Category Archives: Deacon

Further Reflections on Clerical Dress for Deacons

Once and a while, you get lucky. So when a former key staffer for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops takes the time to comment on your blog, a simple thank you isn’t enough. Deacon William Ditewig, Ph.D. was kind enough to share these thoughts on my posts, Should Deacons Wear the Roman Collar, and Forbidden to Wear the Roman Collar. Deacon Dietwig has authored ten books on the diaconate and lay ministry, and served as the head of the Bishops’ Secretariat for the Diaconate. His thought’s follow:

Lots of great thoughts here. If I may add my own two-cents’ worth?

This question is, first of all, not a new one. All the way back to 1968 when the US bishops first sought permission to renew the diaconate here in the United States, this was discussed. Remember that back then, the medieval “cursus honorum” was still in place with tonsure admitted a man to the clerical state, then the four minor orders, then the major order of subdeacon, and then the diaconate. Our first permanent deacons in this country went through all of that, since it didn’t go away until 1972! So in the Archdiocese of Washington, DC, for example, we have some wonderful pictures of our first permanent deacons (ordained in 1971) wearing cassocks, collars and all the assorted vestments associated with the time. The collar, however, remained a sticking point, even from the beginning.

Baltimore's First Deacons
Baltimore’s First Deacons

The first negative experiences back then WERE based on confusion. The original permanent deacons in the early 1970s were actually considerably younger than many of our current ordinands: the age at ordination has been rising steadily over the decades. So, you had transitional deacons AND permanent deacons, both of whom could look quite young, out and about doing ministry. There WERE times when both sets of deacons would have to explain that they were not priests and couldn’t hear someone’s confession, and so forth.

But there’s something more significant at play here. I served for a number of years on the USCCB Staff, and one thing that I learned very clearly was that the bishops of a country — ANY country — do not like to generate particular national law whenever they can avoid it. The like to keep as much autonomy as they can so they can adapt things to the specific and very concrete needs of their diocese. This approach applies to ANYTHING, not just “deacons in collars.” Now, suppose there was a national policy that required deacons to wear collars. OK, fine. Got it. Now, imagine you’re a deacon in a remote diocese in the State of ________. There, the diocesan practice for the priests is that when they gather for anything outside of Mass, they are NOT in clericals. Then, here comes the deacon, following national law, and he’s the only cleric around who is. Who will be confused now? See, there’s no national law or practice on what PRIESTS are to wear either! The practice of wearing collars didn’t really catch on till the 20th century. Clerical attire is simply supposed to be “distinctive” attire, and it’s really only custom that has led to what we now have. So, bishops reasonably ask, “Why, when we don’t have a national law or policy on what our priests are supposed to wear, should we have one for deacons?”

Casual Priest Retreat
Casual Priest Retreat

During the preparation of the National Directory for the Formation, Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons in the United States, one bishop recommended that the questions of “what deacons wear” should be determined by the bishops of each of the 15 episcopal regions (there are 14 geographical regions, plus one “region” for the Eastern Catholic Churchs). This got hooted off the floor very quickly. As one bishop told me later in the hallway, “We can’t decide by regions on what day to celebrate the Ascension? How would we ever decide what kind of shirt our deacons are wearing?”

The wearing of the grey clerical shirt (what we used to refer to for many years as “the St. Louis model,” because it seemed to originate there many, many years ago) is one way to go, but since many priests and other ministers of other faiths also wear multi-colored clericals, they don’t, ultimately, help all that much. Over the years, many designs have emerged. I would say that in my six years or so at the Conference, a new one would arrive about once a month. One was even a kind of clerical “dickie” that had a vertical stripe in the middle of the collar. Another was a collar without a notch; this was quickly vetoed by the bishops, however, because of complaints by many religious brothers who wear that kind of collar with their habits.

Colorful Collars

Seriously, after twenty-three years as a deacon, I’ve encountered every reason there is to wear a collar, and every reason why not to. Yes, I believe deacons should be readily identifiable as deacons of the Church in service to others. I also don’t like the fact that non-ordained seminarians wear clericals without question. That’s why I’ve always liked the policy that we have in the Archdiocese of Washington, DC, and which I’ve recommended to many bishops around the country: “If in the professional judgment of the deacon, the wearing of clerical attire will enhance his ministry, he may do so.”

All I can say is, “Hang in there; there are more important things to worry about!”

God bless,

Deacon Bill Ditewig

Forbidden to Wear the Roman Collar

I had an interesting comment on a post I wrote a while back, “Should Deacons Wear the Roman Collar?”, and as that post is one that continues to garner interest, and his question was really good, I thought I’d take a moment to muse on it.

“…. I think you should ask one other question. Why don’t priests and bishops want Deacons wearing the roman collar? I personally could care less about the wearing of clerical clothing except it seems odd that deacons are most of the time banned from the wearing. I truly think the bigger question is not why does a deacon want to wear the collar, but why is he forbidden to.” -Ken (I abridged and added emphasis to his comment)

Why would a bishop not want his deacons wearing clerical garb? It’s a dang good question, and I think it deserves serious thought. I also don’t think the answer is simple, there is a lot of things to consider here.

The question has a presupposition in it though that I think needs to be addressed first. It assumes that deacons wearing the collar is a good thing and that a bishop should want it to be that way. I think this is a fair assumption. I think it is fair, because in the modern world, it seems natural to want to show regular folks that not everyone buys into the world’s nonsense. Clerical dress, like religious dress, bears witness to a life lived for Christ. It bears witness to the fact that intelligent people can want something more in their lives, and God is calling them to live that out in way that is so concrete, that it is a Sacrament.

A deacon has set his life aside in a very real way, and many assume that should be visibly apparent due to this idea of “witness”. There is more than meets the eye here though, and the bishops treading lightly and carefully is not a bad thing. Now I’m not a bishop, nor am I privileged with their thought processes, but I think I can make a few educated guesses as to why they are being cautious.

First, and I believe foremost, there is the issue of discerning the value and proper place of priests. This is obviously extremely important to the bishops, as transitional deacons, that is deacons who are on the road to priesthood, are required to wear the collar. It is only permanent deacons that we are discussing here. While there is no sacramental difference between permanent and transitional deacons, there is a very different charism and level of involvement between the two. Transitional deacons will be priests, God willing, and the scrutiny that they are under is very real and visible. Visibly marking them that way is clearly important.

Permanent deacons are not headed towards priesthood though, and I think this is where the main issue lies. In a world where priests are in shortage, often devalued, and often under attack, the idea of allowing deacons to have any resemblance to priests could conceivably damage vocations. If a deacon is wearing the same clerical dress as a priest, doesn’t that mean there is some equivalency? I don’t think any bishop wants to risk that idea becoming prevalent.

You see, in the Roman Church, deacons are really a rather new idea. Yes, we had them a long time ago, but in this post Vatican II era, we are still just learning what a deacon is. We are still establishing what this “new” role really is, how it looks, feels and acts. No one, deacons included, wants anyone to think of the deacon as a “mini priest”, and I think that the bishops feel allowing them to wear the collar would do just that.

There is also an issue of authority. The priests are all directly under the immediate authority of the bishop, and the bishop knows each of his priests by name. He knows their proclivities, he gets mail from their parishioners, and speaks to them on a very regular basis. This communication is not nearly as commonplace with deacons. Deacons are also under the direct control of their bishops, but they mainly report to their parish priests, and are off doing their thing to support their parishes. Without the bishop having that deep amount of contact with the deacons, I think they may be uncomfortable with the deacons having such free reign to speak for the Church, especially since they have so much less connection to the bishop and the institutional Church than a priest has. To put it briefly, I would guess they would say to themselves, “I’m not even sure who these guys really are!”

In fairness, they often really don’t know who these guys are. While I’m sure its a minority, I have little doubt that some men have gone through the process to become a deacon for primarily social reasons. All it takes is a few of these guys, and since the bishop has little contact with his deacons, he begins to wonder if they all aren’t like that to some degree. I’ve heard of bishops saying things like, “Men only become deacons so they can marry off their daughters and baptize their grandchildren.” Some probably have, and I’m not surprised that a bishop may feel that way, considering the low amount of communication between bishops and deacons.

I would bet that bishops don’t really see the value in their deacons as well. The parish priest does, I’m sure, but the bishop sees very little of the work a deacon does, as it is done in places and times that the bishop has little relation to. Bishops don’t often visit prisons, hospitals, confirmation programs, children’s religious education classes, marriage prep classes, bereavment groups, etc. I do not fault the bishops for this one iota, they have other important tasks that must be done, and can only be done by them. They are extremely busy men. They sure see their priests often, but they see deacons in action very infrequently in comparison. It’s not their fault, it is rather built that way.

Lastly, a friend of mine once quoted his old bishop as saying, “My deacons all want to wear the collar, and my priests all want to take theirs off.” Let me translate in my own words: priests want to be able to be anonymous, and deacons want to stand out. There can be a very real concern that deacons want to wear the collar for reasons that are not in line with the purposes behind clerical dress. Maybe the bishops are concerned that deacons only want to wear the collar to exalt their own status.

All of this tend to devalue the deacon in the eyes of the episcopacy. So for them to allow deacons to wear clerical dress in their mind, is to put deacons on par with the men they know, who have clearly and visibly dedicated their lives to the Church, for a benefit that they may not really see. In practice, I think bishops tend to see their deacons as unduly exalted laymen rather than their brothers working in the fields. I would bet in some cases, they can very right in this assessment, and that only solidifies that belief.

All that being said, I continue to stand with my position in:

“Should Deacons Wear the Roman Collar?”.

But then, I’m not a bishop!

(As a side note, I have never met a deacon that meets any of the negative descriptions that I have posted above, but sheer statistics command that they must exist. Also, I would like to repeat that I have never spoken to a bishop on this matter, and all of my thoughts as to why they might feel this way are 100% theoretical, and from my own musing on the subject.)

Crossing the Line

This weekend in our formation classes we had an interesting discussion that I wanted to share. In our psychology course, our professor constantly has us working in small groups, working out different counseling situations, with one of us acting as a therapist, and the other role playing a problem someone might have.

This begged the question, is a deacon meant to be a counselor?

It was astounding how quickly the director of the program jumped up and basically said “Heck no!” The liabilities involved are so tremendous that he wanted to nip that thought right in the bud.

Before I go into my thoughts, he made it absolutely clear that we can listen to people and pray with them, but we are never to give advice. The legal issues are simply to extreme. On a side note, he also said we cannot act as spiritual directors until we take a specific spiritual direction course, which our diocese does not offer.

I will admit I found this rather odd. I would imagine that any priest or deacon with five+ years of spiritual education under their belt would have the ability to give some guidance to the spiritual direction of the flock they have been entrusted with, after all, what is a homily if not spiritual direction? This one seems silly, but it brings me to my main point.

At what time did we as a nation institutionalize good advice?

I find it absolutely ridiculous that a person can be sued for sharing common sense with someone, even when that person instigated the question. “I am sorry, I am not qualified to tell you that you should not beat your children with a stick, let me refer you to a licensed therapist.” What nonsense.

And yet, in this sue happy society, everyone seems to have it out for the Church, and this now includes me. So I wanted to share some of my new rules, effective immediately.

I cannot hug children, but I am allowed to be hugged by children as long as it is in a group setting.

I cannot be alone with anyone, ever. (I hope they exclude my own family!)

I cannot give advice that might have a direct impact on someone’s life, unless that advice is to pray more.

I cannot give people suggestions of things they might change in their lives that might improve their lives.

I cannot tell anyone that I can help them. (It can be confused as “curing” them, which is clinical.)

The list goes on, and seems to grow constantly. While much of it seems silly, I do realize the importance of these new rules, but at the same time, it makes me wonder how I can really be an effective minister of God’s Word. How can I admonish the sinner when I’m not allowed to admonish the sinner? This is tricky business, and I’m going to have to really use my noggin to figure it all out.

Learning to Bilocate

Deacon classes are always challenging, but my latest task has taken the cake. I am currently studying bi-location.

What the heck is bi-location you ask? Well, to be honest I’m not really all that sure, not having really accomplished it yet, but as I understand, many of the Saints were able to be in two places at once. That sounds particularly challenging since I haven’t really learned to be at one place at once very efficiently as of yet.

So this weekend, at the Easter Vigil, it was time to put my nose to the grindstone and figure it out, because I somehow had to go to both Easter Vigils in my town. (We have two parishes in my city.) Yup, at my parish, I was reading, directing altar servers, helping the catechumen and candidates that I have been working with all year, basically making sure everything went to plan. My kids are altar serving, my wife is an extraordinary minister, we are completely involved in this Mass.

This is just what I signed up for. The Easter Vigil is my favorite Mass of the entire year, and I am knee deep in it’s planning. I’ve been excited for six months for tonight.

On Thursday however, a very good friend gave me a call to offer me a signal honor. Her son was going to be baptized, and she didn’t realize she needed godparents. Of course their Mass is being held at the exact same time as ours.

Really good friend. Really great honor. Really short notice.

(Insert string of expletives here)

Now if this had been a goddaughter, this would have been a piece of cake. I would have sent my wife to represent us, but alas, it is not so. Nope, it has got to be me, and I know it. This boy needs a man to stand with him, and being a godparent is forever, and therefore clearly the more important task.

So I must suddenly learn to bi-locate. We definitely did not cover this in my formation classes.

So here is how it panned out. I showed up an hour early to my parish to help set up and double check that everything was perfect. Check. Jumped into the RCIA class to help with prayers and to congratulate everyone. Check. Got Easter fire ready. Check.

Then off we go. As soon as the crowds leave the Easter fire, I douse the holy barbecue, put it in a safe place and jump in the church to read the first reading. (I was scheduled to read the epistle, but switched with a buddy to get the first reading) Listened to the Easter Praises, and hopped up to read.

What! Dangit, I double checked everyone else, but I forgot to check my own readings! The pages aren’t marked, and the church is packed. I’m up there looking at the Holy Thursday readings! After a couple eons of page turning as hundreds of people stare at me, I find the first reading and go for it. Guess what? Wrong reading. Yup, totally read the wrong thing. Yes, I read a reading for Holy Saturday, just not the reading we had planned on being read.

“The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Walk away from the ambo reverently. Continue walking all the way out the church, hop in car, drive across town, walk into Mass. Stand up for my new godson, finish Mass. Wish all friends there a happy Easter, fly back to my parish, hop in reception, congratulate everyone who just came into the Church, eat cake.

Grab family, fly back to other reception, congratulate godson, eat more cake. Drop off family, walk to church and pick up wife’s car.

Collapse in exhaustion. Sleep until noon. Forget to hide eggs.

Don’t get me wrong, it was a holy and beautiful Easter. But something really got to me.

I was sad that I wasn’t really able to spend Easter with my family. This Easter taught me one thing I knew was going to happen intellectually, but I just wasn’t prepared for emotionally. I have always loved being snuggled up to my wife during Mass, to have my daughter’s hand in mine and her head on my shoulder. I have always been able to be present to them as a husband and as a father.

Being a deacon will mean being separated from my family.

Praeconium

This is the night.

There are so many things I would love to share about this most beautiful night, but as a man aspiring to the deaconate, there is something so special this night that I fell odd talking about anything else.
The Praeonium, or Exultet is the most beautiful song that has ever been sung, and it is sung by the deacon.
This great hymn reaches across time and space, and touches everything that is beautiful about our faith, our relationships with one another, our common heritage as human beings and about the purpose and destiny of our lives.
The Easter Praises have such depth that I could never begin to express how much they mean to me. This song is the very center of why I feel called to be a deacon. If you would like to know more, please read
It’s long, but oh so beautiful.
Exult, let them exult, the hosts of heaven,
exult, let Angel ministers of God exult,
let the trumpet of salvation sound aloud our mighty King’s triumph!
Be glad, let earth be glad, as glory floods her,
ablaze with light from her eternal King,
let all corners of the earth be glad,
knowing an end to gloom and darkness.
Rejoice, let Mother Church also rejoice,
arrayed with the lighting of his glory,
let this holy building shake with joy,
filled with the mighty voices of the peoples.
Therefore, dearest friends,
standing in the awesome glory of this holy light,
invoke with me, I ask you, the mercy of God almighty,
that he who has been pleased to number me, though unworthy, among the Levites,
may pour into me his light unshadowed,
that I may sing this candle’s perfect praises.
V/: The Lord be with you.
R/: And with your spirit.
V/: Lift up your hearts.
R/: We lift them up to the Lord.
V/: Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
R/: It is right and just.
It is truly right and just,
with ardent love of mind and heart,
and with devoted service of our voice,
to acclaim our God invisible, the almighty Father,
and Jesus Christ, our Lord, his Son, his Only Begotten.
Who for our sake paid Adam’s debt to the eternal Father,
and pouring out his own dear Blood
wiped clean the record of our ancient sinfulness.
These then are the feasts of Passover,
in which is slain the Lamb, the one true Lamb,
whose Blood anoints the doorposts of believers.
This is the night, when once you led our forebears,
Israel’s children, from slavery in Egypt
and made them pass dry-shod through the Red Sea.
This is the night that with a pillar of fire banished the darkness of sin.
This is the night that even now, throughout the world,
sets Christian believers apart from worldly vices and from the gloom of sin,
lending them to grace, and joining them to his holy ones.
This is the night when Christ broke the prison-bars of death,
and rose victorious from the underworld.
Our birth would have been no gain, had we not been redeemed.
O wonder of your humble care for us!
O love, O charity beyond all telling,
to ransom a slave you gave away your Son!
O truly necessary sin of Adam, destroyed completely by the Death of Christ!
O happy fault that earned so great, so glorious a Redeemer!
O truly blessed night, worthy alone to know the time and hour
when Christ rose from the underworld!
This is the night of which it is written:
The night shall be as bright as day, dazzling is the night for me, and full of gladness.
The sanctifying power of this night dispels all wickedness,
washes faults away, restores innocence to the fallen, and joy to mourners,
drives out hatred, fosters concord, and brings down the mighty.
On this, your night of grace, O holy Father,
accept this candle, a solemn offering,
the work of bees and of your servants’ hands,
an evening sacrifice of praise, this gift from your most holy Church.
But now we know the praises of this pillar,
which glowing fire ignites for God’s honor,
a fire into many flames divided,
yet never dimmed by sharing of its light,
for it is fed by melting wax,
drawn out by mother bees to build a torch so precious.
O truly blessed night,
when things of heaven are wed to those of earth,
and divine to the human.
Therefore, O Lord, we pray you that this candle,
hallowed to the honor of your name,
may persevere undimmed,
to overcome the darkness of this night.
Receive it as a pleasing fragrance,
and let it mingle with the lights of heaven.
May this flame be found still burning by the Morning Star:
the one Morning Star who never sets, Christ your Son,
who coming back from death’s domain
has shed his peaceful light on humanity
and lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen