Vocation for the Wives of Ordained Permanent Deacons

Women who pray for the Church, and who are spouses of permanent deacons (or those in formation), are undoubtedly responding to a unique grace of personal mission that comes to them as a result of their baptism.


I was at a retreat in another diocese, when a man in formation for the permanent diaconate was sharing his recent experience with the Rite of Candidacy. His eyes glistened as he looked towards heaven and he said, “It was so moving to step up on the altar with the archbishop, leaving our women behind. Our women have to get used to letting us go so we can serve God.” His comments hit me flat and drew my own heart to Jesus to offer it up in silence. Is that what it means for a man (and a woman) when he enters formation for the permanent diaconate, “to leave his woman behind?” He motivated my prayer and reflections, in this Year of Faith in the commemoration of the start of Vatican II, about what it means to be a woman in the Church who is married to a permanent deacon or one in formation.

It is not just about staying in the pew and being quiet. Diaconal formation is a graced summons for the woman, too, to cultivate her baptismal gifts in service of her family, the world, and in her own distinct way, the Church. As I wrote to a priest friend, “The Lord knows that we are sitting out there, and will touch each woman uniquely and individually with his will, and the aspects of her baptismal vocation that synergizes with his desires and the call of her husband.

Most spiritual writers describe that when persons open their lives to the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit integrates their gifts and energies into a synthesis of love in service of the Kingdom. In the mystery of God’s providence, God knows how to allure us into his preferences for our lives. He gifts us personally as we each possess distinct personal vocations, or as Hans Urs von Balthasar describes in Christian States of Life, a unique grace of personal mission associated with our baptisms. At confirmation, we each can give our assent, to voice our intention to live out the promptings more fully that were planted in us at baptism.

Von Balthasar insists that these graces are hard to overlook as they “open up for humans a field of activity” 1 and create in the heart “a center of gravity, an adhesion within the personality that draws all the forces of his (her) nature into a clear and definite pattern. They form in his (her) nature a task or station that he (she) undertakes that is pleasant and rewarding.” 2 God draws us to his will, which is distinct for each person.

Women who pray for the Church, and who are spouses of permanent deacons (or those in formation), are undoubtedly responding to a unique grace of personal mission that comes to them as a result of their baptism. It works in harmony with their state in life, and is impacted by their gifts and talents. The Holy Spirit guides us uniquely in a path towards holiness, and utilizes everything about us, and in us, to accomplish his will. His will for each of us is to follow his summons and utilize our gifts to serve others in response to him.  In this, we see that the grace of personal mission has three parts, or involves a synthesis of three aspects, of a person’s life.

We describe the three parts of a personal vocation with the insights from Personal Vocation: God Calls Everyone by Name by Germain Grisez and Russell Shaw. The grace of a personal vocation or mission is a movement of grace that draws us at three levels of our lives, like stackable cups from your childhood toy box, or as three gift boxes that fit one inside the other. Each aspect focuses and strengthens the others. The first aspect that we all share, as members of the Church, is the grace of our baptismal call that is further gifted through confirmation.

At the baptismal level of vocation, we each share a universal summons to follow Christ and form the community of his body on earth, the Church. He calls us to emulate him through the beatitudes, to make sense of our lives by embracing the Cross and to receiving his grace. He equips all of us at the baptismal level of our call with the sevenfold gifts of his Holy Spirit, the gifts of his virtues, and access to the sacraments of the Church. We learn, as mutual yet distinct colleagues in the Church, to follow him as disciples and avoid sin.

Next, as members of the Church, at the second level of our vocation, we each receive an invitation into a particular state in life, which sounds simple. Are we called to marriage, to consecrated religious life, to ordained life, or to a generous single life? God knows that, in this particular station in life, we can most effectively serve him and grow in holiness. He also equips us for service at this stage of vocation by making us either males or females, so that we can be equipped more specifically to serve him fruitfully with the receptivity of our feminine genius or the thrust of our male ingenuity. Femininity instills a particular capacity to respond to grace and an orientation towards people.

Lastly, and most particularly, God forms a specific service for us to render to him, and a unique way to live out the grace of our mission. He gives us each unique gifts, training, experiences, and charisms to apply to our state of life. Here, in our inmost being, he conforms us to his heart with a specific imprint of his love for others. We are drawn deeply from our cores by his heartstrings. Like the stackable gift boxes, at this intimate level, we have unwrapped the inmost box of the gift of our personal vocation and opened it to discover our personal attributes. He pulls together our life experiences, and our human and spiritual gifts, into a living synthesis of love and service that is in concert with our state in life, our baptism, and the power of the sacraments.

With inspiration, and the graced stroke of the pen, the Fathers of Vatican II in Lumen Gentium (29), and subsequently, Pope Paul VI in his “Apostolic Letter Containing Norms for the Order of the Diaconate” (30), 3 reinstated the ordained permanent diaconate. This begs the question: how do married men and their wives bring the sacrament of their state in life, matrimony, together with the grace and sacrament of their service to the Church—for the men, the sacrament of holy orders, for the women, the sacraments of baptism and confirmation? How does the Holy Spirit prompt each of us as deacon couples, and as sacramentally married people, to live and form this integration of grace in the concrete, particularly for the wives?

As true prophets today, men and women are “explicitly called to bear witness to spousal and procreative love” 4 according to Blessed John Paul II in his Theology of the Body, and through their faithfulness, become agents of redemption of others. Through their reciprocal union, man and wife are to relish their state in life as a gratuitous sign and a model of holiness, as a sign of “Christ’s spousal love of the Church.” 5 Sacramentally married couples, and most especially deacon couples, are encouraged to allow their love for each other to become a springboard into a primary union with God alone, that will animate their relationship with each other and their service to others. John Paul II encouraged them to “break away from a (simple emphasis on the here and now),” to the very nucleus of the gifts of person to person (to God), and allow their love for each other to draw them “to love and communion on a deeper level, to a love called agape.” 6

The experiences of the families of the newly ordained permanent deacons in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, this summer, seem to confirm the wisdom of John Paul II. Laura Wagner, at the ordination to the permanent diaconate on June 29, 2012, of her father, Rick Wagner, said, “Seeing the relationship of my mom and dad grow (through the deacon formation program) has inspired my fiancé and myself to make sure that our relationship is Christ-centered.” 7 Her fiancé added, “With him just being ordained, it’s a tremendous witness. It sort of sets the bar for us who are trying to be witnesses to other people through our marriage.” In fact, earlier that same day, before the ceremony at the cathedral, Deacon Wagner and his wife, Carol, spent time in prayer, during which, she gave him a new wedding band. “It has three braids on it because God’s always been a part of our marriage,” Carol said, holding back tears after the ordination. “But now, we are really braided together.” 8added, in response to her husband’s ordination the same day, “Although we have been married for more than half a century, my husband, becoming a deacon, has given us new blessings. It’s broadened our interest in Christ, and brought us closer together in prayer, (a closeness) that we didn’t have before.” 9 And in celebration of this occasion, Bishop Coyne thanked the wives of the new deacons in his homily, and called them “partners in their husband’s ministry.” 10

As partners in our husbands’ ministry as well as agents of our own, how do we understand the personal vocation of the wife of a permanent deacon, as women and baptized persons? Sometimes, our practice of the faith has to be unpacked for awhile, so the Lord can lead us into his heart and mind over time. The work of theologian, Cardinal Yves Congar, whose work made a huge contribution to Vatican II and the role of the laity, helps us explore the energizing and complementary vocational states for permanent deacons and their wives. Their unity and distinct differences are willed by God to energize their witness in the world and Church.

Congar states that, in every age of the Church, the Holy Spirit presents Christ and his Church with new efficacy. The Holy Spirit brings together, like the reagents in a vast chemical reaction, the interaction of the hierarchical gifts of holy orders, and the charismatic gifts from baptism and confirmation, as a duality of gifts and graces that can catalyze the new evangelization. Collaborating together closely, the clergy and the laity form “the new and basic cell of evangelization,” 11  with the proper give and take. According to Congar, “the clergy have a way of learning and correlatively, the laity, a way of teaching.” 12

Ordained permanent deacons and their wives show the power of this complementary witness, and the framework of a new holiness forged at the level of ordinary life in the concrete, between clergy and laity. The wife, as a lay person, as leaven from within, and the deacon, as “the bishop’s ear, mouth, heart and soul” 13 form a spiritually procreative union in service of the Church. All that is necessary is to recognize and encourage their mutual growth in mission and holiness.

A woman, accompanying her husband to diaconal formation, or who ministers both alongside him, and sometimes independently from him in the parish, is developing and exercising the gifts of her baptism. Like all the baptized, she receives gifts of service for the community, or charisms, that can synergize with her husband’s, and extend both their contribution to the Church and world as a couple—and hers as an individual.

The focus and impact of charisms are varied and numerous, and the dynamic of discerning them the focus of another article. In brief, according to the proceedings honoring Leon-Joseph Cardinal Suenens, a key player in Vatican II: “Charisms are a power God’s spirit imbues to humans that enable them to do better what nature or training or practice has equipped them to do, by enhancing what is already there with the power of grace.” 14 “Every charism is a call to serve others in a particular way.” 15

The hierarchical gifts, or the graces of the sacrament of holy orders, and the charisms of baptism are complementary and mutually empowering gifts of grace, although they are distinct from each other. Hierarchical gifts keep the organism of the Church orderly, and in concert with the common good. Charisms keep the Church vital and alive. Charisms and holy orders must exist in a state of holy tension, so each can make a contribution and allow the Church to address pressing needs in the world today in an orderly way consistent with Truth. “When the tension relaxes in favor of order alone, there is no passion and vitality to the faith.” 16 Without the order of the hierarchical gifts, there is chaos. This complementary gifting and tension is key to the witness and impact of deacon couples as a “new and basic evangelizing unit.”

A woman married to an ordained permanent deacon, or to a man in formation, lives a particular synthesis, or grace, of personal mission as a baptized person, as a married person in a close and complementary relationship with the clergy. Her charisms, or baptismal gifts of service, impact the Church and world around her, and allow her to augment her husband’s call in distinct and individual ways.

She must address her calling, and be encouraged during formation, and later spiritual enrichment, to read the promptings of grace through Ignatian discernment. Because her role can vary, and her life in the world is complex, she needs to learn how to recognize the sting of desolation, and how to move forward in response to the consolations of God. By taking her calling seriously, she can develop her baptismal charisms with encouragement, and learn how she can be most faithful to God, whether behind the scenes, or working alongside her husband, or independently as a public, yet docile, ministering person.

In this role, she forms an often visible “cell of evangelization” that is given momentum by the sacraments of baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist, confession, and particularly matrimony. The wife of a permanent deacon, through her feminine genius and savvy in the world and the Church, is equipped to make a particular and important contribution in support of the Church, as well as her husband. She is not simply a woman left behind, as the man suggested. The Lord uses all the crumbs from her table, her prayers, charisms, and simple daily sacrifices as an offering for his Church.


Starting in January, 2013, Mary Gannon Kaufmann, M.A., M.S., is offering an online, interactive, live retreat for the wives of ordained permanent deacons called, “Revive Deacon Wives.” Information can be found at www.incarnateinstitute.org on the registration page.


  1. Urs von Balthasar, Hans, The Christian States of Life, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1983, p. 72.
  2. Urs von Balthasar, Hans, p. 72.
  3. Pope Paul VI, August 15, 1972.
  4. John Paul II, Blessed, Man and Woman he Created Them:Theology of the Body, Pauline Books, Boston, 2006, 102:8.
  5. Theology of the Body, 101:3.
  6. Theology of the Body, 113:3.
  7. Gallagher, Sean, The Criterion Online Edition, “Christ’s Hands in the World,” Archdiocese of Indianapolis, June 29, 2012, http://www.archindy.org/criterion/local/2012/06-29/deacons.html
  8. Gallagher, Sean, June 29, 2012.
  9. Gallagher, Sean, June 29, 2012.
  10. Gallagher, Sean, June 29, 2012.
  11. Congar, Cardinal Yves, Laity, Church and the World: Three Addresses by Yves Congar, Helicon Press, 1960, p. 71.
  12. Congar, p. 85.
  13. Pope Paul VI, Ad Pascendum, August 15, 1972.
  14. Haughey, John, S.J. Retrieving Charisms for the Twenty-first Century, Doris Donnelly, editor, Liturgical Press,  Collegeville, MN,1999, p. 2.
  15. Haughey, John, S.J., p. 6.
  16. Haughey, John, S.J., p. 9.
Mary Gannon Kaufmann, MA, MS About Mary Gannon Kaufmann, MA, MS

Mary Gannon Kaufmann, MA, MS, is the director of Incarnate Institute and cofounder of Word of the Vine Online. She teaches internationally on vocations, the priesthood, the role of the laity, the theology of the body, and topics of spiritual growth. She has taught at the parish and diocesan levels on lay formation, vocations, stewardship, and family life. Prior to directing Incarnate Institute, Mary taught nationally on charisms with the Catherine of Siena Institute in Colorado Springs, Colorado. She has published numerous articles for laity and ordained alike in leading pastoral journals.

Mary Gannon Kaufmann holds a post-graduate certificate in Spiritual Direction and Retreats from Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska; a MA in Theology from Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa; and a MA in Nutrition from the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities. She attends classes with her husband John, who is in formation for the Permanent Diaconate for the Archdiocese of Dubuque. They live in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, with their six children.


  1. Avatar Deacon Peter Trahan says:

    There is an assumption in this idea of “deacon couples” as a shared vocation. As we should know, vocation is discerned as a calling of an individual, through the Church. If it is the calling of a deacon’s wife to participate in his vocation as a vocation of her own, that has to be discerned, separate from the discernment of the candidate. In my experience of formation (my own as well as through the deacons who were my formators and in getting to know the candidates who came through the formation program after me) it is clear that some, even many of the wives do not find a calling to an expressive external ministry with their husband. They look forward, on the other hand, to a calling of their own that may not involve them in any ministry activities that their husband is involved in. To put pressure on these discerning women, to be a “deacon couple” is unfair to them and they have expressed as much.

    The extreme of this is those who, through earlier formation programs went to every class and every retreat that their husbands went on and when they introduce themselves at gatherings it begins with “Hello, we were ordained in 19xx.”

    My wife has been exemplar in her support, her prayers and her guidance throughout my formation and especially since my ordination, but she does not feel in the least bit called to accompany me to the many activities that I am called to in the parish. The wives did receive a valuable and particular formation during our formation, but it was appropriate to their particular perspective. During our formation (the deacon candidates) the wives had to go through a discernment of their own and the Director of Formation designed a program to suit that discernment. First and foremost they needed to discern whether or not they wanted to share, and at times give their husbands to the Church. As this article points out at the beginning, although the candidate could have articulated it a little better, stepping up into the sanctuary and “leaving the wives behind” is exactly what happens once the candidate is ordained. In order to step up into ministry the deacon will many times be away from the house most weekday evenings, not to mention the one or two Masses and Baptisms on weekends, wake services, blessing of houses, counseling, etc. To enter into her husband’s vocation in order to not be left alone, is not proper discernment. If she discerns that she will not be comfortable in that situation, that is significant enough to say “no” to the director in all confidentiality. That is what is offered as an open opportunity to the wives and they are asked to pray for their husbands and their own discernment.

    Of course if there is a genuine discernment to vocation as a couple, that should be nurtured and encouraged.

    St Lawrence, pray for us.
    As I always do for candidates and deacons I encounter,
    I will pray for your husband in his discernment and for you in yours.
    Deacon Peter Trahan
    St Bonaventure Parish
    Archdiocese of Miami

    • Deacon Peter,
      Thanks for your comments. The intent of the article is not to put pressure on Candidates and wives to be a deacon couple in ministry, but rather to raise the issue that two people are being formed in diaconal formation: one to ordained ministry and one to lay ministry. For some wives, this will be in the background. For others, this may at times be working collaboratively with their husbands; and for others it will be in a distinct and separate ministry. It sounds that your diocese is quite proactive in acknowledging the vocational discernment of both the husbands and wives in diaconal formation.

    • Father Brian Van Hove, SJ Father Brian Van Hove, SJ says:

      If more diaconal wives understood the full implications of Canon 277, both as rooted in the apostolic tradition and in the mind of Papa Wojtyła [who refused to make an exception for the restored permanent diaconate], they would have a better informed conscience regarding their full freedom to say “No.” Holy Orders at whatever level is “marriage” and no bishop, priest or deacon can have two wives.

      • Father Brian,
        This is not about marital continence for permanent deacons but an article speaking about the reality that two people are formed and live distinct vocations within the husband’s calling to the diaconate, one as ordained, one as a lay woman. This duality is a strength, a complementary witness that can gift the Church. This is the thinking of the late Yve Congar. He calls this complementary witness of lay and ordained the basic cell of evangelization. The Holy Spirit integrates and empowers what is built with human nature!

  2. Interesting perspective but not my experience at all especially in regard to discerning my vocation as my husband is in formation.

    • Deanna, Can you share your perspective in discerning your vocation? Do you mean that you don’t sense a baptismal call that is being formed or that you haven’t felt support for discerning growth in your own vocation? Thanks’

  3. Father Brian Van Hove, SJ Father Brian Van Hove, SJ says:

    When I was in studies years ago a colleague of mine was the daughter of an Anglican clergyman from Cornwall. She was very much against a married clergy saying her mother was always bitter and the children had lost their faith (except for my colleague herself). Our church has traditionally said that the “call of the bishop” invites a man to Orders. It is tough for the family if he takes this ” second marriage.” Père Congar lived too far away from Cornwall to know about all of this!

    • All marriages are to be apostolic in some fashion. Deacon couples have a particular form of apostolate as Pope John Paul II says in Theology of the Body, that spouses must break away from a simple human focus and find God in the nucleus of their gift which draws them forth for others. You speak of a form of the Cross for spouses and families of clergy. This life takes careful ongoing discernment to stay true to the marriage in the midst of the drawing of ministry..

      • An interesting article and responses. However, I am puzzled that in the formation of permanent deacons, wives are not informed of the obligation of “deacon couples” to observe “perfect and perpetual continence” as in the early Church. and maintained in the 1983 Canon Law for the Latin Church. The silence on this subject and ignoring of Canon 277 by American bishops is an injustice to wives who should be aware of the Church’s Sacred Tradition and canons of ancient Western Councils requiring apostolic continence for married clergy.
        As for their husbands seeking the diaconate, if they too were informed of the meaning of Canon 277 (distorted by certain canonists favorable to a non-continent diaconate), many would doubtless withdraw their candidacy.

  4. Avatar Joshua LeBlanc says:

    Thank you for this article. As a man in formation I can attest to the fact that both of us are effected by formation. It has caused not only myself to become more involved in my parish as well. An example is that I normally help lead our parishioners in evening prayer of the liturgy of the hours on Monday evenings. Because of circumstances beyond my control my wife led the group this week.

    Formation isn’t just about preparing for ordination but preparing both of us to fully live out our baptismal calls.


  1. […] Integrated Catholic Life™ Packing for the Final Journey – Thomas L. McDonald, P/God&Machine Vocation for the Wives of Deacons, M. Kaufmann MA, H&PReview St. Gertrude Reports that Jesus Sang Mass Propers – Jeff Tucker, […]

  2. […] Integrated Catholic Life™ Packing for the Final Journey – Thomas L. McDonald, P/God&Machine Vocation for the Wives of Deacons, M. Kaufmann …read […]

  3. […] words to ponder from Mary Gannon Kaufman, the wife of a deacon candidate, from Homiletics and Pastoral Review:  I was at a retreat in another diocese, when a man in formation for the permanent diaconate was […]