On the 5th November 2021 Archbishop John laid his hands gently on my head and called down the Holy Spirit in the act of ordination. On that day my life was changed forever, and so were those of my brother deacons John Fogarty and Con Diver. We three were ordained to the Permanent Diaconate to serve the Metropolitan Archdiocese of Southwark, to perform our duties as required by Archbishop John. The irony of being ordained as Catholic clergy on Bonfire Night, when the country celebrates the failure of a Catholic plot to destroy Parliament, is not lost on me, especially in these present times!
The Permanent Diaconate (the collective name for Deacons) was restored by order of Pope Paul VI in 1967. The Archdiocese of Southwark was a standard bearer for this ‘new’ ministry, and the first of our deacons was ordained in 1975. Forty-seven years later there is still much confusion about the Permanent Diaconate; my brother deacons and I are used to being called Father by parishioners, but the Deacon is quite distinct from the Priest, whose ministry is very different in its character.
Here in Beckenham, we have been blessed with many Perm-anent Deacons over the years. Since Sandy Misquitta moved house, and thus parish, Deacon Sean and I are the active Deacons in this proud tradition within Beckenham. Many parishes, and indeed many dioceses around the world, still have no deacons and no diaconal tradition at all.
Archbishop John has publicly declared his aspiration for there to be a deacon in every one of the 179 parishes within South-wark. This may sound like a modest ambition but there are only 76 active deacons, compared to more than 250 priests serving the diocese. In order to fulfil Archbishop John’s dream, we need to dramatically increase the number of Permanent Deacons that we currently have. Fr Bart Dudek has been appointed Episcopal Vicar for the Diaconate in Southwark and is working hard to make Archbishop John’s dream a reality. Fr Bart has established four working groups to explore different aspects of the diaconate and to strengthen this ministry within Southwark. At Fr Bart’s request I have recently been working with others, to establish a Diaconal Vocations & Identity team. Part of our remit is to promote the diaconate more widely than ever before and to encourage others to hear God’s call.
Who is a Deacon? That’s a difficult question to answer in some ways because the roles of Deacons are so varied. But in another sense, it’s very easy to answer, Deacons are icons of Christ the Servant, we are among the people as one who serves (Lk 22:27). However, the nature of that service can be very different: some are full-time chaplains, some are retired but spend a full working week supporting their parish. Permanent Deacon is a voluntary position and many of my fellow deacons hold down full-time jobs. In addition to their ministry, most are married and have children. The diaconate requires self-sacrifice and dedication (on the part of our wives as well) during formation and ministry, balancing the needs of family, work and diaconate.
I would never have imagined myself serving as a deacon until a chance conversation with Fr Ashley opened the door, and I chose (after much soul searching) to walk through it. The process of formation takes around 6 years; during this time, we study theology, pastoral ministry, liturgy and spirituality so that we are as well prepared as we can be.
The title of this article may remind you of a popular film from 1994, but it also sums up my experience of the diaconate so far. When asked what a deacon does the glib reply is that we ‘hatch, match and dispatch’. Baptisms are typically the largest part of most deacons’ work in the parish and welcoming new life into the Church is a source of great joy. But the diaconate involves so much more, bringing the sacrifice of the people to the altar and bringing the Church to the workplace and out into the wider world. One of the great privileges of being a Deacon is summed up by the words spoken by Archbishop John during my ordination as he handed me the book of Gospels: “Receive the Gospel of Christ whose herald you have become. Believe what you read, teach what you believe, and practice what you teach”.
As a member of the Diaconal Vocations team, it would be re-miss of me not to remind you that to fulfil Archbishop John’s dream we need more candidates for the diaconate. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if St Edmunds could continue its proud tradition of providing deacons? The process of formation prior to ordination is essential to conform each Deacon in the image of Christ the Servant. This list of virtues expected to be displayed by Deacons, helpfully provided by the Vatican, is daunting. It has been said that if Christ had been presented with this list, even He would have thought twice before applying! Nonetheless, if you feel that perhaps you are being called to serve in the number of Permanent Deacons then I would be delighted to tell you more and perhaps to set you on the way to a new life.
Please pray for me, for Deacon Sean, for our brother deacons, and for vocations to the diaconate, as we continue to serve you, our sisters and brothers.