Sometimes you head out on a journey, and you end up at a very different place than you thought you would. The journey of our diaconal discernment committee has been full of grace; grace, through what Pope Francis calls essential in today’s world – “dialogue, dialogue, dialogue.” That dialogue has included a bit of argument, a lot of prayer and a few strong feelings, a pile of reading, a lot of questions and answers and more questions, some good insights, a lengthy consultative process, and no small amount of joy along the way; and then, to a significant degree, a coming together of minds and hearts: minds and hearts which expressed very different ways of thinking with the Church as we proceeded. Sometimes you head out on a journey and where you end up is better than you thought the destination would be. That has been my experience of this particular journey, carried by hope and prayer.
A couple of years ago, Archbishop Daniel Bohan of the Archdiocese of Regina invited the other bishops in the province to consider moving towards a permanent diaconate in their dioceses. Bishop Dan is the Metropolitan for the region - he calls the Saskatchewan bishops together from time to time - and he’s done a great job of keeping our dioceses in close contact with each other and moving generally in the same direction, while maintaining the freedom that rightly belongs to each.
In Regina and Prince Albert, the decision was taken to proceed with a permanent diaconate. In the diocese of Saskatoon I tested the waters in a few places on this question, and had a fairly good sense that this would be a highly contested issue in our diocese, with strong feelings on both sides of the question. In prayer I knew we had to broaden the discussion, seeking out options that would move us away from a decision that would polarize, and letting the Spirit assist us in finding a way forward. A diaconal discernment committee was formed, and the 12 members represented very divergent views at the outset, reflecting the diversity of opinion existing within the diocese. I would like to take this opportunity to offer profound thanks to the other members of this group, and would ask them to stand and be acknowledged.
At the outset, the committee was ably chaired first by Glenn Hilton, who had recently stepped down as our human resources consultant, and then when Glenn had helped us find our feet, by Leah Perrault, co-director of the Pastoral Centre. They did a great job, and worked very hard, as did the whole discernment committee.
The committee shared personal reflections at the outset, then set to work: reading and discussing the Vatican document Basic Norms for the Formation of Permanent Deacons as well as other theological and pastoral reflections on the diaconate; looking to the experience of permanent deacons in our own diocese and elsewhere, and to the diversity of models of the diaconate across Canada; and reflecting on possible implications, positive and less positive, of a permanent diaconate on other ministries within our parishes and diocese.
After several meetings of the discernment committee, it was decided that we needed to broaden the consultation, and to frame our discussion within the context of the diverse ways in which God calls us. Thus began the planning of Congress Day 2, which gathered people from the diocese in three different locations between January and March 2014, to introduce our discernment process. As part of that process, we listened to a number of witnesses who briefly shared their vocational calls to marriage and the single life, to religious and monastic life, and to diaconal, priestly and episcopal ministry. For those of you who missed these testimonies, you can still see them online at http://www.saskatoonrcdiocese.com/videos . The God we address as Father, Son and Holy Spirit calls us in such diverse ways, each revealing the tender face of God, and God’s infinitely great desires and hopes for us and for our world. I’d now ask those who shared their vocational stories at Congress Day 2 to please stand and be acknowledged.
For some participants, this focus on vocation seemed an unnecessary tangent, but the discernment committee felt that it was vital to set the call to diaconal ministry within the larger context of a God who calls us all in different ways, to different tasks and ministries; and to ask how diaconal ministry would relate to other vocational callings within the Church. As the day unfolded in each of the three locations, Congress participants largely found the witnesses to be inspiring and the ensuing discussion stimulating. Questions and comments at the end of the day, while not pointing us in a single direction, gave the discernment committee much to reflect upon. Our task at that stage was to listen deeply to what was being said, and to discern in the midst of diverse and conflicting responses where the Holy Spirit was leading us. We were not sure where we were going to end up, but we did hear the Lord’s voice calling us and sensed the Triune God present and at work in the lives of people in the diocese.
It is important to note that this process took place within the first year of Pope Francis’ pontificate, and that too shaped our discussions. Within days of his election as Pope, he met with journalists, and explained his choice of the name Francis. While in the Sistine Chapel as the final votes were being tallied, he was standing beside his friend Cardinal Claudio Hummes, and when the votes reached two thirds and it was clear that Cardinal Bergoglio was to become the next Pope, Cardinal Hummes embraced him and said: ‘Don't forget the poor!’ Pope Francis went on to tell the journalists: “those words came to me: the poor, the poor. Then, right away, thinking of the poor, I thought of Francis of Assisi. Then I thought of all the wars, as the votes were still being counted, till the end. Francis is also the man of peace. That is how the name came into my heart: Francis of Assisi” – a person of peace, of poverty, of love for creation – and then he said, “How I would like a Church which is poor and for the poor!” A few months later, a year ago now, Pope Francis published The Joy of the Gospel, with its strong call for each of us to be missionary disciples, and said “I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.” (Evangelii Gaudium, 49). His frequent call for us to proclaim the Gospel with our lives, to make personal decisions which witness to the joy and freedom and mercy that God came to bring us in Jesus, and to go out to the peripheries, to find and love and serve the Lord there, has all been part of the air we have been breathing in the Church as we have been discerning a permanent diaconate.
The next step of the committee was to meet separately with groups of people who would be directly impacted by, or have a particular stance on, the decision of whether or not to proceed with a permanent diaconate, and if we did proceed, what shape it would take. Representatives of the discernment committee met with clergy, women religious, and diocesan lay employees (past and present), initiating a discussion which looked at four different options facing us, and at different models of the diaconate – especially a model that had as its primary focus a ministry of outreach which summoned the whole Church to reach out in service and compassion to places of great need. We listened to the concerns and fears, hopes and longings of those who came to these gatherings. Again, I express my gratitude to the many of you (including many here today) who took part in one or another of these discussions. At face value what we heard seemed difficult to hold together – one of our illustrious members put into words what many felt in saying ‘there’s just no way that we can make everyone happy or keep from hurting some of these great people, whatever decision we make!’ However, what did emerge, from both the Congress Day 2 sessions and the subsequent rounds of consultation, were some recurring themes and experiences. I would identify four themes in particular:
First, we heard great openness, honesty and trust in the willingness of people to speak freely and from their hearts what they felt the Spirit was saying. We heard opposing viewpoints delivered with great freedom and respect. We heard, not from all but from the large majority, a trust that God was at work not only in the diocese but in our discernment process, and a gratitude for being consulted and listened to attentively. Many indicated their trust that I would make a life-giving and faithful decision as the process came to a close. Once again I would express my gratitude for your honesty and trust.
Second, we heard a conviction that service is a calling for all the baptized, and experienced a strong resonance with Pope Francis’ renewed emphasis on the Christian outreach to those most in need. This was often coupled with a strong caution that if we proceeded with a permanent diaconate, it should be structured in such a way that it supports, rather than stifles, the lay, religious and priestly responses to God’s call to service currently being lived out in the diocese.
Third, we heard from many who felt that we should move towards a diaconate, and considerable enthusiasm for a vision of a diaconate tied strongly to service of those most in need. This vision for the diaconate begins with a demonstrated commitment to ministry of active service, out of which flows a liturgical ministry that sacramentalizes the service to which all are called. In other words, we heard that the liturgical and preaching ministries of a possible diaconate in the diocese should flow out of that service, and not the other way around.
Fourth, we heard a strong reservation from a significant minority of people (across all vocations) about proceeding with a permanent diaconate that cannot include women. While everyone was clear that we belong to a universal church, and that we have no authority to move in that direction, as the local bishop I was encouraged by many to contribute, in an ecclesially appropriate and responsible way, to national and international dialogue on the possibility of a permanent diaconate which would be open to women.
God never leads us into a corner to abandon us there or leave us frustrated, so with a certain relentless hope, the committee returned to its work. Soon thereafter, the idea of a new initiative began to emerge, one which would create a greater space for a ministry of outreach open to all, and which could proceed in conjunction with the establishment of a permanent diaconate. The discernment committee set to work to draft a report with recommendations, and I stepped back a little at this point to let the committee complete its task. (See link to Report in menu at left.)
The report can be found online at http://saskatoonrcdiocese.com/sites/default/files/diaconal_discernment_c...
I am tremendously grateful to the diaconal discernment committee for their generous work, and grateful to all those who in one way or another have taken part in this discernment process. Thank you for your prayerful commitment of time and energy and insight. I hope you can hear something of your own concerns and hopes in what has been presented.
At this point, I would like to offer some specific comments on the first two of the proposals, indicating my profound resonance with what is being suggested, and indicating the next steps to be taken.
A Preliminary Plan
In the coming weeks, I will be calling together three committees to further reflect upon and take forward the first two recommendations of the report, as follows:
First, a committee will be established – including lay formation leadership, those involved in justice and outreach ministries, including representation from our Aboriginal community – to come up with a more detailed proposal of what shape a year of formation for lay ministry of outreach and service on the peripheries might take. This could be a third year of lay formation, distinct from but dependent on our two-year program; or it could be a distinct program. The committee’s proposal should reflect on topics to be presented in such a year of formation, on possible presenters, on whether and how it would be integrated into our current lay formation program, on an experiential dimension for participants, and on the staffing and practical needs for such a program. The committee will be asked to reflect on how we can offer a quality formation program drawing on limited financial resources, wherever possible using resources, presenters and staff already in place or easily accessible and affordable.
A second committee will include those acquainted with diaconal formation and its requirements, with skills in pedagogy and human formation, and familiar with pertinent academic and formation programs in the region. Its mandate will be to study carefully the Basic Norms for the Formation of Permanent Deacons and, in dialogue with the first committee, to ask what would be required to supplement formation already given in our lay formation program and the proposed additional year of formation on the ministry of outreach; to explore partnerships with others who could assist with the ongoing formation of candidates for the permanent diaconate; to do some preliminary thinking about how we would screen and evaluate candidates; and to reflect on what oversight would be required for such a program, and how it could be offered once again in a manner which is fiscally sustainable and responsible for the long term.
A third committee, in liaison with the first two and bringing competence in terms of finance and stewardship, will be asked to assess the financial and human resources required for the above initiatives, and to reflect on how the program could develop stably and effectively without being a financial drain to existing programming and services.
I anticipate that September of 2016 would be the earliest potential start date for diaconal candidates, as well as any lay programming coming out of the committee's recommendations. That will give the three committees a chance to do their work without undue pressure.
There are many questions which remain, perhaps more questions than answers, including questions that will only come to light in the process. I promise you that as we proceed, you will be kept informed, and that we will proceed in a slow and systematic way in order not to stumble unnecessarily, mindful that it is always the Spirit who leads. We don’t know how everything will look in two years or three or five, but we will proceed in the direction that the permanent diaconate discernment committee has pointed us, with pastoral attentiveness and financial accountability.
It is my profound hope that over the next two years as a diocese we will be able to give shape to a vision and a formation program for a permanent diaconate that is strongly rooted in service and integrated into a collaborative approach to ministry between ordained, lay, and religious; and that the preparation for such ministry will be integrated with the development of a year-long lay formation program for outreach to the peripheries, with both initiatives developing in the spirit of where Pope Francis is calling the Church to be.
It has been a privilege to work alongside the diaconal discernment committee, and alongside so many of you, as we have considered the possibility of a permanent diaconate. I believe that the process has been a graced one, and trust that the Spirit which has guided us thus far will continue to lead us, probably in directions a little different than we anticipate at present. So it has ever been in walking with the Holy Spirit! I am grateful to God for bringing us from what certainly felt like irreconcilable visions to a place that I believe will address many of the most significant longings that dwell in the human heart, as well as the most urgent needs of our communities.
“Now to (God) who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen.” (Eph. 3:20-21)
With gratitude and faith,
Bishop Donald Bolen