I have just come back from the National Deacons’ Conference at Baulkham Hills, NSW, with the theme song still ringing in my ears: “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.” The song, as well as the display and so many of the conference talks and materials were specially created for the days of the 13-16th of October.
Once we have heard God speaking to us, and discerned with others, we are ready to go out into the deep! The Conference was a rich experience for us all, a colourful mixture of permanent deacons, deacons’ wives, people in diaconal formation or clergy care, transitional deacons and extras like myself. One of the deacons asked me if I found anything surprising about the Conference. I don’t think it went against my expectations, but I was overwhelmed by the welcoming attitude towards everyone, especially as a potential female diaconal candidate. I felt like I was part of a family and we had some wonderful conversations.
We also had an incredible formative experience, hearing from excellent speakers with both information and insight. The first keynote was Lana Turvey-Collins, who was the Plenary Council Facilitator, arriving with her tiny twins in their stroller. She started with her experience of the permanent diaconate as “family ministry” – it was family-to-family connection. She encouraged deacons with children and grandchildren to include them in their ministries, as she modelled to us in her very honest life stories of growth and spirituality “in the depths”.
Then we heard from Robert Fitzgerald, who powerfully called deacons to fulfill their mission to the emerging Church. God is beckoning to us now from the future, and how can work to make that a reality? He especially emphasised the role of deacon to listen and to love in a way that other ministers can’t or don’t. Then, along with the universal Church, we are all to see, reflect, choose and act. Robert gave us statistics about the numbers of Catholics (1.3 billion and growing), priests, women religious, brothers and parishes without priests (over 50,000) around the world. In Australia, we have 220,000 employees in Catholic schools, healthcare and other institutions, and 11% of Catholics attend worship services regularly. The Royal Commission into Institutional Child Abuse was very clear about the major problems driving the abuse and cover-up in our Australian church: unhealthy clericalism, systemic gender inequality and authoritarian regimes. We found that incentives to do harm drove behaviours, and not values. In all of this, Robert saw the permanent diaconate as a “ministry of hope”, and deacons to be “dealers of hope”.
On the second main program day, we started with a keynote address from the deacon, Associate Professor Anthony Gooley, on Women Deacons? He stated very clearly from the outset “We are never going to have the full restoration of the permanent diaconate without women deacons.” To follow up, Anthony gave historical evidence for women deacons, starting with the only person, apart from Jesus, who is described as a deacon of a community in the bible: St Phoebe. Anthony continued with details from documents, images and other sources to affirm that women were sacramentally and intentionally ordained, as was understood at the time, and ordinary ministers in direct relationship to the bishop. However, what they actually did was immaterial, as we did not ask the same question of male deacons when the permanent diaconate was restored after Vatican II. Anthony had a very clear exposition of the Church’s theology of sacramental grace – that the Holy Spirit gives the grace of orders to the Church for its building up and sanctification. Anthony also called for canon law regarding permanent deacons to be developed, as it deals now mostly with exceptions to the ministry of priests. We all took away a stronger appreciation of the diaconate on its own terms and its value for men and women now and into the future.
This talk was followed by Anne Benjamin, who spoke on Leadership in the Synodal Church. She encouraged the deacons, as ordained members of the faithful, to make good use of their leadership responsibility in the churches. For Pope Francis, synodality is “imperative and constitutive” and could be explained as “walking together under the Holy Spirit for the mission of the Church.” Anne helped us to picture a contemplative Marian Church, where each person has the “gift and responsibility to contribute to the lived understanding of our faith.” Within this, deacons are called to build up the capacity of their communities, to create a moral imperative, to influence people relationally to be their best selves, to promote a positive organisational culture, to discern and make decisions out of a complex of values. In Anne’s eyes, “deacons sacramentalise the mission of the Church”. They are humble, transparent, accountable, upright, good stewards and have an orientation to the other, creating a culture of dialogue and mutual listening. Not small asks, but I felt confident that the deacons around me were up to the challenge.
On the final day, we were privileged to hear from the chair of the International Diaconate Centre, Deacon Gerald Dupont. He gave us some statistics, such as the total number of deacons in the world (48,000) and the break-ups by region. Oceania currently has 23,000 Catholics per deacon and, in fact, the largest diaconal growth rate. Gerald then focused on the identity of the permanent deacon – which is ontological rather than functional (who rather than what). But, he asked, who are those who are currently ministering as deacons? Gerald expounded on various studies done on the diaconal identity, including one from the 1980s that identified 9 themes: spirituality, relator, kinesthetic, purpose, positive other perception, family, helping, accommodating and teaming. From this, I took away the value in being a deacon as opposed to the doing of diaconal work. It made me reflect on a similar conversation among consecrated Sisters, who take on a new way of being in the world rather than simply jobs or professions.
As well as all this wonderful food for thought, and the friendly interactions and meals throughout the Conference, we had more practical and on-the-ground workshops by deacons and other ministers/scholars. I learned a lot about team mission and ministry to those in need, how to develop a new ministry, the four pillars in a particular ministry (mind, body, soul, relationships, held together by life-giving purpose), the importance of pastoral supervision, a better understanding of Mary the mother of Jesus, the 7 elements of a theology of the diaconate and walking with people on the margins to build relationships of trust and be an instrument of Christ’s salvation. I would love to list all the presenters, but suffice to say they were outstanding! A very big thank you to the organisers and for encouraging us in our shared commitment to the diaconate in Australia.