Friday, September 30, 2011

The real "Priest" shortage

     Someone asked one of my sons once what he wanted to be when he grows up and to their surprise his response was a deacon. Of course, at his age he cant comprehend what the degrees of priesthood are but one thing is good is that he sees them as the same. The feeling of surprise expressed by the person who asked the question I believe reflects a weakness in understanding the priestly ministry of Jesus Christ as it is exercised in Church. It seems the calling to priestly ministry for men has narrowly been focused only on the role of the priest in the Catholic Church. Consequently, the roles of the deacon and the bishop have to some degree lost their true expressions.
     The fathers of our Eastern Christian tradition have always understood that the priesthood is exercised in three degrees (Bishop, Priest, Deacon).Starting with the Bishop we find the fullest degree of expression of the priestly ministry of Jesus Christ. This ministry is distributed to the Church through the bishop's priests and deacons. The priest receives the greater portion of this ministry and the deacon the lesser. However, this distribution is sacred and each role shares the priestly ministry of Jesus Christ.
     As I have expressed I believe that many faithful Catholics have lost their understanding of priesthood. For example, I have heard descriptions of deacons as being glorified altar boys and bishops as no more than administrators. In fact it's rare that vocations directors when trying to recruit young men for the church include the deaconate. One time I was at a vocations talk given by a Latin rite priest and he reluctantly noticed a deacon in the crowd and mentioned that "deacons are a vocation too". Previously, I heard the same speech before from him without the deacon present and he made no reference to the deaconate at all. Maybe in his mind its only an option for married men who can't be priests.
     In speaking with a good friend of mine who is a vocations director he wondered why he has to go to his vocations conventions to learn new techniques and gimmicks to recruit young men. He expressed he always felt called to serve and that this is not something you can convince some one to believe. Some might say the emphasis on vocations directors and their hyper promotion of "priesthood" stems from the priest shortage. There of course should be no excuses to distort what it means to be called to the priesthood in favor of only one degree of the ministry. Perhaps, when the vocations directors get it right they might see the numbers their looking for. A calling is a calling and no matter what state a man is in its the vocations directors job to nourish this calling in order for that person to best serve the Church.
     As I pointed out not only does the office of deacon suffer from what I have been speaking about but most of all the bishops role. I read once of a man visiting a village in eastern Europe which of course was made up of Christian of the Eastern spiritual tradition. At that time a bishop was visiting the village and the people were amazed at the bishops presence. The man asked one of villagers how they understood the role of the bishop and the villager said that the bishop was an icon that came off the wood that it was written on to be with the people. It seems that these Eastern Christian people fully understood the otherworldliness of the bishop in relation to the people. As the villager pointed out he is the icon of Christ with the people of God.
     In my experience I have yet to meet a catholic that would think of a bishop in the manner I described. For many he is more or less a CEO of the priests, which gives him no more than a secular identity. In addition, the same could be said of Catholics understanding of the role of the deacon. Listening to a recent talk on priestly ministry given at an Eastern Orthodox seminary a priest welcomed a deacon and referred to him as "Father John" a title impossible to the Roman Catholic mind but one I have found even Byzantine Catholics struggle to say to their own deacons. We have no problem understanding the sacred priestly ministry of Jesus Christ in a parish priest but we have lost it in the bishop and the deacon.
     Byzantine Catholics and even Roman Catholics I believe need to look to the eastern roots of the Church if we want to see a dynamic priestly ministry active in the church today. The vocations proclaimed by some vocations directors of today have to some degree failed to have a true expression of the Catholic tradition. The hyper emphasis on "priests" has caused the other degrees of priestly ministry to suffer. The numbers say we need more priests but I think in reality that its more deacons that we truly need. By removing the distortion that has taken root in the church we will again venerate the priestly ministry as the early church did. In fact, there was a time in the catholic church when bishops were chosen from the ranks of deacons.
     In conclusion, I asked our parish deacon once if he would ever advance to become a priest and his response was that he was open to serve more. He seemed content that he was a "priest" already and was open to participate deeper in this ministry of Jesus Christ. Many men in the catholic church both east and west have struggled with many issues regarding doors being closed to them to serve in ministry, especially married men. It is my hope that in looking east they might discover that in becoming a deacons they too will have all the spiritual dignity of a parish priest. As I pointed out there needs to be renewal among the majority but in the eyes of Tradition they too will share in the priesthood of our Lord.


  1. I like what you write.

    Maybe you could expand and suggest that we (East and West) also need more men called to the vocation of bishop!

    By that I mean smaller dioceses/eparchies. And the proper ministry of a bishop is to shepherd a part of the faithful, not as an auxiliary-bureaucrat. Let's get rid of auxiliary bishops and curial bishops and makes dioceses small enough for the faithful to have a chance of a personal relationship with him.

  2. It's interesting in the Acts of the Apostles that deacons are ordained to serve table, then we only see them preaching. There is much hidden service that deacons do, but the church is in dire need of good preaching ... in word and in deed.

  3. As the first Greek-Catholic "permanent" married deacon ordained in Poland (2003) and author of the draft text of our particular law on deacons & minor clerics, I have been an inside viewer of the problem. Many thanks for the text! I've added your blog to my list.

    in Christ,

    deacon Peter
    Lublin, Poland