By Deacon Louis Azzopardi
You are probably all familiar with the story of the diaconate in the early church and how it eventually became part of the road to the priesthood and ceased to be an ordained ministry in its own right. The permanent diaconate as an ordained ministry of lifetime service open to both single and married men formally came into being after a majority vote in its favour at the Second Vatican Council on October 30th 1963. Four years later Pope Paul VI established the general norms for the restoration of the permanent diaconate, leaving it open for the various Bishops’ Conferences to decide whether or not to implement it in their own countries.
The end of the beginning
All this was, one could say, ‘the end of a beginning’ and the beginning was a very unpromising one indeed in Cell Block 26 at Dachau concentration camp during World War II. Cell Block 26 held many priests and a number of them dared to discuss how Europe and the Church could be rebuilt after the war. Somehow a record was kept of these discussions, which included a permanent diaconate.
To cut a long story short, there was quite a lot of discussion about the diaconate in the context of the renewal of the Church, especially in Germany in the 1950’s. The discussion was summarised in a book called Diakonia in Christo circulated among the German speaking bishops at the Council. The way the permanent diaconate has evolved reflects its origins in a desire to participate in the renewal and rebuilding of the Church.
This is the world I inherited when I happened to pick up a magazine in a doctor’s surgery while waiting for my appointment. It had an article which included a detailed account of a man in New York who combined his working life with ordained ministry. He spoke about the opportunities he found through the course of his working life and, because he was recognised as a deacon, to bring Christ to the people he met. I’d never heard anything like this before, so I tried to find out as much as I could about the permanent diaconate. The more I read, the more this way of life appealed to me, even though I didn’t know anyone who was a deacon.
A fruitful convergence
What appealed to me was the way in which the different parts of my life-my faith, my married life and my working life could be combined in a way that made a positive contribution to other people’s lives and the life of the Church. It took me a long time, and many difficult conversations with my family and friends, to put these fairly vague ideas together but when I eventually started my formation program, I found the language to express what I had been thinking about for some time. In our formation group we would discuss for example, specific incidents in our working life but always in the context of living a life of service to God’s people-what was happening in this situation; what had we brought to it; what had we learnt from it; what was God saying to us?
As deacons we come not only from a variety of national backgrounds but also from a variety of cultural worlds in our working life. Some have worked in industry or in business, in IT, in architecture, in education or counselling or in retail. In each of these worlds there is a culture that has a language and a range of issues and questions that is unique to itself. Because of our formation, each one of us has both the opportunity and the responsibility to respond to the various issues that come up in a way that brings into them the light of Christ.
Coming out as a Catholic
Since I worked as a teacher with adult migrants and refugees there were many opportunities to put into practice what I had learned through my formation and my commitment to service as a deacon. The government department I worked for also had the responsibility of helping migrants and refugees resettle in Australia, so, all the practical issues involved here became part of my experience of a deacon’s ministry of charity. There were opportunities too with people on the other side as it were as our immigration laws became more and more restrictive. I felt I had a responsibility to assist even those whose status was not officially recognised. In my own experience and, I believe in the experience of many deacons, being a deacon in one’s workplace has another dimension as well. It can put us on the spot whether consciously or unconsciously as representatives of the Catholic Church. If it is known that you are a deacon or even simply that you had ‘come out’ as a Catholic you would become a magnet for anyone with a grudge, a disagreement or an affection for the Church.
I never encouraged or invited this role but it made me realise just how many people there were who had a lot of pain and many questions in their lives but who were on the surface strong and self- confident. My own experience is one that I know I share with many committed Catholics in the workplace and society in general and that is that these encounters with people along a broad spectrum ranging from curiosity to aggressive hostility.
Moments of opportunity in the daily workplace
I have come to understand these conversations I have had at work or on social occasions as opportunities for what Pope Francis has called “creating a culture of encounter”. This all takes time and, in my case, the fact that I have worked in the same organisation for over 30 years and worked closely with the same people over many months and even years, has provided many opportunities for creating this environment.
Only a few of my colleagues, who also happened to be friends knew that I was a deacon. This meant that we could all talk about particular issues that were, and still are, current, (eg euthanasia, clerical sexual abuse) on the same level as it were. It struck me then just how uninformed so many of the comments they made were since they mirrored the same arguments and stories of the mainstream media. More often however our conversations were about issues where we worked. These were related to the problems our migrant and refugee students experienced in resettling in Australia and our own responsibilities.
The unique role of deacons
For me, experiences such as this are an expression of the unique cultural experience deacons bring to their ministry and to the life of the Church. It is in the everyday interactions of our lives that we have the opportunity to build up this “culture of encounter” based on trust and shared experiences. We have of course our parish responsibilities but, until we retire, it is within the culture of our workplace that we have the most opportunities for evangelisation and conversion. These opportunities are not only for the people we are with each day but for ourselves as well through the personal issues we meet.
Whether or not I have actually helped anyone to change the way they lived is not a question I can answer. Evangelisation and conversion is a complex and mysterious process. All I can say is that I have prayed many times that prayer attributed to another deacon as I tried to respond to the questions and issues that were raised, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace”.
Permanent deacons and their families
The other cultural world that forms us as deacons is of course our married and family life. In some important ways many of the things I have said about the culture of working life also applies to the culture of married and family life. All the questions, issues and hopes of families everywhere are also those of all deacons who are married and have a family. As both married men and ordained ministers, deacons have a unique role in the life of the Church. Our family life ‘grounds us’ in a number of ways. The questions and experiences that come up in, for example, baptism and marriage, especially in relation to bringing up children in their faith and on life together are our experiences as well.
This is the edited first part of a presentation delivered by Deacon Louis Azzopardi at a Clergy Conference for the Archdiocese of Sydney on 3 March 2022.