Convocation marks 50th anniversary of restored diaconate

GREENVILLE—The central theme from the national diaconate congress held recently in New Orleans echoes what permanent deacons in the Diocese of Charleston have known for some time: Theirs is a service of charity, proclaiming the word and leading the faithful in prayer

That message was delivered at the opening Mass by Archbishop Christophe Pierre, apostolic nuncio to the United States, as he heaped praise on the ministry of the permanent diaconate.

“This is Christ’s call,” Archbishop Pierre said.

The work deacons do is Christ’s work, he said, and that is a charge Deacon André Guillet, director of the Diocese of Charleston’s Office of the Permanent Diaconate, sees reflected in Bishop Robert E. Guglielmone’s guidance on what a deacon should be.

“I took away from the congress what Bishop Guglielmone always tells us, and that is we’re not priests. Our biggest role is to serve the people. Yes, it’s wonderful that we can stand at the altar and preach, but our real role is to serve,” Deacon Guillet said.

Nearly 30 deacons and their wives from the diocese attended the congress as part of the record-breaking crowd of 2,800 participants from across the country. It was only the third such gathering since Pope Paul VI restored the permanent diaconate in the Latin-rite church in 1968 through his “motu proprio” titled “Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem.”  The first congress was held in 1994.

In his preface to “Il Diaconato nel pensiero di Papa Francesco” published in 2017, Pope Francis said “The Church finds in the permanent diaconate the expression and, at the same time, the impulse to become itself a visible sign of the ‘diakonia’ of Christ the Servant in the history of mankind.”

In a letter to the congress’ participants, the papal nuncio said the Holy Father is grateful for the ministry of permanent deacons and for all those who have supported them. That includes bishops, priests, the wives and families of deacons, and parishioners.

Archbishop Gregory M. Aymond of New Orleans noted that the 50th anniversary of the restoration of the diaconate coincides with New Orleans’ tri-centennial. He said the diaconate theme, “Christ the Servant – Yesterday, Today and Forever,” invites all who attended “to celebrate the ministry of deacon, to recall and remember the journey thus far, to share experiences, and to envision and propose a path to the future.”

Deacon Guillet praised Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, archbishop of Galveston-Houston and president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, for delivering a moving address.

“He reflected on the many ways deacons have impacted the lives of those in their local communities over the past 50 years,” as well as on ways to “empower us for the good work that lies ahead,” Deacon Guillet said. “It’s important to recall what we have done, though our work is not over. We must continue to work hard in serving the people.”

This congress was the first for Deacon Thomas Whalen of St. Mary Church in Greenville, who was ordained two years ago.

“It was a tremendous meeting,” Deacon Whalen said. “For me, and I know for others, (the congress) was a spiritual renewal, affirmation by the Church in the role of a deacon, and certainly a fellowship.”

In addition to Cardinal DiNardo and Archbishops Pierre and Aymond, speakers at the congress included Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila of Denver, and Deacon William Ditewig, former executive of the U.S. Bishops Committee on the Diaconate, among others.

Deacon Whalen, North American materials manager for Michelin in Greenville, said the congress, in acknowledging the current role of a deacon, also spoke to the role they could have going forward, possibly anointing the sick.

“What a deacon does today — marriage, funeral services and baptisms — may evolve into more things as time goes on,” he said.

Views were also shared on the changing role of wives. Dorothy Whalen was at her husband’s side for every step of his path to ordination. She was among the first of the wives in the diocese to receive her master’s in theology, earning the degree alongside her spouse.

The Whalens were among the 29 deacons and 22 wives from the diocese who participated in the congress.

Deacon Regi Armstrong, from St. Anthony Church in Florence, said the salient point from the congress circles back to why the U.S. bishops requested restoration of the diaconate.

“The permanent diaconate was restored not because of a lack of priests, but because of a lack of deacons,” he said.

Ordained in 2002, Deacon Armstrong said the diaconate is “a ministry unto itself (and) our job is to serve, to assist the priest and to allow the priest to be the eyes, ears and hands of the bishop.”

It was a theme shared and expanded upon by others, including Deacon Phil Allen of St. Anthony of Padua in Greenville. He said permanent deacons serve as a liaison to the priests, keeping them informed of what’s happening in the community surrounding the parish.

“As deacons, we have our role in the church, and we have our role outside the church,” Deacon Allen said. He noted that deacons work in the community and are involved in it beyond the parish, a role applicable to another theme of the New Orleans congress: evangelization.

“We can influence people and their lives beyond the walls of the church,” Deacon Allen said.

Photo provided: Deacon André Guillet (left), director of the Diocese of Charleston’s Office of the Permanent Diaconate, stands with Deacon Regi Armstrong, of St. Anthony in Florence, in front of the St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans.