International Diaconate Conference celebrates 50-year anniversary

November 24, 2015

Deacons "from the altars to the streets" serve the mission of the Church while working in the secular world and upholding the holy Sacrament of Marriage, discussed 600 deacons and their wives at the International Diaconate Conference (IDC) in Rome.

About 70 deacons and their families traveled from the Archdiocese to Italy in mid-October, joining those from 35 countries of the Americas and Europe to Asia and Africa to celebrate the IDC's 50-year jubilee. The IDC worked diligently in support of the Second Vatican Council's reinstatement of the permanent diaconate in the 1960s. 

Deacon Gerald DuPont, director of the Office of the Diaconate for the Archdiocese who led the U.S. group to IDC's conference in Rome, reported to the audience that there are now more than 43,000 ordained Catholic deacons in the world, sharing their dedication with parishioners and communities.

Of that number, more than 18,700 deacons serve in the U.S. for more than 71 million Catholics, the larger number still being only six percent of the world's Catholic population.

"Of the 195 U.S. dioceses, 177 have deacons," DuPont said. "Studies have shown that in addition to parish work, deacons are found engaging in service to the sick and homebound, ministering to those in prison and drug and rehabilitation work, ministering to children involved in the court system and extending a helping hand to the poor, homeless and other needy troubled groups in society. And as many of them are married, deacons also uphold the domestic Church in their families and illustrate the sacredness of the holy Sacrament of Marriage."

Speaking of families, that was the reason Pope Francis gave in canceling his visit with the IDC audience since the Holy Father was still engaged at that time with the Synod of Bishops on "The Vocation and Mission of the Family in the Church and World of Today." 

Pope Francis wrote to the conference participants, "Dear Brothers in the Diaconate and wives of deacons… I was looking forward to meeting you, but now my unrestricted attention to the Synod is needed." The letter from Pope Francis added, "You are ambassadors of Jesus Christ… I promise to bring your cases to my prayers and please keep me in your prayers. I give you my Apostolic Blessing." 

Deacons during the conference presentations were also described as "bridge-builders," the epitome of service and bringing life to the missionary Church, spending hours in a boat or horse to carry the Word of God to isolated villages. But now the villages are coming to the U.S. and Europe with immigrants and refugees, thus making the need of building bridges with charity and justice at home even more important.

Deacon Hans-Eduard Spelters and his wife Marianne of Germany said there are seven Catholic churches in their area with a total of only two priests among them. "And the priests are originally from India and Africa. So deacons are important to keep that connection with the community," said Spelters, a deacon for 35 years who also served a year in El Paso, Texas, when he was in the German Army Corps.

Closer to Houston, Deacon Dale Steffes of St. John Vianney Catholic Church, among the 70-strong group attending the IDC, is described as a "trailblazer," being ordained in 1972 in one of the first diaconate classes in Houston. He recently ran as a Houston mayoral candidate. 

One of the most recently ordained from the class of 2015, Deacon Bill Pitocco of St. Edward Catholic Church in Spring, said, "We are the ambassadors of the new diaconate in our workplaces, hospitals, prisons, and in our own churches and homes."

Deacon Phillip Jackson of Christ the Redeemer Catholic Church was recently announced as director of the Diaconate upon Deacon DuPont's pending retirement this summer, said, "To be a deacon, you have the heart of a servant. You want to minister to people as you have been ministered to."

He said, "All baptized are called to be servants. The deacon is the icon, the model of the servant heart building those bridges for all people to help in the missionary Church. Even Christ was not alone in His ministry and had His Apostles. The priests are so busy with the Church and parishioners while we are more engaged in the secular world."

DuPont explained deacons then should not be considered solely priests' assistants or substitutes, but as an ordained ministry, specifically in three areas — the ministry of the Word, the ministry of the liturgy and the ministry of charity and justice.

In reviewing the recent 50-year history of the diaconate, the bishops of the Second Vatican Council on Sept. 29, 1964, approved the restoration of the permanent diaconate. Section 29 of the Constitution on the Church stated, "At a lower level of the hierarchy are to be found deacons, who receive the imposition of hands ‘not unto the priesthood, but unto the ministry.' For, strengthened by sacramental grace they are dedicated to the People of God, in conjunction with the bishop and his body of priests, in the service of the liturgy, of the Gospel and of works of charity.

"It pertains to the office of a deacon, in so far as it may be assigned to him by the competent authority, to administer Baptism solemnly, to be custodian and distributors of the Eucharist, in the name of the Church, to assist at and to bless marriages, to bring Viaticum to the dying, to read the sacred Scripture to the faithful, to instruct and exhort the people, to preside over the worship and the prayer of the faithful, to administer sacramentals, and to official at funeral and burial services.

"Dedicated to the words of charity and functions of administration, deacons should recall the admonition of St. Polycarp: ‘Let them be merciful, and zealous, and let them walk according to the truth of the Lord, who became the servant of all."