Deacons as Apostles for the New Evangelization

“Whoever believes that Christ the Lord is the way, the truth and the life, whoever knows that the Church is his continuation in history, whoever has a personal experience of all this cannot fail, for this very reason, to become fervently missionary. Dear deacons, be active apostles of the new evangelization. Lead everyone to Christ! Through your efforts, may his kingdom also spread in your family, in your workplace, in the parish, in the Diocese, in the whole world!”1

The U.S. bishops have made evangelization, forming a joyful band of missionary disciples, their highest priority for the next 5 years, and with good reason. Only 30 percent of Americans who were raised Catholic are still practicing, meaning they attend Mass at least once a month. Of that 30 percent, roughly half of these people are at Mass on a given weekend.2 That 30 percent continues to decline. In October of 2019, the Pew Research Center indicated that: “In the U.S., [The] Decline of Christianity Continues at [a] Rapid Pace.”3 The others either seldom attend Mass or no longer consider themselves to be Catholic at all. The current situation in the Church in America is dire and requires a drastic redeployment of assets. To use a business marketing analogy, when customer retention rates are at 30 percent, it is time to seriously evaluate every aspect of the promotional strategy and its relationship with the product. Pastors need to decide between making missionary disciples and merely managing what they may accept as the inevitable decline of the parish. What would it take to bring people back to the pews?

“What the world needs is God’s love; it needs to encounter Christ and to believe in him.”4 Many Catholics today are “sacramentalized” but have not had a personal encounter with Christ.5 Pope Francis says, “Faith is born of an encounter with the living God who calls us and reveals his love . . . The truth which faith discloses to us is a truth centered on an encounter with Christ, on the contemplation of his life and on the awareness of his presence.”6 Pope Francis emphasizes in both Lumen Fidei and Evangelii Gaudium the necessity and the impact of encounter experiences with the Lord Jesus, and he is not alone in his conviction. It is this personal encounter which will heal the Church and bring the faithful back into the pews and into salvation. How can we bring every person to an encounter with Christ? The NCCB issued “Go and Make Disciples”7 in 1990 to answer this question and to make evangelization a priority in the Catholic Church in the U.S. While it is a superb document, its impact has not met the bishops’ hopes and expectations, and the New Evangelization remains only partially implemented. Thirty years later, perhaps it is time to revisit this and suggest a new plan, one that empowers deacons to live the diaconate to the fullest, and in doing so, bring souls to Christ.

With a growing shortage of priests and an ever-increasing number of permanent deacons, deacons compose one of the few available pools of human resources to teach and leverage expansion of the New Evangelization among the laity and so impact those attending Mass, former Catholics, and the burgeoning number of those who identify with no religion. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wrote, “There is no greater priority than this: to enable the people of our time once more to encounter God.”8 Perhaps it is now time to shift human resources and improve diaconal formation and training so as to send forth deacons and their wives to bring people back to Christ.

Data on deacons in the United States shows rapid growth from the 898 deacons ordained in 1975, to the projected 20,000 deacons in the U.S. by 2020.9 In most dioceses, diaconal classes are open to the wives of deacons, meaning that the actual number of people available to become more involved in evangelizing actively, if the American bishops chose to utilize them, could approach 39,000 individuals.10 Deacons are in a unique position to evangelize and be open to the power of the Holy Spirit, as testified in Sacred Scripture.11 Lumen Gentium expounds upon the role of deacons, affirming that deacons can administer the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Eucharist and assist and bless marriages. They are “to read the Sacred Scripture to the faithful, to instruct and exhort the people, to preside over the worship and prayer of the faithful, to administer sacramentals, to officiate at funeral and burial services.”12 Additionally, deacons are to be “dedicated to duties of charity and of administration.”13

While deacons most noticeably assist during the Mass, most of their time is spent in the marketplace or the community. These environments need a “Herald of the Gospel” the most. These deacons have been trained reasonably well in Scripture, preaching and prayer, but they may not be fully acquainted with listening to the Holy Spirit and using the gifts of that same Spirit in the practice of evangelization techniques. They will also need training in the practical aspects of evangelization. Deacons are vested with authority to do great things for the Church and we need them now more than ever. What impact could 39,000 trained deacons and wives have on our society?

Before we can envision what deacons could do, we must first break down a myth which injures the authentic diaconate. This is the “Servant Myth,” which claims that “the distinctive character of deacons is that they are servants called to the charitable and social justice ministry of the Church.”14 Contrary to this misunderstanding, the first deacons were neither waitstaff nor the social justice arm of the Church, ministering to people’s physical needs alone. Deacon Anthony Gooley clarifies the erroneous interpretation of Acts 6 and writes, “The Hellenist widows [Greek speakers] are neglected in the daily ministry [of the Word] because of their situation. The apostles, who are Aramaic speakers, preaching mostly in the temple forecourt, cannot minister to the Greek speakers in their homes (‘at tables’, as the Greek expresses it). The apostles ask the community to identify seven Greek speakers to carry out this ministry (of the Word) on their behalf.”15

Contrary to serving in a physical sense, the deacons’ primary role from the beginning has been to evangelize and so serve the Church in a spiritual sense. Sadly, data from 2017 shows that only a quarter (25 percent) of deacons say that they are engaged in evangelization at least once a week.16 The Basic Norms for the Formation of Permanent Deacons and The Directory for the Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons, from now on known as “the Directory” and “the Norms,” has over 40 references to evangelization, but since its publication in 1998, the numbers of practicing Catholics has dropped steadily. It seems that the role of deacons in the New Evangelization has not been realized, largely due to the inadequate training and not receiving a mandate from their bishops to make evangelization their first priority. Deacons could and should be doing much more. With more specific formation and a clear mission, deacons could shrug off unnecessary limitations and bring souls back to the faith.

Christ said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.”17 This is a call which every Christian receives at his Baptism. Deacons have a particular vocation within this general call. The Basic Norms and Directory states, “Deacons should strive to transmit the word in their professional lives, either explicitly or merely by their active presence in places where public opinion is formed and ethical norms are applied, such as the social services or organizations promoting the rights of the family or life.”18 Pope Francis, in Evangelii Gaudium, encourages priests and deacons to find new paths and tools suitable for today’s world in order to make preaching more relevant and appealing.19 In today’s culture this is difficult, and because those who evangelize today have a unique problem to grapple with, the Church needs to employ tactics that engage the difficulties that are particular to our culture.

Evangelization requires an understanding of the process of conversion and of the dynamics of proclamation, worship, community, inculturation and works of charity. Evangelization is more complex than catechesis alone and it involves a parish that is committed to making Missionary Disciples. There are two critical steps that should precede catechesis: pre-evangelization and initial proclamation of the basic kerygma, or the Great Story of Jesus Christ. Effective evangelization, then, ought to incorporate these factors:

  1. Placing a personal relationship with Christ at the center of the Christian life.
  2. Evangelizing within a community, where, as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has pointed out, we need to teach the art of living.20
  3. Promoting radical Christocentrism, which is achieved through an encounter with Christ, basic proclamation of the gospel, and a community of believers.
  4. Leading lives of radical holiness so that others recognize the uniqueness and truth of Christianity.
  5. Discipling others so as to assist others in their healthy development of self and social identity.

For a society in desperate need of evangelization, deacons can be trained as evangelists, evangelization promoters among the laity, and facilitators of encounter opportunities to effect evangelization in the United States. Deacons are uniquely capable of supporting and continuing this evangelization by:

  1. Helping others cultivate trust in Christ and the Church.
  2. Encouraging curiosity about the faith.
  3. Helping others become open to the possibility of change. Remember that Jesus invites a sick man to change by asking him an obvious question, “Do you want to get better?”21
  4. Walking with someone who moves from simply being open to change to actually seeking after Jesus.
  5. Celebrating with them when they decide to follow Jesus and continuing to support them in their new journey of faith.

There is much to be learned if we are to effectively promote the faith: those who evangelize need to understand both the faith and the culture, and develop an ability to weave their way through both while helping others to come to know the truth and beauty of the faith, but most of all to help them encounter Christ, the Living God.22

It is also time to recognize the non-coincidental appearance of healing gifts and encounter opportunities in the Church today, which are vital to the New Evangelization in our current cultural climate. Both healing gifts and encounter opportunities invite the Holy Spirit to break into the lives of people who are immersed in a culture that is closed off to God. In his recent book, Biblical Foundations for the Role of Healing in Evangelization, Fr. Mathias Thelen describes how the post-modern philosophy undermines and destabilizes the rational or theological understanding of reality. This traditional understanding is displaced by the idea that reality is a social construct and that truth and reality have no stable and objective content; in other words, reality and truth do not exist. Claims of absolute truth offend people’s postmodern “rights” to discover and determine their own truth and meaning in life.

Intellectual persuasion is generally not effective in this environment. Instead, “personal experiences carry more epistemic authority for the individual in both coming to know the truth and in discovering ultimate meaning.”23 An evangelization that appeals to the mind with objective truths about Jesus, but disregards an experiential aspect (i.e., deeds of healing), will therefore not be as effective with a postmodern audience as the same presentation of the gospel would be if accompanied by signs that demonstrate or express the truth of the very message that is preached.24

In the contemporary experience of the Church’s life, the efficacious prayer for physical healing is one of the major reasons why charismatic and Pentecostal churches are experiencing explosive growth all over the world. Given the urgent task of evangelization before the Church today, it is no longer acceptable to set aside the distinctive role that the Holy Spirit’s gift of healing plays in confirming, demonstrating, and expressing the Gospel to those who hear it.25 It is time to seriously consider the extent to which all those involved in evangelization should be open to praying with the Charismatic gifts of the Holy Spirit encouraging direct encounter experiences.

Fr. Thelen strongly encourages that deacons are trained to pray for people with an expectation that God will work in power to confirm the word being preached. Both encounter opportunities and prayer for healing function like a knife cutting through butter. These personal encounters with the person of Christ or the healing power of the Holy Spirit immediately become part of the experience, and so part of the belief system, of the person enculturated in the Postmodern mindset. The impact follows a pattern: 1) God has touched me, healed me, or given me a deep abiding sense that He exists, 2) God is real, 3) Now, what must I do?

Deacons who have helped foster trust in the Church and encouraged a person’s spiritual desire, as well as helped usher the Holy Spirit into his life, are in a position now to bring this person fully into the faith. With the power of the Holy Spirit and trained evangelists, a ministry easily filled by many United States deacons in cooperation with their wives, the decline of the Church in America can be significantly impacted and even reversed. But there can be no New Evangelization without a New Pentecost. Only the power of the Holy Spirit can change hearts and lives.

Perhaps we should be asking this question: “To what degree does the preparation for preaching by deacons need to change to incorporate this call and properly equip deacons for the New Evangelization?” Deacons are ideally situated to tackle the New Evangelization through each of their varied roles. The Church could have deacon evangelists, deacons training parishes in evangelistic techniques, deacons involved with National Evangelistic associations, and deacons serving in ordinary pastoral ministry, having received specific training in the New Evangelization. Each deacon should find a niche for which he is best suited and evangelize in that capacity. It is in preaching to the ever-increasing population of those who have left their Catholic roots or have never even heard the Gospel that deacons have access, time and talent; all in submission to their bishops.

Many deacons spend a significant portion of their time in the market place and outside of the Church walls. This positions them uniquely to encounter, evangelize, and teach those who need to be drawn close to Mother Church. Bishops proposed in 2012 that “ongoing formation programs within the diocese should also be available for deacons.”26 Bishop Earl Boyea of the Diocese of Lansing calls all of the lay faithful to go forth as witnesses for Christ and to welcome back our brothers and sisters who are no longer active in our parish communities,27 and the effects have been tremendous.

Encounter opportunities must be built into all our sacramental preparation, for it is through a personal encounter with Christ that the sheep will recognize the voice of the Shepherd. Deacons need to ensure that there are encounter opportunities available to all members of their parishes. Go and Make Disciples writes, “Welcome, acceptance, the invitation to conversion and renewal, and reconciliation and peace, beginning with our worship, must characterize the whole tenor of our parishes.”28 Deacons should also be trained to develop strategic plans for their parishes detailing the process from encounter activities to be provided over a five-year period, including discipleship activities involving courses on Christian living and small group opportunities.

Deacons should be trained in prayer techniques. For some, a new and radical openness to the Holy Spirit will be necessary. Guidelines are in place for the human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral formation of deacons, but that formation must be put into action in every area of a deacon’s life. The Basic Norms and Directory writes, “Care should be taken that the future deacons develop a strong missionary sensitivity . . . They are to be helped, therefore, to be strongly aware of their missionary identity and prepared to undertake the proclamation of the truth also to non-Christians, particularly those belonging to their own people.”29

What is the primary need for a society that becomes increasingly hostile to the presence and influence of Christianity? A personal encounter with Christ. Deacons are ordained for this very purpose, as “the element which most characterizes diaconal spirituality is the discovery of and sharing in the love of Christ the servant, who came not to be served but to serve.”30 With 20,000 Catholic men ordained as deacons now and the broadened understanding that deacons may serve as evangelists first and social service developers second, there is a great opportunity for the USCCB to make progress on the goals described in Go and Make Disciples. That progress will partially depend upon the training that is provided in the New Evangelization. The updating of the Norms presents an opportunity to expand training beyond preaching to the declining number of people in the pews. What alterations can be made to the diaconate formation which keep this central element, and also meet the new needs of our modern culture?

Deacons and wives form a natural team and in the area of evangelization there are numerous opportunities and roles for these teams to encourage friends, relatives co-workers and parishioners to benefit from many of the effective encounter programs that have developed over the last several years. In recognizing the signs of the time, both those that come from the New Pentecost above and desertion of the faith from below, deacons are likely part of the solution.

  1. John Paul II, Address of John Paul II to the Participants at the Jubilee for Permanent Deacons, Rome: 2000.
  2. Sherry Weddell, “Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path of Knowing and Following Jesus,” Our Sunday Visitor, 2012, 24.
  3. “In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace.” Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project. June 09, 2020. Accessed June 26, 2020. www.pewforum.org/2019/10/17/in-u-s-decline-of-christianity-continues-at-rapid-pace/.
  4. Pope Benedict XVI, Sacramentum Caritatis, Vatican City: 2007, 84.
  5. Fr. Frank Disiano, NADD 2018 Deacon Conference, deacon2018.org/index.php/workshop-recordings/59-wednesday-workshop-disiano-rev-frank-crucial-role-of-deacons-in-forming-missionary-disciples-today (Accessed 12/29/2018).
  6. Pope Francis, Lumen Fidei, Rome: 2013, 4.
  7. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Go and Make Disciples: a National Plan and Strategy for Catholic Evangelization in the United States, Washington D.C.: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2002.
  8. Pope Benedict XVI, Verbum Domini, Vatican City: 2010, 2.
  9. This projection includes active and inactive deacons.
  10. Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, A Portrait of the Permanent Diaconate: A Study for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington D.C.: Georgetown University, 2014-2015,7, 10. C.A.R.A. estimated 93% of active deacons as married, interpolation is as follows: 18,291 in 2018 and growth to 20,000 deacons by the year 2020. 20,000 DEACONS X .93 = 18,600 wives plus 20,000 Deacons = 38,600 Deacons and wives by the year 2020. www.usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/vocations/diaconate/upload/Diaconate-Post-ordination-Report-2015-FINAL.pdf.
  11. Acts 8:4, for example.
  12. Pope Paul VI, Lumen Gentium, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Vatican City: 1964, 29.
  13. Lumen Gentium, 29.
  14. Anthony Gooley, “Deacons and the Servant Myth.” Scribd, Accessed June 2, 2020. www.scribd.com/document/244443273/Deacons-and-the-Servant-Myth. First appeared in The Pastoral Review Nov-Dec 2006.
  15. Anthony Gooley, “The Deacon and New Evangelization,” The Australasian Catholic Record, Vol. 94, No. 2, Apr 2017: 200-209.
  16. Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, Word, Liturgy, Charity: the Diaconate in the U.S. Catholic Church, 1968-2018, Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2018, Kindle Location, 2432.
  17. Matthew 28:19-20
  18. Congregation for Catholic Education and Congregation for the Clergy, Basic Norms for the Formation of Permanent Deacons and The Directory for the Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons, Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1998, 26.
  19. Enzo Petrolino, Deacons: Servants of Charity (Washington, D.C.: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2018), 83-86.
  20. Joseph Ratzinger, The Way to True Happiness, Vatican City: December 2000.
  21. John 5:1-15.
  22. Robert Barron and John Allen Jr., To Light a Fire on the Earth (New York: Random House, 2017), 124-125.
  23. Mathias Thelen, Biblical Foundations for the Role of Healing in Evangelization (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2017), 76-78.
  24. Thelen, Biblical Foundations, 78.
  25. Thelen, Biblical Foundations, 81.
  26. Synodus Episcoporium Bulletin, XIII Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, Vatican City: 2012. Proposition 49. https://www.vatican.va/news_services/press/sinodo/documents/bollettino_25_xiii-ordinaria-2012/02_inglese/b33_02.html
  27. Bishop Earl Boyea, Go and Announce the Gospel of the Lord, Lansing, MI, April 5, 2012.
  28. Go and Make Disciples, 85.
  29. Basic Norms and the Directory, 88.
  30. Basic Norms and the Directory, 72.
Deacon Stephen Hilker About Deacon Stephen Hilker

Deacon Stephen Hilker was ordained in 1990 for the Diocese of Lansing, MI. He attended Michigan State University where he earned a B.S. in Psychology/Statistics and an M.B.A. in Organizational Development and has done post-graduate work in accounting. Deacon Steve is a CPA and held several other financial certifications. He has studied Public Policy at the Doctoral level at Western Michigan University. In July he became the first graduate from the Josephinum Pontifical University Diaconate Institute in Columbus, OH with an MA in Pastoral Ministry.

He and his wife Nancy have nine children and ten grandchildren.

Deacon Steve retired from the State of Michigan after 37 years in various executive positions in Social Services, Treasury, and Insurance and Banking Regulation.

Comments

  1. Avatar MARK J VOGEL says:

    I am a retired former federal prosecutor. To my great regret, I was told by the Archdiocese of Chicago that I am too old to be a Deacon.

  2. Avatar Deacon William Orazio Gallerizzo says:

    Well said! As deacons, we bring a perspective that most priests cannot bring to bear upon their levels of experience. Key to our present age, particularly on issues supporting human life from conception through natural death and the social justice parameters in between, our secular base gives us the experiential benchmarks to evangelize the Church teachings as they apply to today’s complex world with profound skill and appropriate clarity.
    Thank you for asking for feedback.

Trackbacks

  1. […] “Whoever believes that Christ the Lord is the way, the truth and the life, whoever knows that the Church is his continuation in history, whoever has a personal experience of all this cannot fail, for this very reason, to become fervently missionary. Dear deacons, be active apostles of the new evangelization. Lead everyone to Christ! Through your efforts, may his kingdom also spread in your family, in your workplace, in the parish, in the Diocese, in the whole world!”1 […]

  2. […] “Quien crea que Cristo Señor es el camino, la verdad y la vida, quien sabe que la Iglesia es su continuación en la historia, quien tiene una experiencia personal de todo esto no puede dejar de ser, por eso mismo, fervientemente misionero. Queridos diáconos, sed apóstoles activos de la nueva evangelización. ¡Conduce a todos a Cristo! ¡Que a través de tus esfuerzos, su reino se extienda también en tu familia, en tu lugar de trabajo, en la parroquia, en la Diócesis, en el mundo entero! ” 1 […]

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