success stories

Learning About The Permanent Diaconate
Conclusions Drawn from the 1994-1995 Permanent Diaconate Study

Conducted by Dr. James Kelly and Fr. Eugene Hemrick
The United States Catholic Conference of Bishops
3211 4th Street NE
Washington, DC 20017-1194


The restored Order of the Diaconate, largely parish based, has been successful and increasingly important for the life of the Church. The primary challenges of the diaconate for the future are to broaden its ministries beyond its largely successful and increasingly indispensable adaptation to parish life and to emphasize more strongly that deacons, through ordination, are called to be model, animator, and facilitator of ministries of charity and justice within the local church.

2. The enthusiastic acceptance of the diaconate by parish lay leaders is widespread. The majority foresaw a growth in the diaconate in the context of declining numbers of parish priests. Lay leaders rated the deacon's contribution to parish life very highly, most successful in traditional roles. Fifty-two percent of lay leaders rated deacons' preaching as about the same in quality as they would rate priests; 31 percent rated priests' homilies as higher in quality. Fifty-one percent of the lay leaders did not think that ordination was necessary for the ministries performed by deacons in their parishes.

3. The wives of deacons are supportive of their husband's ministry and consider their family greatly enriched by his ordination and service. As a result of being part of the diaconate, the deacons and their wives had more enriching experiences, met more people on deeper levels, and had more to share --- all of which brought them human and spiritual growth.

4. Problems associated with the identity and acceptance of the deacon are reported in the larger context of high satisfaction. They are remediable by better communication and personal relations.

5. The median age of the deacons is 60. The majority are Caucasian, married, college educated, deeply spiritual, and highly motivated toward service. They believe that their ministry has enriched their relationship with their wives and children.

6. About one-fifth of the deacons have minority backgrounds with one-half of those describing themselves as "Hispanic-Latino." The obvious challenge is to recruit more deacons from minority communities.

7. Supervisors of deacons in ministry, most of whom are pastors where deacons serve, described their deacons as "able" in performing their duties. Eighty-eight percent of the supervisors rated their deacons as"very effective" to "somewhat effective" in pastoral care of the sick; 86 percent "very effective" to "somewhat effective" in preparing and giving homilies, and "effective" in sacramental service such as baptisms, marriages, and liturgies, but less so in promoting human and civil rights.

8. From the data---including written comments---we may conclude that the vast majority of supervisors and lay leaders regard their deacons as clearly necessary, judge them effective in their ministries, and find them satisfactorily trained. However, they are evenly divided over whether the deacons' ordination is important for the actual ministries they ably perform.

9. The most common prediction for the future was the neutral judgment that there will be fewer priests and more deacons who would increasingly function as "parish administrators, " "parish-life coordinators," or "satellite-parish leaders." This scenario was considered by some, but not all, a pragmatic response to the priest shortage, distorting the meaning of both priesthood and diaconate.

10. The data suggest the need for a more effective catechesis on the diaconate---especially for the laity who are most accepting of the deacon but least sure of the role of the deacon apart from his sacramental ministry, the "priest-assistant." Parish leaders are most interested in the quality of the religious services available in their parish and are pleased and grateful that their deacons effectively contribute to them. Lay leaders did not perceive any large problem regarding the identity of the deacon.

11. The majority of parish leaders supported the idea of a written mission statement for deacons serving in their parish.


1. How are the issues of the deacon's identity and acceptance to be resolved in light of the tendency of many to use the deacon to address the present shortage of priests?

2. Is there a need for a more determined recruitment of men for the diaconate from minority and less affluent communities? If so, how is this to be addressed?

3. How can pre-ordination spiritual formation and post-ordination continuing spiritual direction of deacons be better addressed?

4. How can diocesan deacon formation programs be strengthened to address better the principles of Catholic social justice teaching? How can candidates be better prepared to use service agencies such as Catholic Charities and Family Life Bureaus for referral and as a source of training?

5. What are the best means of response to the demonstrated need for a more focused effort on the national and diocesan levels to form and challenge deacons toward roles and ministries more clearly differentiated from the ministerial priesthood?

6. What will be required in developing curricula for deacon formation that will more clearly orient deacons toward embodying and preaching issues of justice, human rights, and peace?

7. In what ways can diocesan formation programs be strengthened in the following areas:

Field training and internships that are extra parochial and diocesan oriented.

Orientation/preparation days for wives by wives of deacons to explore the role of the wife of a deacon and the impact of ordination on the deacon's family

Spiritual direction for and by deacons.

More focused communication and accountability systems joining supervisors and deacons into wider networks of diocesan and Church-wide concerns.

Promoting further the need for a written mission statement and a specific role delineation for deacons.

Promoting opportunities in evangelization

The challenge of the next decades will be to make these developments more theologically rich and thus to expand the deacon's sense of ministry, evangelization, and service continually, even beyond the parish.


1. In this summary, the detailed statistics available in the appendix that contains the four surveys are cited infrequently. Excessive detail would defeat the point of a summary essay. Still, the reader should be mindful that almost every one of the declarative sentences might have further nuances based on the concrete statistical data.

For example, while only 1 percent of the deacons said they would not recommend the diaconate to someone considering it, 30 percent indicated that they would recommend it with reservations. That tells us something worth attending to. We should also explicitly acknowledge at the outset that the advantages and disadvantages of a national sample are necessarily intertwined. Since a national sample generalizes from numerous and sometimes contrary (or at least varied) local experiences and tendencies, the aggregate tendencies -- the big picture---it reports might not altogether fit any real diocese, parish, deacon, or deacon's family. But in the Roman Catholic tradition, each diocese, each parish, each deacon, and each deacon's family is taught and encouraged to consider as part of its own more specific and immediate realities the larger---and thus more general-question, "How is the order of the deacons serving the Church universal?" Big pictures blur some important details; but they can, at least a bit, serve to focus the aspirations of each of their parts. The reader should note the appendix where other studies and other reports are cited for further reading and reflection.

2. Eugene F Hemrick and Joseph Shields, A National Summary of the Permanent Diaconate In the United States (Washington, D.C.: United States Catholic Conference, 1981).

3. For a discussion of the process of sampling and its reliability, see Appendix B.

4. The 1994 Annual Statistical Report on the Permanent Diaconate in the United States, issued by the Secretariat for the Diaconate, reports that 57 dioceses have a formal policy for retirement and that their mandatory age for deacons to retire ranges from 70 to 75 (the mode).

5. On the question of deacon and spousal satisfaction, the 1981 study offered a comment that continues to apply to our findings: "One must not overlook a certain psycho-spiritual phenomenon that comes with the stages of life. In middle age, having pursued a career and raised a family, one not uncommonly turns one's thoughts to the deeper meaning of existence. Spiritual realities take on a greater significance. In the permanent diaconate, an environment and support system are afforded whereby a man, his wife, and family can respond to this grace. From the study's data reflecting a high degree of diaconal fulfillment, it would seem just such a psycho-spiritual phenomenon is occurring.

6. The Vatican's yearbook reported that at the end of 1993, 349 of the world's parishes were entrusted to deacons, 131 to religious brothers, 1,068 to religious women, and 1,614 to lay people. The yearbook reports a total of 404,560 diocesan and religious order priests worldwide, a decline of seventy-six from 1992. The yearbook reports a worldwide Catholic population of about 965 million, an increase of about 6.3 million over 1992.

7. The 1981 survey reported that among the deacons "only 5.3 percent envisioned the diaconate as a stepping-stone to a married clergy or as a movement leading to women priests."

8. The 1994 Annual Statistical Report on the Permanent Diaconate in the United States reports that sixty deacons are serving as full-time administrators of parishes and forty are serving part-time. About 10 percent of the deacons receive some salary for their ministry: 887 are salaried as deacon in full-time ministry, 236 in part-time ministry; 524 are salaried in positions such as diocesan director of finance, director of the diocesan diaconate program, and director of religious education.

9. When the 1981 study asked deacons about changes in their training, none mentioned courses about the social teachings of the Church. The study states: "When asked 'As a result of your lived experience, what aspects of your formation program need to be improved or changed?'35 percent of the deacons said there should be more emphasis on pastoral/field training, 20 percent favored more emphasis on dogmatic and moral theology, 16 percent said ascetical theology and prayer should be given first priority, 4 percent asked for more continuing education after ordination, 3 percent called for better screening of candidates, and 14 percent said nothing should be changed. While almost all the deacons in our sample said they have used Catholic social teachings in a sermon or have included them in their teaching, they also acknowledged that, for the most part, they have never read them "in their entirety." Usually far less than one-third (respectively, 30%; 37%; 10%; 12%; 22%; 16%) said they had even read at least "a good part of "the Bishops' pastoral letters The Challenge of Peace and Economic Justice for All and the most recent Papal encyclicals On Social Concern, On Human Work, and On the 100th Anniversary.

10. The 1994 Statistical Report shows that the vast majority of deacons ministered in parish settings (75% ) or pastoral care of the sick (23%). Six percent reported family ministries and 7 percent youth ministries. For the following ministries the percentage participating never exceeded 5 percent: prison, substance abuse, homeless, hunger, AIDS, migrants/refugees, mental illness, abused and battered wives, disabled, racial and ethnic discrimination, and rural. It might be noted, however, that 5 percent, the percentage engaged in prison ministry, represents 573 deacons.

11. A newsletter or other means of written communication is published regularly in seventy-two dioceses.

12. The 1994 Statistical Report says that fifty-six dioceses have a job description for deacons. In ninety-five dioceses, deacons sign a contractor agreement. The 1981 study found that about one-half had no job description.

13. Ninety-three dioceses have some form of deacons' organization or structure, ranging from formal councils to regular assemblies. Sixty-two relate directly to the bishop while forty-eight make appointments or recommendations for deacon participation in diocesan committees. Forty dioceses are members of the National Association of Deacon Organizations.