A Married Deacon and the Domestic Church
Principles to help deacons find balance
In the early 1970s, when directing the Archdiocese of Cincinnati religious education office, I worked with the newly formed diocesan diaconal program. Since then, I’ve been involved with permanent deacons and their wives as teacher, mentor, adviser and friend.
Over the years, questions surfaced as to a deacon’s role in ministerial service. These included: Who is a deacon from a theological and pastoral perspective? And, which vocational responsibilities take precedence when a deacon’s ministry conflicts with fulfilling his marital obligations? Today, after decades of diaconal experience and directions provided by the U.S. bishops, the role of a deacon has been clarified.
This article addresses one aspect of a married deacon’s life — namely, his place in the domestic church, or the church of the home. My recently published book, “Evangelizing the Domestic Church” (OSV, $19.95), is the incentive for addressing this issue.
Married deacons fulfill their ministry as fathers and spouses in their families and as deacons in the Church. As such, they hold a unique position in the Catholic Church, reflected in the following story.
During a deacon assembly, discussions centered on how to balance the married deacon’s role in the parish and his responsibilities at home. As the conversation developed, some participants expressed guilt and wondered if they did it wrong because their children were not practicing Catholics.
Through these discussions, the deacons realized that many dedicated lay Catholics feel the same way. Reflections on their own children leaving the Church provided insights for their ministry to other Catholics who have the same concern.
Married deacons’ threefold role as deacons, husbands and parents provides an entry point for their ministry. Firsthand experience in their homes and workplace make this possible. Married deacons can speak, preach and act directly concerning family and worldly matters in a way not possible for a celibate clergy.
In other words, married deacons are in a unique position when addressing significant issues in the minds and hearts of dedicated parishioners, like why their children leave the Church or how to cope with family pressures. They can also deal with issues from a vantage point that celibate clergy don’t have when speaking about pressures in the home, relationships with spouses or children, how to repair a ruptured family relationship or what parents can do when a child rejects their advice.
“God comes to us differently from person to person, situation to situation. This is because family, culture, and religion filter God’s presence differently” (“Evangelizing the Domestic Church,” Chapter 1). These words give us further insights into why married deacons occupy a special place as Church leaders. Most live and work in a secular environment and filter their diaconal ministry of service through their families and secular work. In so doing, the family becomes a little church where married deacons communicate God’s Word in a loving way.
The Second Vatican Council set the stage for recognizing the role of the family as the domestic church, or church of the home. “Domestic church” is not merely a metaphorical expression. Rather, it is an essential aspect of God’s divine plan for humankind (cf. Lumen Gentium, Dogmatic Constitution of the Church, Chapter 2).
While living in the world and ordained to minister in the Church, a deacon’s first responsibility is to his family, or domestic church. This is a privilege he receives in marriage and is ratified at his diaconal ordination. Here, a deacon begins “to be church” as a spouse and the father of a household. This was recognized by early Fathers of the Church — for example, Augustine and John Chrysostom — who compared the father’s role in the family to that of a bishop in the larger Church.
Referring to the conduct of those in the early Church, St. Paul says, “We ought to thank God always for you … because your faith flourishes ever more, and the love of every one of you for one another grows ever greater” (2 Thes 1:3). These words serve as a guiding light for every deacon, motivating him to express his love in his family and reach beyond his domestic church to extend loving service and compassion to God’s people, regardless of what he does, through the ministries of Word, worship and service.
Jesus’ followers came to faith through interpersonal relationships with him and one another. Likewise, led by the Holy Spirit, the deacon, his wife and children support one another in their faith and grow together through the mutual love they share. Like the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, the deacon and his wife take the lead in motivating their family to love God and one another, reach out to the needy and respond to God’s urgings whatever they might be.
Thus the domestic church becomes a motivator for the deacon’s ministry to the larger community of faith and the world where he lives. Like the members of early house churches, the love manifested in relationships with family members can serve as a basic mode of living for deacons and their families.
In house churches, loving relationships among Christians inspired the pagan world around them to accept Christ (cf. Jn 13:35). Their relationships testified to the Lord’s death and resurrection. Their missionary call, witnessing Jesus’ resurrection, incentivized them to share Jesus’ message with the world. The living Lord now ministered through them, as they responded to their call. Their response helps today’s deacons appreciate their deepest identity — namely, to be loving servant leaders in their family and community.
As a family member, Church minister and worker in the world, many challenges enter a deacon’s life. Five guiding principles suggest how to face them and maintain a sense of balance.
1. There is never enough time for a deacon to do everything, but plenty of time for what is really important.
The following story stresses the importance of not allowing church ministry to take away from time spent with family members.
Five-year-old Mark missed Deacon Bill, his father, because the father often was gone from home, working at the parish. On one occasion, the boy and his dad planned to discuss a fairy tale about the big bad wolf to help Mark recognize evil in the world. The boy’s task was to figure out how to get the big bad wolf out of his life. This was an abstract notion, and Mark had trouble figuring it out.
One evening, they began reading the fairy tale before Bill left for a church meeting. When leaving, he asked Mark to try to figure out how to get rid of the big bad wolf. He told Mark that if he did, they would have an ice cream party when he returned.
When Deacon Bill returned home, Mark was smiling and enthusiastically hugged his father. “Daddy,” he said, “let’s have our ice cream party. I finally figured out how to get the big bad wolf out of my life forever.”
Deacon Bill replied, “That’s great, Mark, but first tell me what you did with the big bad wolf?”
Seriously, the boy replied, “I sent him to church for a meeting.”
The boy did not laugh. Since the church was taking his dad away from him so much, Mark associated the big bad wolf with the Church, which was an awakening for Bill, and he changed his pattern of behavior.
This story invites married deacons to make sure their family relationships are in proper order. After his son jolted him with his answer, Deacon Bill refocused his priorities and spent more time with his son. Moving forward, Deacon Bill omitted less important tasks that took up his time and empowered others to do them.
2. A deacon is invited to be more and do less.
Deacon Bill’s story suggests a second guiding principle — namely, that deacons are invited to be more and do less. “Being” is in the realm of deeper, ultimate relationships. So often, deacons can get caught up in the functional world of “doing.” The realm of doing never touches the deeper recesses of who they are.
Jesus never seemed to be in a hurry. His was a life of being, and he related to those he met at an ultimate level, the realm of the Holy Spirit.
The married deacon’s challenge is to relate on the level of being, instead of getting caught up in the realm of doing. He can never allow his relationship with his spouse or children to suffer because of pastoral work in and around the church. It takes wisdom to balance his life as a family man, job holder and deacon, and to be more and do less.
3. A deacon is to live from the inside out, not the outside in.
Mark’s words jolted his father to live by the third principle — that is, to live from the inside out not the outside in. Living from the outside in means being tossed and turned by external activities, often failing to recognize how this affects our loved ones. When deacons change and live from the inside out, they discern from their inner being what direction their responsibilities take.
This recognition looks to the Holy Spirit, within them, to guide the direction their decisions take. In so doing, deacons take control of their lives, ask for the help of the Holy Spirit, and evaluate how much time they spend at home, work and in the parish.
4. Deacons are to establish priorities.
Deacon Bill learned from his son’s remarks the need to balance his personal, family, parish and professional lives. In so doing, he followed the fourth principle, to prioritize activities. Without such priorities, deacons can become like sand blowing in the wind or paper caught in a storm, thrown here and there, living by an appointment book or cellphone, instead of being guided by the Holy Spirit.
In their busy world, deacons need to prioritize to maintain balanced lives. This is especially true when it comes to taking the quality time needed to grow any relationship, especially in the family. Some fathers and mothers give their children many things, but neglect the gifts of parental time and love that they really want.
As one girl said: “I needed my dad’s love more than the material gifts he gave me. Now, at 19, it’s too late. I wanted his time, but he gave me his money.”
In a married deacon’s list of priorities, family comes first. After that, there is time for Church ministry if a deacon prioritizes and learns how to say “no” when deluged with requests from the parish and workplace. If we live from the inside out, asking the Holy Spirit for wisdom, we recognize what is really important and prioritize our daily activities.
5. A deacon sees through the eyes of Christ.
Deacon Bill recognized the significance of this fifth principle when he truly saw his life and ministry through the eyes of Christ. Then, setting priorities became easier.
When I received lens implants to improve my eyesight, what once was foggy became clear. The same is true when married deacons see through the eyes of Christ. What may appear as uncertain is no longer blurred, for Jesus, dwelling within them, opens their eyes and heart. When deacons see through the eyes of Christ, specifically through the lens of the Beatitudes, their life and ministry appear in a new light.
May Mary, Mother of God and our mother, ask her son to give us the understanding needed to minister in his name and serve God’s people, especially the poor and downtrodden.
FATHER ROBERT HATER, Ph.D., a Cincinnati diocesan priest, is an internationally known writer and speaker. His latest book is “Evangelizing the Domestic Church” (OSV, 2022).
Evangelizing Today’s Domestic Churches
Father Robert J. Hater, Ph.D., in his new book “Evangelizing Today’s Domestic Churches: A Theological and Pastoral Approach to the Family” (OSV, $19.95), invites deacons, priests and those engaged in pastoral ministry to take the lead in helping families recognize their responsibility before God to become vibrant domestic churches. Today’s domestic churches face challenges of materialism, individualism and secularism, coming through technology, media and contemporary culture, and the Church must respond by seeking ways to minister directly to families. The future of parish life will depend largely on how a parish supports family life.