The Experience of Formation Work for Permanent Deacons and its Meaning for the Greater China Region
Dominic Chan Chi-ming
Translated by Rosa Lo
The new evangelisation concept of the Second Vatican Council points out that the Church has to preach the Gospel to the world. If the Church broke away from the world and society, it would not be necessary to have permanent deacons, and related discussions of this subject will bear little meaning. But if the Church upholds the teachings of Jesus Christ, that is, the Church's priority is to preach the Gospel, it then entails the service of the permanent diaconate. However, promoting the introduction of the permanent diaconate is still inadequately understood around the world. When we look at Taiwan, Macau, South Korea and other places, they have not pursued the permanent diaconate due to various reasons. The Church in South Korea points out that they have many priests already, so there is no need to establish the permanent diaconate. Macau gives no response after a study was made. The Diocese of Taipei hopes to pursue the diaconate but decided to put it on hold because the other dioceses in Taiwan were not ready.
In December 1989, the late Cardinal John Baptist Wu Cheng-chung convened a meeting in the Hong Kong Diocese to discuss the establishment of the permanent diaconate. In 1992, he decided to implement the diaconate, which was to be evaluated after a three-year trial. In the early days of its implementation, the Hong Kong Diocese sent people to North America and Europe, especially Germany, to study and learn from their rich experience. One of the authors who penned Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World) is a German cardinal. He clearly understood this idea, and after the end of the Vatican II, he started to pursue the diaconate soon after returning to Germany.
The Hong Kong Diocese implemented the concept of the new evangelisation of Vatican II, for which the Church must take care of both its internal and external work, thus requiring close coordination and division of labor among different clerical ranks. For bishops and priests who lead the Church, there are two pastoral priorities. First, they have to preside over all liturgies so that the faithful can be nourished in all aspects by the Word of God and the Sacraments. Second, they have to provide formation to the laypeople, helping them understand their vocation and mission. In order to let the public feel the presence of God, the Diocese has to dispatch the permanent deacons to society. The bishop will place them to serve and witness in different areas according to the different graces that the deacons possess.
Unlike social workers, the permanent deacon being a cleric, will have to return to the parish on Saturdays and Sundays. In the parish, they not only serve by helping the priests or in preaching, but also raise the social dimension of the entire faith community through their presence in the parish to urge everyone to experience the love of Christ in their daily living environment. Therefore, a clear view on ecclesiology is crucial. Among them, the priest is responsible for ceremonies, priestly works and formation in the parish while the permanent deacons serve and witness in different positions through their humble, caring service and selfless dedication.
After years of experience, the Hong Kong Diocese has also made new attempts and reflection on the formation of permanent deacons. For the overall formation, many spiritual directors are needed to assist the permanent deacons in retreats, to be their personal spiritual directors for their spiritual counseling and to purify the spirits of the deacons and candidates. If not, after they receive the holy order, their nature will be altered easily and they can go astray.
The role of the formation director is to implement the decisions made by the executive committee and to plan, publicise and promote the diaconate, to select and shape the candidates and to arrange their ordinations. The formation director meets regularly with each permanent deacon, candidate, aspirant and applicant to understand their work, service experience and their inspirations in order to arrange training for them, and give guidance and encouragement to them in their pastoral and charitable works.
The Commission for the Permanent Diaconate publishes a diary manual for the deacons, candidates, aspirants, and applicants to maintain a comprehensive and systematic record of their personal formation, further education, spirituality, and reflection. These relevant materials can assist the formation director to give them appropriate guidance when meeting with them. Since the programme's implementation, the formation director will have been more fully aware of the formation progress and journey of the faith in the life of the deacons, candidates, aspirants and applicants. The Commission has further studied an electronic version of the manual to meet the requirements of the electronic age. In addition, there are clinical psychologists to evaluate the aspirants and the candidates.
The formation director and his team members will conduct home visits with the aspirants to gain a deeper understanding of them and their family's knowledge of the duties as permanent deacons. The formation director also holds sharing sessions regularly for the aspirants so that they can get to know each other, enrich each other's lives, prepare themselves, and respond to God’s call.
In 2013, the Diocese hoped to learn about the world development of the permanent diaconate and held the first “World Congress of Chinese Permanent Deacons” in Hong Kong. It brought together Chinese permanent deacons from around the world. Besides reflecting on the development in Hong Kong, the congress also learned about the situation in the United States and Canada. The exchange did not limit itself to permanent deacons but also had many theological reflections which took into account the needs and specific circumstances of the deacons’ wives. The Hong Kong Diocese cared for the circumstances of the deacons’ wives and has organised a group for them. This allowed them to reflect on God’s grace bestowed upon them in baptism and marriage, and to understand that the permanent diaconate is also a holy order, and that there is no conflict between the two.
In 2014, the Diocese invited a female theologian, who has been the wife of a permanent deacon for more than 30 years, to share with the deacons’ wives in Hong Kong. The speaker said she promised at the time of marriage that in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, she would love him and honour him all the days of her life. What she did not expect was that after her husband became a permanent deacon, it enriched their married life. It made her realise what dedication and serving together means. The call of God is to have the two united in one, never to be separated. Therefore, accepting the call of being a permanent deacon elevates the marriage to a higher level. Although there are sacrifices, there are also meanings and values, which are complementary to each other. Married life also enriches the experience of permanent deacons.
The Hong Kong Diocese is also very concerned about the development of permanent deacons in Mainland China. Some mainland bishops have expressed their wish to develop the role of permanent deacons. However, during conversations with them, it was found that they did not have a correct understanding of the meaning of permanent deacons. They mistakenly believed that the permanent deacon is an assistant parish priest. Therefore, the Hong Kong Diocese suggested that they put aside the idea of introducing the permanent diaconate, and bolster the foundation of the lay people’s faith formation first. In 2016, the formation director teamed up with several permanent deacons and their wives and made a visit to Beijing to introduce the permanent diaconate to the local faithful. During the meetings, a permanent deacon who was ordained in Mainland China in 1984 showed up at the meeting unexpectedly. However, the introduction of the permanent diaconate came about due to a shortage of priests and the bishop invited laymen to become permanent deacons randomly, without any formation. After that exchange visit, three dioceses on the Mainland expressed their interest in introducing the permanent diaconate and are keeping in contact with the Hong Kong Diocese.
The reintroduction of the permanent diaconate should not be considered as a solution to a priest shortage, but should be rather considered from the point of view of Christology and ecclesiology. Thanks be to God that, in 1992, Cardinal Wu, who with a vision, affirmed the need for new evangelisation and launched the permanent diaconate. He stressed the participation of the laypeople and believed that participating in parish affairs was not just helping the priest but a vocation and duty of all the faithful. The implementation of the permanent diaconate is the new face of the Church. In this new face, the bishop leads the local Church with the priests assisting him, especially in faith formation. They will also help preside over various sacraments and nourish the faith of the believers. The laypeople will witness in their own environments according to their identities. The permanent deacons, bearing the identity of a clergyman, are dispatched by the bishop to serve especially for those on the social margins and also to serve as a bridge between the Church and society. In this way, the entire Catholic Church will be full of motivation and mission, and can jointly create a new scenario, a new path for the Gospel.