate Discerned?

It is the Holy Spirit who calls a man to the order of deacons. The diaconate is a vocation from God; it is neither a job nor a volunteer position: “His is not a profession, but a mission!”17

Discerning a vocation to the diaconate requires prayer, dialogue and evaluation. The discernment process involves the candidate himself, his family and his parish community. The Church’s role is decisive. With the assistance of many others, as Archbishop I must examine each individual’s suitability using objective criteria that rely on the Church’s tradition and recognize our particular pastoral needs.

Deacons, who may be married or single, must be between 35 and 65 years of age at the time of ordination, which will take place after four years of formation. Our candidates will be men already very involved in their parish and committed to works of charity or social service. They must also be living a mature spiritual life.

Men will be accepted only after their own prayerful discernment of God’s call and a process that will include psychological testing by experts and scrutiny by an admissions committee made up of priests, consecrated men and women, and lay faithful. Every candidate must demonstrate those human qualities which show that he enjoys the trust of the community, is committed to all dimensions of diaconal ministry, and can work collaboratively with priests and laity.

Married men who wish to become deacons require the consent and support of their wives, who must be willing to participate in some aspects of their formation. The formation of candidates will take place on weekends, evenings and holidays, so they will need to have the time to attend courses and spiritual events without compromising their family and work responsibilities.

Since our Archdiocese is so rich in cultural and ethnic diversity, I pray that the many ethnic and national communities will be sources of vocations to the permanent diaconate. Our formation program will respect and value the cultures and traditions of the candidates.

Most permanent deacons will serve part-time in the ministry, although the need might arise for them to assume a full-time commitment, if their other work and family obligations permit it. Apart from their expenses, they will not normally be remunerated for their service. Those few appointed to full-time positions will receive a salary commensurate with that paid to lay people. The vast majority, however, will continue to provide for their own needs and those of their families from their secular employment or retirement income.

How Will They Be Trained?

The human, spiritual, theological, and pastoral formation of permanent deacons will be carried out on a part-time basis, but according to a rigorous program established by the Holy See and adapted for Canada by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. Over a period of approximately four years, candidates will spend an average of five or six hours a week in lectures, seminars, formation meetings, supervised field education, personal study, and spiritual gatherings.18

Some courses will be offered in partnership with one or more existing academic institutions, while others will be provided directly by the Archdiocese.

The formation program will rest on four pillars: human, spiritual, theological, and pastoral. While the fundamental human traits required for ministry must already be present in the candidates, the program will foster their continuing maturity and capacity to collaborate with others as servant leaders.

Spiritual formation, which is the heart of all formation for diaconal ministry, will be accomplished by days of recollection, annual retreats, study days on spiritual topics, and the regular guidance of a spiritual director. It will help our candidates on the path to holiness and cultivate in them the spirit of service as the distinctive characteristic of their diaconal ministry.

An intensive theological formation that prepares the candidates for ministry will also nourish their spiritual life. Our program will enable them to grow in their understanding of the faith, to deepen their love of the Lord and the Church, to explain Catholic doctrine in a compelling way, and to bring to maturity a lively ecclesial awareness. It will be expressly directed to preparing our candidates for their ministry of service by integrating doctrine, morality and spirituality. Over a minimum of three years they will follow a comprehensive program of courses in the areas of Sacred Scripture, theology, Church history, liturgy, canon law, evangelization, ecumenism, and interreligious dialogue.

The fourth pillar, pastoral formation, will relate the human, spiritual and theological training to the practical demands of the deacons’ ministry such as preaching, service at the altar, administration of the sacraments, commitment to works of charity and social justice, and the exercise of servant leadership in guiding small communities, movements, groups, and volunteers. Specific technical subjects such as psychology, teaching methods, sacred music, ecclesial administration, information technology and so on will also be addressed.

Challenging Questions

Why is the ministry of deacons open only to certain men and not to others, including women, when many laypersons already carry out a wide variety of ministries in parishes and elsewhere?

St. Paul answers this question by teaching that all God’s gifts are the work of one and the same Spirit, and that he gives them to each one as he chooses. The different gifts and vocations of the members of Christ’s Body are a source of great joy in the Church. The Apostle celebrates that there are many gifts, but one Spirit, and many kinds of service, but one Lord. In God’s plan, this rich diversity manifests the Church’s unity in catholicity (cf. 1 Cor 12:4-12).

The history of the Church tells us of the essential role played by women, who have witnessed to Christ in the family and in society, serving the Gospel with fidelity and courage. Yet, even the Blessed Virgin Mary, the model of all discipleship, was not called to the same mission as the apostles or to the ordained ministry. The Church’s faithfulness to the constant and universal tradition of reserving the ordained ministry to men must not be construed as discrimination against women, in any way suggesting that they are of lesser dignity.19 On the contrary, this teaching is to be understood within the framework of upholding “the equal dignity and responsibility of women with men,”20 since both are created in the image and likeness of God (cf. Gen 1:26-27) and “equally capable of receiving the outpouring of divine truth and love in the Holy Spirit.”21

Some may ask whether permanent deacons will pose difficulties for our priests or even confusion about the value of celibacy or the priesthood itself. Concern about these matters arose during the consultation process. The answer to them lies in the nature of the deacon’s ministry. It is not an abridged or substitute form of the priesthood, but an ordained ministry in its own right. By integrating permanent deacons into its life, our particular Church will more clearly manifest the fullness of the apostolic ministry. Such integration neither usurps the role of priests nor takes the place of lay ministers. The diaconal ministry should lead to a growth of communion within the Archdiocese, “since charity is the very soul of ecclesial communion.”22

Permanent deacons are called to foster fraternity and co-operation with the priests of the Archdiocese, and sincere communion with me. We are all collaborators in ministry, sharing in complementary ways in the Sacrament of Orders. Together we serve the People of God entrusted to us in active and mature communion.

The relationship between deacons and involved laity will also be shaped by this spirituality of communion, in which all gifts converge for building up the Body of Christ and furthering its mission. I am counting on our permanent deacons to promote a collaborative spirit in fulfilling their responsibilities, especially by fostering the charisms of the lay faithful with whom they are co-workers in the Lord’s vineyard. Their ministry must support, and never obscure or obstruct, the vocation and mission of the lay faithful.

Deacons will be chosen from among men already accustomed to collaborating with others in parish life and ministry. Supporting and strengthening the gifts of the laity will be crucial to their service of our parish communities. As servant leaders, they will not only respect the diverse gifts of others but also assist in sustaining and developing them.

The Timetable

Since in most cases Church law requires a formation period of four years before a candidate can be ordained, some time will pass before we begin to welcome permanent deacons in the Archdiocese. The process of calling, forming and ordaining these deacons will unfold in four stages.

We have entered the first stage with this Pastoral Letter and the appointment of Monsignor Gregory Smith as the Director of the Permanent Diaconate Program. During Lent, I will be holding two regional meetings on the permanent diaconate. These sessions will make available more information to interested men and their wives, and will obtain their thoughts and ideas as we continue to develop the specific details of our formation program. Soon afterwards, I will name the members of the advisory Committee on Admissions, publish the admission requirements, and invite applications from inquirers, with whom I will meet individually before they are accepted into the program.

The second stage will begin this summer. It will be a period of “aspirancy,” during which those considering admission to the program, together with their wives, will be helped to discern the Lord’s call by means of spiritual preparation and a detailed presentation of the ministry’s demands. At the end of this aspirancy period, the liturgical rite of admission to candidacy for the diaconate will be celebrated with those continuing their formation.

The third stage, the formal program of preparation for ministry as a permanent deacon, will likely begin in January 2012 with academic courses in theology. It will continue for at least three years, during which time the deacon candidates will participate in regular meetings and spiritual gatherings, and receive regular help from mentors, pastoral supervisors, and spiritual directors.

Finally, with God’s help, I hope to ordain the first permanent deacons for our Archdiocese in the Easter season of 2015.

Under the Protection of Mary and the Saints

I have written this Pastoral Letter to share with you this major development in the life of our Archdiocese, one that, with the grace of God, will bear spiritual fruit in the years to come. Much more remains to be communicated about the mission of those called to serve as permanent deacons, about the precise requirements for admission to the program, and about the particulars of the human, spiritual, theological, and pastoral formation appropriate for our candidates.

As these developments unfold, I ask each of you to pray that the Holy Spirit will move suitable men to begin discerning whether or not they are called to this vocation. In your prayer, invoke the intercession of three saintly deacons, under whose patronage I am placing the permanent diaconate program in our Archdiocese: St. Stephen, the Church’s first martyr “full of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 7:55), who professed his faith in the risen Lord and forgave his persecutors; St. Lawrence, who affirmed that “the poor are the treasure of the Church”; and St. Francis of Assisi who, as a deacon, gave himself totally to Christ and his brothers and sisters by a life of humility, poverty and joy.

I invite men who believe they have the qualifications and interest necessary for this service of the Church to begin now to pray for guidance. If they are married, they should pray together with their wives, confident that the Lord who has strengthened them by the Sacrament of Marriage will help them discern whether he is calling them to embrace a second sacramental call.

I also encourage all the priests of the Archdiocese to ask themselves if they know any candidates whom they can confidently put forward. Do not hesitate to approach them, inviting them to consider a vocation to the diaconate. The role of our priests in this period of discernment is of the utmost importance.

Together let us place our petitions for the fruitfulness of the permanent diaconate in the Archdiocese of Vancouver in the maternal hands of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Queen of the Holy Rosary, asking her to watch over the candidates for this ministry who will proclaim the Word faithfully, serve the liturgy reverently, and care for the needs of the poor joyfully.

22 February 2011, Feast of the Chair of Peter

Most Rev. J. Michael Miller, CSB
Archbishop of Vancouver


1 Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium (21 November 1964), n. 29.
2 Paul VI, Apostolic Letter Ad Pascendum (15 August 1972), introduction..
3 Congregation for Catholic Education, Basic Norms for the Formation of Permanent Deacons (22 February 1998), n. 11..
4 John Paul II, Address to the Plenary Assembly of the Congregation for the Clergy (30 November 1995), n. 2..
5 Benedict XVI, Address to the Parish Priests and Clergy of Rome (7 February 2008). .
6 John Paul II, General Audience (6 October 1993), n. 6..
7 John Paul II, Address to the Permanent Deacons of the United States (19 September 1987), n. 5..
8 Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium (21 November 1964), n. 29.
9 Congregation for Bishops, Directory for the Pastoral Ministry of Bishops Apostolorum Successores (22 February 2004), n. 92..
10 Congregation for the Clergy, Directory for the Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons (22 February 1998), n. 48..
11 Congregation for the Clergy, Directory for the Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons (22 February 1998), n. 26..22
12 Paul VI, Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhoration Evangelii Nuntiandi (8 December 1975), n. 19..
13 Cf. Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium (4 December 1963), n. 10..
14 Benedict XVI, Encyclical Letter Caritas in Veritate (29 June 2009), n. 2..
15 Benedict XVI, Address to the Parish Priests and Clergy of Rome (7 February 2008)..
16 Code of Canon Law, c. 1029..
17 John Paul II, Address to the Plenary Assembly of the Congregation for the Clergy (30 November 1995), n. 4..
18 Cf. Congregation for Catholic Education, Basic Norms for the Formation of Permanent Deacons (22 February 1998), n. 82..
19 Cf. John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (22 May 1994), n. 3..
20 John Paul II, Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio (22 November 1981), n. 22..
21 John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Mulieris Dignitatem (15 August 1988), n. 16..
Congregation for the Clergy, Directory for the Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons (22 February 1998), n. 55.

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