The sight of married men baptising babies and presiding at weddings in the Catholic Church will be novel to the faithful.
If the introduction of permanent deacons goes well it could be a much-needed opportunity for renewal.
If it is handled badly it runs the risk of alienating parishioners, upsetting priests, and infuriating those men who have volunteered and been trained to serve as deacons.
Permanent deacons have worked in the Church in many countries since the early 1970s. Historically, the role goes back much further: The New Testament records how the first followers of Christ appointed deacons to help in their work. However, after a few centuries, the practice fell into disuse until its revival in the wake of Vatican II (1962-65).
The Irish hierarchy refused to countenance permanent deacons in the 1970s, insisting that the people in the pews would not be comfortable with one of their neighbours — a married man — hatching, matching, and despatching the faithful.
It was only in 2001 that Ireland’s bishops — undoubtedly motivated by the sharp decline in those wishing to study for the priesthood — decided to roll out the permanent diaconate.
Now, over a decade later, the first married men to serve in Irish parishes to help overworked priests will be ordained by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin early next month.
Initially they will only serve in Dublin. However, another 14 of the country’s 26 dioceses intend rolling out similar schemes in the next few years.
Where permanent deacons have worked well in the Catholic Church in other countries, they have worked very well. Where it has not worked out there have sometimes been divisive consequences.
Deacons are expected to continue their lives by-and-large as normal. Those who are still working will continue with their careers. They will not move into presbyteries or parochial houses but will continue living with their families. Deacons are expected to provide for their own upkeep. There will be no stipend from the Church; it is a purely voluntary role.
Some priests are sceptical about the introduction of permanent deacons: They can’t celebrate Mass so will be unable to help with the punishing schedule of weekend Masses that many priests face. Others are concerned the introduction of the permanent deacons creates another layer between priests and people, and potentially delays or even hinders lay involvement. As one priest recently told me, “the way to include lay people in decision-making and co-responsibility within the Church is not to ordain them”.
Deacons in other countries, have sometimes reported feelings of frustration, often struggling to occupy a space that for some equates to a deficient priest and to others an inflated lay person.
While not all permanent deacons are married (unmarried men who become deacons are expected to take vows of celibacy and remain perpetually unmarried), many are and this can cause tensions for their families. Teenagers suddenly find themselves subjected to new levels of scrutiny since their father is now a cleric and wives have to mould themselves to meet new expectations.
Permanent deacons will bring new diversity to Irish parishes. But it will take time and energy to eke out a role among priests, many of whom are browbeaten, and lay people, many of whom are cynical.
* Michael Kelly is the deputy editor of The Irish Catholic newspaper
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