Between the “Super-secular” and the assistant to the priest, the still enigmatic role of the deacon

Between the “Super-secular” and the priest’s assistant, why is the role of the deacon still so vague?

“Super-secular”, or assistant to the priest… Sixty years after its reestablishment by Vatican II, the figure of the permanent deacon remains vague. While the synod plans to entrust more responsibilities to the laity, the specificity of this ordained ministry remains to be clarified.

The building, on three levels, seems disproportionate for this town of around 4,000 inhabitants located not far from Sainte-Soline. The presbytery of the Saint-Junien en Mellois parish (Deux-Sèvres), a vestige of a former seminary, is hosting the monthly meeting of the pastoral team this Thursday. Five lay people – women only –, a priest and a deacon, Paul Dupuis, 72 years old. ” Lets’ go ! » says Hélène Guiochon, the parish coordinator, inviting everyone to sit down. Latest news from the priests of the diocese – one of them has just died –, update on the “Watchers”, a network of lay people scattered throughout this parish with 77 bell towers…

The agenda is full and Hélène, with salt and pepper hair, leads the meeting with energy. Father Armel de Sagazan speaks from time to time. Team members are invited to express themselves about their “charismas”, the tasks in which they feel most comfortable. Paul Dupuis intervenes in turn: “I was ordained, so I am versatile, I can help with a certain number of things: funerals, weddings…”

After noon, the meeting ends. “Oh yes, we wanted to ask you to think about people you think could be called to the diaconate,” says Hélène. “Thank you for thinking about it for next time!” Paul wants to speak to complete the story, but a little end-of-meeting hubbub drowns out his words.

A poorly defined place

Difficult for a deacon (from the Greek diakonos , servant), to find a place between the priest and the laity, even when we belong to the same pastoral team! Paul doesn’t complain about it. “I’m here to help, people know me. » His first diaconal mission? Ensure a “Church presence with the world of hunting”, as the bishop asked him during his ordination in 2015. A rare responsibility for a deacon, even if they are, de facto, present in very varied environments: politics, business, culture, health…

“His dedication impresses me,” confides Philippe Lelong, president of a local hunting association who has known Paul for many years. Even though he is a deacon, he remains approachable and simple. One day of a stormy meeting with the farmers, I was able to speak to him. This former farmer understood me and found the words to cheer me up. » “I’m going to ask him to baptize my 12-year-old daughter,” adds Jean-Christophe, another hunter.

It’s 5 p.m. We have an appointment with the second deacon of the Mellois parish. Olivier Bertaud, 59, a general practitioner, goes to see one of his patients, Odile, 84, whose husband he followed for a long time, now deceased. “We maintain a relationship of trust,” says Olivier. A practitioner, she knows that I am a deacon, but we don’t talk about it. I hope the way I do my job shows that I am. Isn’t that right, Madame Nicolas? » “Yes,” replies the patient. There is silence between us, I feel listening, attention, even brotherhood. On the other hand, I don’t understand how, being a doctor, you find the time to be a deacon! »

Olivier took Odile’s blood pressure. As he leaves, he calls out to her from the threshold of the house: “See you Sunday, maybe!” I am homily. » “Often, when leaving mass, people call me “my Father”. A few years ago, I corrected. Not anymore. » Along the way, he underlines the difficulty of effective consultation between the priest, the laity and the deacons. “Who gives the homily? How do you accompany a team for a Sunday assembly without a priest, which is happening more and more often?

All this is done a bit through improvisation. » Organization and nature of missions, relations with the priest, visibility… These questions often arise among the 3,300 permanent deacons in France. The number of ordinations, constantly increasing until around the year 2000, now stands at 90 per year, on average, over the last ten years. (see graph at the end of the article) . Compared to the collapse of priestly ordinations, this figure denotes an unusual vitality in the Church.

However, sixty years after the reestablishment of the permanent diaconate by the Second Vatican Council, a certain vagueness persists regarding the specificity of their ministry. The framework set in November 1964 by the constitution Lumen gentium seemed clear: a “diakonia of the liturgy, of the Word and of charity”.

But in reality, the missions of deacons, set by the bishop, can vary greatly from one territory to another. Should we partially relieve them of the celebrations that are regularly entrusted to them, such as baptisms or funerals, to allow them to better deploy in solidarity? Strengthen their training?

Theological gaps

Today, the apprenticeship, at the end of a discernment stage, lasts five or six years, partly completed before ordination, partly after. Father Marc Delebarre, auxiliary priest of the diocese of Lille (North), hears some confreres complain about the “insufficient” training of deacons. “Sometimes, what they say during homilies is not quite right from a theological point of view. But hey, there is no danger in this. I would simply find it interesting if there were mandatory ongoing training.”

A deacon, on condition of anonymity, confides that after his very first homily, the priest of his parish demanded that all his sermons be systematically reread before mass. Categorical refusal by the person concerned. Result: deprived of homilies, this deacon today recognizes a sort of “frustration”.

François Fayol, deacon in the diocese of Créteil (Val-de-Marne) and coordinator of the National Diaconate Committee, nuance: “Of course we do not have the theological training of priests. But one of them told me one day: “Fifteen years of professional and family life, in terms of human formation, is well worth seven years of seminary!” »

Deacon ordained to exercise priority at the altar or deacon on the threshold, in contact with the existential “peripheries”? Several visions and theologies coexist, which sometimes struggle to agree. “In Italy, the Church places emphasis on the deacon pastor,” says Father Armel de Sagazan, in Melle. In France, we see him more as a servant, among men and women. Let us remember: the deacon must not make up for the lack of priests. »

For Sylvain Thibon, 66, retired from the audiovisual sector, “the deacon must be a sign of the presence of Christ among the poorest. » Married and father of five children, he provides the link between his parish of Sainte-Anne de la Butte-aux-Cailles, in Paris, and the Saint-Vincent-de-Paul conferences, which provide patrols to the homeless. “I have always had the fiber of commitment. By being a deacon, I continue to take care of the most deprived,” he confides.

“The diaconate takes me to the guts! » adds Philippe Pelzer, 67, former communications executive and father of four children, in Lille. Spiritual advisor to an EDC team (Christian Entrepreneurs and Leaders), head of the diocese’s liturgical music commission, facilitator of a parish group for widowed or isolated people and guide to two teams of newlyweds: his responsibilities are multiple.

“For many priests, the figure of the permanent deacon seems a little enigmatic, between a “super lay person” and a “sub-priest”, summarizes Frédéric Hentgen, 54 years old, deacon in Gallardon-Épernon (Eure-et-Loir). We often remain in a competitive mindset. The current synod speaks of “complementarity”, but it will still take time for it to be put in place.”

The diaconate, forgotten by the synod

This synod, whose final phase will take place in Rome from October 2 to 27, was marked by the almost total absence of the question of deacons in the preparatory discussions in small groups. Arnaud Join-Lambert, professor of theology at the Catholic University of Louvain, in Belgium, remembers: “As an expert, this invisibility struck me. Already, during the provincial council of Lille-Arras-Cambrai, in 2013-2015, almost no one mentioned deacons. However, there are many of them: Lille is the third diocese in France best provided for in this area. This clearly shows that their role is not clearly identified.”

Could the current reflection on the ministries established for the laity (catechist, reader, acolyte) make it possible to better define the charism specific to deacons? “This can enhance it,” hopes Arnaud Join-Lambert, himself a layman. The Church will undoubtedly be led to conclude that the sacrament makes the deacon a minister at the level of the priest, otherwise, but not below. »

The theologian says he is convinced that the diaconate, “mission of the future”, will remain “plural”. “In our fragmented society, this diversity can be an opportunity. As long as you take hold of it with conviction. »

Deacon, one word, two realities

  • The diaconate corresponds to the first degree of the sacrament of the order which includes two others: the presbyterate (the priests) and the episcopate (the bishops).
  • The deacon is therefore always a cleric, whether it is the stage preceding priestly ordination (this is the case of the seminarian), or a permanent status: a layman whom the bishop calls to the diaconate.
  • In France, nearly 90% of permanent deacons are married men.
  • Deacons perform most liturgical and sacramental acts (homily, baptism, marriage, etc.), except the consecration of offerings and the sacrament of reconciliation.

Women Deacons? Not So Fast…

The female diaconate is a “no”: on May 20th (1), the Pope’s firm refusal disconcerted some Catholics. All the more so since Francis himself had set up two commissions in Rome, shortly after his election, to study the subject. In a column entitled “What seems unimaginable today will become natural tomorrow”, Mgr Jean-Paul Vesco, Archbishop of Algiers, asks: “How can we justify that only male sensitivity is expressed in the commentary on the word of God during the Eucharist?” And he adds that during a synod, “we must (…) walk together, often at the slowest pace. The assessment of this speed is the responsibility of the Holy Father.”

(1) Interview with the American television channel CBS.

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