Formation to Become “Our Deacon”

Fr Jim McKeon, 29 September 2022

Fr Jim McKeon’s job is to prepare men to be permanent deacons in the Diocese of Broken Bay. Although he considers himself only a “common garden variety parish priest”, he is clearly much more than that, and brings a wealth of wisdom and experience to the ministry of formation.

It all started in 2008 when he did training as a formator in the US and was asked to lead formation for seminarians in Broken Bay, NSW. Jim loved the work and learned a lot, but the diocesan seminary did not continue more than a few years after he started. However, in 2016, he was invited to re-establish a formation program for permanent deacons in the diocese.

Since then, Jim has developed a program and, most importantly, built up a team around him. In such a small diocese, they have only few members, but he is very happy they include a priest, a deacon and a woman who is highly skilled and had been an ‘Ecclesial Woman’ under a previous bishop. 

The diaconate program follows the Australian norm of at least four years. However, it does depend on the man’s availability and the academic part can take longer. While the candidates are usually engaged in full-time employment, they cover 16 theological subjects. This is a start, and they are encouraged to continue in lifelong learning beyond their ordination. 

Jim has developed a wonderful structure that covers human, pastoral, spiritual and academic formation. While the men complete academic study, spiritual direction and parish pastoral experience, they meet for formation gatherings one day a month. This time is dedicated to spiritual formation and theological reflection. Jim explains that the ‘human’ aspect is about their approach to everything, and it “happens under the surface of every other component.” Each of the four years are centred on liturgical moments:

  1. Year one: Baptism. The candidates learn about the sacrament and focus on evangelisation.
  2. Year two: Marriage. The candidates share about their own marriages and do some marriage enrichment. They read documents and the rite of marriage. Then they watch some weddings and practice a wedding homily and ritual with the group.
  3. Year three: Funerals. The candidates learn about funerals and about pastoral care. They share stories about their own experiences of grief, and reflect on their capacity to grieve.
  4. Year four: Eucharist. The candidates read about the meaning of eucharist and learn about what it means to be a deacon within the Mass.

Over time, they gradually build competence, as the candidates become aware of their strengths and weaknesses, and learn from their mistakes. This is where feedback and critique from each other is so important. And as they start practising the liturgical skills early, they start to view the sacraments with new eyes and gain real understanding.  

The men that Jim has worked with have come from a variety of professional backgrounds and life experiences. All of them have been married, which brings “a really authentic voice to the pulpit”. When he began the program, Jim thought that he would need a woman to run separate sessions for their wives. However, that has not turned out to be the case. Instead, having a woman involved in forming the men has proven so valuable. It has meant that a team of women and men form men and women together, rather than separately. The wives have always been invited to be part of formation gatherings and some have wanted to come, to participate in the program as a couple, and others have not. It really depends on the situation, as some wives have wanted, and been able, to be very involved with the ministry, and others have quite separate professional careers. However, Jim reflects that “it takes a woman who understands the value of the diaconate to support her husband through it.” As he has heard of one wife’s experience – “This man is enough. He loves me and our children, but there is enough of him that I can share him with the wider Church and we are not going to be diminished by it.”

At the same time, Jim thinks that it is very good for the transitional deacons to join the candidates for the permanent diaconate in formation. There is cross-fertilisation, and benefits both ways. The transitional deacons may have theology and skills in liturgy. But the permanent deacons in training have such rich married life experiences and “such a breadth of pastoral skills.”

From his formation work with both cohorts, Jim finds that seminarians may be younger men that they are “forming from scratch.” But the permanent diaconate draws men who are often middle aged, successful and established. However, while they might have flourishing careers and family lives, Jim needs to find ways to form their hearts rather than just their minds. For example, a very skilled professional man found it difficult to pray the Divine Office. In that moment, Jim could ask him what it was like to face something that does not come easily. It was a “wonderful opportunity” for him to learn about vulnerability, and openness to God. 

In the Diocese of Broken Bay, the ministry of the permanent diaconate is part-time and voluntary. However, the diocese pays for the theology subjects, formation component, monthly spiritual direction and annual retreat. Jim also sees ongoing professional supervision as necessary for both ordained ministers and lay pastoral associates. Once he had a young woman as an administration assistant who challenged him to think about the energy and support that was put into men training to be ordained, while not available to lay people. If the permanent diaconate were open to women as well, Jim says, he imagines that it would be the same formation program and outcomes. He would love to have a woman’s voice in the pulpit – it “would be so powerful”. 

For Jim, forming men to be deacons is a privilege, a challenge and “a real joy to see people grow.” He appreciates that ordination is a spiritual gift and an imparting of the Holy Spirit. The public ceremony creates a commitment to the bishop and diocese, orienting the man towards ministry to a particular people. There is also a sense of ownership by the people they minister to. Just as Jim is considered “our priest”, each man that he forms becomes “our deacon”. Thanks for sharing, Jim!

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