The Deacon's Bench

Several days ago, I mentioned The Indy 25, a big batch of deacons ordained in Indianapolis in its first-ever class.

Now, a local paper has picked up the story:

The Archdiocese of Indianapolis, cut from the wilderness nearly 175 years ago, turned a new page in its long history Saturday when it restored an ancient office of the church that has lain largely dormant for Roman Catholics since the Dark Ages.

Twenty-five men — all but one married and most grandfathers — were ordained Saturday as deacons of the church. Aside from men on their way to becoming priests, it’s an office Catholics had abandoned until the 1970s.

Deacons are familiar to Protestants, but in the Catholic faith, they are a notch below priests but more than the average parishioner. Catholic deacons are vested with the authority to conduct baptisms, weddings and funerals, preach at Mass and lead prayer services. Unlike priests, though, they may not hear confessions, anoint the sick or consecrate the Eucharistic bread and wine.

“We aren’t clergy, and we are not lay people,” said Mike East, one of the newly ordained deacons. “We walk with a foot in each role.”

Described in the Bible as helpers who took care of orphans, widows and the poor, deacons disappeared from Roman Catholicism by the 7th century as the priesthood became pre-eminent, said the Rev. Bede Cisco, the Benedictine monk who oversaw the local revival.

In the wake of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, groups such as Baptists, Presbyterians and Congregationalists once again embraced the role of deacons, said Greg Wills, professor of church history at Louisville’s Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Performing duties such as preparing Communion and caring for needs in the church, they were deemed “essential” to a well-ordered congregation.

But Catholics opened the door for the return of deacons only in the early 1960s, following the Second Vatican Council. A few American dioceses began ordaining deacons in the early 1970s. Chicago’s archdiocese, one of the early adopters, now has more than 600 deacons. The Diocese of Lafayette, which includes Indianapolis’ northern suburbs, brought back deacons earlier this decade.

Over time, a handful of deacons from other dioceses transferred to Indianapolis, including five here now. But until 2004, when American bishops adopted a fresh set of guidelines for deacons, the archdiocese declined to grow its own.

“I think here the real need for it wasn’t seen clearly because they still had enough priests to take care of a lot of ministry,” Cisco said. “Folks were more concerned about allowing the lay ministry to grow and develop as fully as possible.”

I might take issue with some of the details in the article: despite what one newly ordained deacon said, we are clergy. And deacons didn’t entirely disappear, but rather became a transitional step on the path to the priesthood. Only recently has the diaconate been restored as a full and separate order.

But it’s great to see some extensive coverage in the secular press. Visit the link for more.

UPDATE: You’ll note that I took issue with the comments of Deacon Mike East, quoted in the article above. He sent a note to the reporter at the Indianapolis Star. It was forwarded to me and reads in part:

There is one item that I wish you would correct. Deacons in the Catholic Church are Clergy. In the article you quoted me as saying that “We ‘deacons’ aren’t clergy and we are not lay people.” I’m not sure where this came from since deacons would have to be one or the other, but by virtue of their ordination deacons are definently clergy.

I would greatly appreciate it if you would print a correction to this item.

Gee, a reporter making a mistake? Misquoting someone? Wow. Stop the presses! Dog bites man!

Seriously, that’s a pretty serious goof, wherever it came from, and however it happened. My apologies for fanning the flames. I hope the paper posts a correction.

Photo: by Danese Kenon / The Indianapolis Star

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