Friday, March 08, 2019

Why so few deacons in Latin America?

Why are there so few permanent deacons in Honduras and many other parts of Latin America?

I don’t have the answers but, as one of them, I offer these reflections as a starting point for a serious discussion. 

 One answer I have heard, from a US missionary with decades of experience in Honduras, is that the permanent diaconate was not popular in Honduras decades ago – and so not approved until recently – in part because of the concern that priests, who at times depended for their sustenance on stipends for the sacraments, were concerned about losing this important source of income.

This may be a factor, but I think, at least in Honduras, there may be other reasons. In 1966, in response to the lack of pastoral attention by priests in distant villages, the diocese of Choluteca initiated a program of Delegates of the Word. The Delegates, chosen from their communities and trained, would lead Sunday Celebrations of the Word. It spread throughout Honduras and is now a significant part of Church life in the villages. There is hardly a village in our diocese that does not have delegates.

Another factor may be the educational level of many people in the church in Latin America.

The first two permanent deacons ordained in Honduras are university professors and continue to function in the university system in the Tegucigalpa region. Recently a third permanent deacon was ordained for the archdiocese of Tegucigalpa. I don’t not know his profession.

I am the first ordained in our dioceses, Santa Rosa de Copán, and the third in the country. Though I too have an advanced university degree I do not teach in a university, despite several offers. My ministry, which is full-time, is in a rural parish, with almost fifty villages.

Most of the delegates in our parish have less than six years of formal education. Some learned to read by studying the Bible while in the training sessions for delegates. There are some who are, or have been, primary-school teachers and some of the newer delegates or those in training are younger men and women who have finished high school. But those who have more than a sixth grade education are the exception.

Among the delegates and the extraordinary ministers of communion, I see a few who would be great deacons, because they are already living a diaconal life. I wish the church here in Honduras would chose, train, and ordain some of these, in response to paragraph 16 of Ad Gentes, Vatican II’s Decree on Missionary Activity:

Where Episcopal Conferences deem it opportune, the order of the diaconate should be restored as a permanent state of life, according to the norms of the Constitution on the Church. For there are men who are actually carrying out the functions of the deacon’s office, either by preaching the Word of God as catechists, or by presiding over scattered Christian communities in the name of the pastor and the bishop, or by practicing charity in social or relief work. It will be helpful to strengthen them by that imposition of hands which has come down from the apostles, and to bind them more closely to the altar. Thus they can carry out their ministry more effectively because of the sacramental grace of the diaconate.

I think our bishop would resist the temptation to choose deacons among the college-educated and demand college level classes. But I’m not sure that would be accepted by other church authorities in the country.

The lack of permanent deacons in some countries may also be related to a serious lack of understanding of the ministry of the deacon.
In a national clergy study meeting a few years ago, I was asked by a priest from another diocese, why I was not going to be ordained a priest. The diaconate is my vocation, I responded. He promptly denied that that I had that – after all, I was celibate.
This only reflects a misunderstanding of the diaconate that is also found in a book by a Spanish priest published by a prominent Latin American Catholic publisher. He seems to see the permanent diaconate as a concession to married men who want to dedicate themselves to work for the church. He does not seem to value highly the vocation to the diaconate for celibate men.

A major factor that will affect the future of the permanent diaconate in Latin America is clericalism. The deference given to the priest has complicated roots. In an parish where there are few people educated past sixth grade, people look to the priest for answers, not only in terms of religious questions and access to the sacraments. Where there are few counselors, people look to the priest for advice in marriage and family problems and in times of psychological crises. In a country like Honduras where the government seems to cling to a partisan client-based allocation of funds and work, the mayor and the political party offer money, work, and repairs to the roads and other infrastructure projects. Otherwise, the school teacher and the priest may be the ones most knowledgeable in a rural community.

Where would a deacon fit in such a situation. Clericalism, I believe, thrives on power and prestige where a few control access to knowledge and power. Will the diaconate be considered in mostly power terms?

There is already a problem, at least in some parishes I know, where the delegates have assumed a power over the local churches which rivals (and sometimes exceeds the clericalism of the clergy). A priest I know was concerned that becoming an extraordinary minister of communion might be seen as gaining more power in the local village church, as well as the  

There is one further factor that I think needs to be addressed: Where do deacons minister?

To try to answer this,there is one question for which I do not have an answer: How many of the permanent deacons in Latin America and Africa are living and ministering in rural parishes or, exclusively, in poor barrios? In Honduras, there is one married permanent deacon, a Salvadoran ordained in the US, who works as a missionary in a poor gang-ridden area of Comayaguela, but the first two deacons ordained in the archdiocese of Tegucigalpa are university professors, continuing in their profession.

I have no problem with professionals as deacons. In some cases, it is extremely necessary in order to penetrate the professional world with the Good News of the Gospel. In fact, I think this may have been one of the concerns of the priests who dialogued about the permanent diaconate in the Dachau concentration camp during World War II.

But in Latin America, the need is for evangelization of the poor in the barrios of the cities and in the remote villages. There are some of us who try to do this, but I wonder if the permanent diaconate has been seen as much more connected with the city and the demand for professionals in the order of deacon.

The one exception that I know of is the effort made in the diocese of San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas, Mexico. It was temporarily suppressed because of some concerns by the Vatican, but I believe that it has been restored.

If the Church proposes to increase the number of deacons in Latin America, it must be clear on the ministry of the deacon.

What then is my vision for the diaconate in the diocese where I serve?

The deacon candidate should be chosen among those who are already witnessing to a diaconal life of faith, in the church.

The deacon candidate should show a real commitment to the poor and the marginalized – not only bringing communion to them but also accompanying them in their suffering as well as in their efforts to be liberated from the conditions of impoverishment in society.

The deacon candidate should be willing to wash the feet of the poor, literally and figuratively. In our parish, the pastor insists that the extraordinary ministers of communion must be ready to help wash and clean the sick. At least one person withdrew from the formation program because of this.

The formation of the deacon must be serious but adjusted according to the formal educational level of the candidates. This must not be a dumbing-down of the faith, nor should it be a mere memorization of the Catechism or other church documents.

The formation must be integral – not limited to doctrine and liturgy, but including the social teaching of the church and, even more, pastoral practice that accompanies the poor, the marginalized, the sick.  

The deacon candidate should be encouraged to continue his current pastoral work while studying.

The deacon candidate’s wife and family should be involved in the formation process as far as possible.

There is much more to consider, especially the formation of the priests in the ministry of the deacon. But that is another blog entry.

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Just did a little research; the stats come from various years and so they are not always accurate to make a true comparison; also, there is no way that I know to see if some of these permanent deacons belonged to religious orders. 
Brazil has 4,800 permanent deacons; Columbia has about 486, plus 254 candidates; San Martín Argentina has 35; Santiago Child has 385; Lima Perú has 3; Buenos Aires has 12; Santiago, Dominican Republic has 140 and Santo Domingo, DR, has 166; Nicaragua has 27 - 18 in Bluefields; El Salvador has 2; Guatemala has 4; Mexico City has 108; the diocese of San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico, has 450!.