Expectations of Married Deacons
Bringing balance to marriage and the diaconate
Leon Suprenant Comments Off on Expectations of Married Deacons
We know from the Catechism of the Catholic Church that Christian marriage brings a man and woman together for the rest of their lives, to love each other and their children with the love with which Christ loves his Church.
We also know that the Church calls bishops and priests to remain celibate for the sake of the kingdom of heaven, joyfully serving God’s people with undivided hearts.
We understand that these beautiful vocations are complementary but with rare exceptions mutually exclusive.
Enter the permanent diaconate. Deacons are members of the clergy. Through the Sacrament of Holy Orders, they are specially configured to Christ, the “deacon,” or “servant,” of all. And yet, most permanent deacons are married with particular responsibilities in the home, the “domestic Church.”
How are deacons to understand their vocation as “married clergy” in a way that does justice to both sacraments? I would like to suggest three principles to aid our understanding.
Being vs. Doing
After baptism, we are Christians and members of the Church. We truly become children of God. We carry that identity with us wherever we go and in whatever we do. After marriage, we are married men and women wherever we go, and we even wear a ring or carry a picture to remind us of that reality when we are away from our spouse.
Similarly, deacons carry their diaconal identity with them at all times. Especially for younger, married deacons with children, much of their diaconal activity takes place in their home, not to mention in their workplace.
The guiding principle here is the fact that being precedes doing. All that means is that our identity (who we are) is more fundamental than our activity (what we do).
Our actions flow from our identity. In the animal world, dogs do “doggy” things and cats do “catty” things. As men and women, we do “human” things, and as children of God redeemed through the blood of Christ, we do holy or “Christ-like” things.
There is obviously a close connection between the tree and its fruit, between being and doing. After all, Jesus tells us that we know a tree by its fruit (cf. Mt 7:19). Still, the tree logically comes before the fruit.
We sometimes confuse this natural order of things. This can have devastating effects when it comes to concern for the unborn and other vulnerable populations. Our identity and value come from who we are — not what we do or are able to do. Our identity as human persons traces back to our conception as persons created in the image of God.
In the same way, our identity as Christians stems from our baptism, when we are reborn as children of God. It’s not so much that we love God and do all sorts of “religious” acts, but rather that God first loved us and made us his children.
The identity of married persons is rooted in their mutual consent to give completely of themselves to each other as husband and wife, just as Christ loves his Church (cf. Eph 5:32). This surely entails many “actions,” but these actions do not define the relationship. Also, while marriage is ordered to fruitfulness, a couple is just as “married” regardless of whether the Lord blesses their union with children.
Now we come to the diaconate. Sometimes we get ahead of ourselves and think about the distinctive actions of the deacon and miss the crucial aspect of the deacon’s identity, the indelible sacramental character (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1570) from which the actions flow.
When we emphasize what the deacon does, we tend to place a disproportionate emphasis on the liturgical or parochial dimension of the deacon’s service. His identity then becomes that of a “priest lite” — an official-looking cleric who cannot celebrate Mass or hear confessions. Responding to that caricature, the deacon may feel pressured to overcompensate and spend more time away from his family in ministry.
This is precisely where we must return to the basic truth that our identity as deacons (who we are) is more fundamental than our activity (what we do), that, in fact, our actions flow from our identity and not the other way around.
One implication is that married couples are married 24/7 and deacons are deacons 24/7. How does that work?
Integration vs. Compartmentalization
Even when we come to recognize that our identity comes before our activity, it is still fair to say that both marriage and holy orders entail an endless stream of actions and responsibilities. At first glance, balancing the two can seem daunting, if not impossible.
Of course, there are various ways of approaching this balance. Some may be tempted to compartmentalize such that they are a husband and father at home and a deacon when they are at the parish or ministry. There is some truth to that, but since both vocations are meant to be 24/7, this results in an impoverished view of both, and, ultimately, the two vocations are pitted against each other, vying for turf.
As we examine ourselves, are we inclined to compartmentalize the diaconate? When we approach it from this perspective, the diaconate becomes something tacked on to the life of an already-busy Catholic husband and father. It becomes merely the “things he does at church” that “steals time” from his family and work.
Some might try to establish a sort of hierarchy between the two. They might say that “family comes first” (which is usually correct, concerning priorities) and push the diaconate back to something he does “only at church on Sunday” or “in his spare time.”
Or, perhaps the husband wants to maximize his service to the church. He may be recently retired or otherwise motivated to give more time to an array of activities at the parish. However, if the reality or even perception is that his marriage must take a backseat to Church ministry, his family life will suffer greatly.
So how does the married permanent deacon balance these two vocations so that it doesn’t become a zero-sum game?
I think the mind of the Church, borne out in practice by many effective, happy deacons, is that they must integrate rather than compartmentalize the two vocations. The man is a deacon even when he’s playing catch with one of his kids or celebrating an anniversary with his wife; he is a married man even when he’s proclaiming the Gospel at Mass.
The diaconate is not about extending (or overextending) the married man’s to-do list. Instead, it brings about a new deepening of his life in Christ, empowering him to fully give himself to family, friends, co-workers and parish as part of a beautiful, integrated life.
So how does the married deacon actually bring the grace of the sacrament home with him?
Priority vs. Value
When a deacon is at home with a sick kid, at a soccer game or recital, or on a date night with his wife — and not doing something at the parish instead — it’s not because he got married before he became a deacon, or because marriage is more important than holy orders.
Rather, those intentional choices reflect a properly ordered (and diaconal) set of priorities, grounded in prayer, effective spousal communication and docility to the Holy Spirit. In keeping with a healthy, flexible plan of life, we must be wise stewards of our time, which requires us to prioritize our activities, not our vocations.
In fact, the two sacraments should reinforce each other and, in the process, draw people closer to Christ and his Church. The deacon bears authentic witness to the goodness of married life in his preaching, his sacramental preparation classes and, most of all, in the way he carries himself in his family. Similarly, the deacon bears authentic witness to the goodness of the diaconate in the way he lays down his life in service to his wife and family.
When the two sacraments complement each other in this fashion, God is able to do great things through us.
LEON SUPRENANT is co-director of the Office of the Permanent Diaconate for the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.
Pope Emphasizes a Deacon’s Smile and Family Life
Meeting with the deacons of Rome and their families on June 19, 2021, Pope Francis shared the following expectation: “I expect you to be good spouses and good fathers. And good grandparents. This will give hope and consolation to couples who are going through difficult times and who will find in your genuine simplicity an outstretched hand. They will be able to think: ‘Look at our deacon! He is happy to be with the poor, but also with the parish priest and even with his children and his wife!’ Even with his mother-in-law, that’s very important! Doing everything with joy, without complaining: it is a testimony that is worth more than many sermons. And out with the complaints. Without complaining. ‘I had so much work, so much …’ Nothing. Send these things away. Away. The smile, the family, open to the family, generosity.”