I have just spent the last three days on retreat at Pallotti College in Millgrove. Lovely place. I go there several times a year for various events, and it was nice to be there again.
I was meeting together with nine other men (four came with their wives) who have been a part of an ongoing group here in Melbourne who have been meeting with the intention of discerning whether they have a vocation to the diaconate. Over the three days, we were joined by four men (and their wives in two cases) who were already serving as deacons in other dioceses.
Melbourne must be almost the last diocese in Australia to institute the permanent diaconate (or simply “diaconate”, as one of the deacons put it–its the “transitional” deacons who need the qualifying tag), but it seems that this will be happening in the near future. I’m hardly the one to make the “announcement”, but it is open knowledge (as far as I know) that the Archbishop has set up a committee headed by Fr Michael McEntee to look into the details, and that the Synod of Priests has accepted the proposal. Fr McEntee and Bishop Hilton Deakin also attended the retreat. Nevertheless, there are as yet no firm details and certainly no time-table, and those of us attending the retreat were mere “hopefuls”–it is far to early to start using the tag “candidates”.
Those who were there, though, are keen to thrown their names into this hat of chaos. I am reading “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” to the kids at the moment, and I feel rather like we are dropping our names into the “Diaconate Goblet” without really knowing what the tasks are ahead of us. Whatever is on the cards, it will be along the lines of the ACBC guidelines. That means that there will be a period of formation–the recommended time is four years full time formation, which is quite a bit when you consider that at the moment the canonical office of Deacon in Melbourne is being envisaged as a non-stipendiary, part-time role. However, the Archdiocese is clearly determined to do this “right”, and to learn from the mishaps and experiences of other dioceses in Australia. That is encouraging. I don’t know how much of the formation program I might have to do–one expects that there will be some “credit” for previous study and experience–nevertheless, I have never been a Catholic deacon before, and it isn’t quite the same thing as being a Lutheran pastor, so I expect there will be at least a couple of years’ work to be done.
The retreat really focused upon matters of discernment–ie. discernment of vocation. It’s very hard, however, to discern whether one has a vocation to a role that is still really being defined. One thing I find quite hopeful is that Fr McEntee’s committee has largely accepted the findings of John Collins on these matters (well summarised by Anthony Gooley in the Pastoral Review essay “Deacons and the Servant Myth”, so that rather than being envisaged as a sort of “social justice worker”, their ministry will be clearly linked to the proclamation of the Word and to evangelisation, both in liturgical and secular contexts. It is also quite clear that they will not be simply ordained pastoral associates, and that their direct relationship with the bishop will be well spelled out.
So we will see where it goes. I expect that some time will be involved. Time, however, can be a grace, and a very long time can be a very great grace. Patience, unfortunately, was never one of my innate virtues.
Incidentally, as far as I know, I am the only convert clergy in Australia to apply for the permanent diaconate rather than the priesthood. There was, on the other hand, a Catholic deacon who some time ago converted to the Lutheran Church, and is now serving as a Lutheran pastor somewhere in Australia. I would like to know, from any Lutheran readers out there, whether or not they ordained him again or whether they accepted his diaconal ordination as sufficient for ordination to the word and sacrament in the Lutheran Church. (It is not the usual practice for Lutherans in Australia to re-ordain convert clergy.)
Another interesting thing is that Mr John Fenton (previously Pastor/Father John Fenton of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America) is soon to be ordained as deacon and then priest of the Greek Orthodox Church of America. Obviously no four year formation period there.