A married deacon can be a father but not ‘Fr.’
In many parts of the world the Catholic married deacon is a familiar figure. He can be seen baptising children, presiding over weddings, officiating at funerals and preaching at masses. His presence may come as a surprise to some as he will be seen serving the community in works that were once considered only the domain of the celibate priest.
Yet while all these services are necessary and celebrated with great fervor and zeal they cannot answer the greatest need of parishoners which is the right to assist mass on a regular basis in their own local parish. Due to a shortage of priests parishes in many countries are being clustered thus obliging people to travel to neighbouring parishes for mass. This can be a bit traumatic for some for whom their old parish carries fond memories of Baptisms , first Holy Communions, Confirmations and the weekly Sunday mass.
A married deacon goes through a preparatory course similar to the study program for those being ordained to the priesthood. Inevitably the question will be asked: “Why not ordain married men priests seeing that there is a shortage of priests”? The answer to this is because they have a wife they are not suitable. This negative attitude towards women seems to be looking back to the past history of the church when manicheism brought about an obsessive anti-sexualism which painted a depressing negative picture of women, of sex and matrimony. In AD 401 Saint Augustine wrote: “Nothing is so powerful in drawing the spirit of a man downwards as the caresses of a woman”. Likewise too Saint Jeronimo would also write: “All sexual relations are impure” and “married life only knows suffering”. Tertulian would speak of “the sad happiness of having children”. Jeronimo, Ambrose and Innocent I would say that priesthood and matrimony are imcompatible because you cannot reconcile holiness and matrimonial sexuality. These words of the above saints paint a very narrow picture of sexual morality which is contrary to a real understanding of marital intimacy as something that is holy, sacred and blessed by the Sacrament of Matrimony.
However in the beginning of Christianity the church was closely bound to the family. The Ministry of the Word, The Breaking of Bread and other religious services were carried out in the homes of the Christians. The bond between family life and church was so close that the qualities looked for in a good ecclesiastical minister (bishop, priest, deacon) were the same as those of a good father of a family (1 Timothy 3, 1 – 7, 12). The apostolic period presents us with mature men who as parents were models of government in their own families and because of these good qualities were chosen as deacons, priests and bishops. There is never a mention of incompatibility nor aversion between women or sexuality in relation to these offices.
If celibacy was essential for the Christian life it would have been a crucial fact in the life of the Apostles who were predominantly married men and especially too if we take into account the mentality of the Jewish culture at that time. If celibacy was necessary Christ would have treated this subject with affection. He would have referred to it repeatedly, but nothing of the sort happened. In fact the opposite was true. Peter, the first Pope was married, he had a mother-in-law. In relation to other themes Christ referred to them frequetly, such as the Eucharist, justice, love, prayer, truth and matrimony itself. Some though will point to Christ’s words in Mathew 19, 12: “There are eunuchs who have made themselves that way for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven”. If we want to apply this text to celibacy we can say that it is a reference in passing provoked by the disciples giving vent to their sentiments and so it appears as peripheral. Christ did not worry about this, as a matter of fact attention is to be called to the climate of total liberty: “Let anyone accept this who can”. If we want to apply this text to celibacy we can conclude the following, that celibacy as a “sine qua non” condition for the priesthood is made by man.
Today we are faced with a shortage of priests. There is a limit to the number of masses a priest can physically say in one day and this becomes more difficult the older the priest is. Even though there may be deacons helping out they cannot say mass. On the missions where parishes are very large both in size and numbers, one priest just cannot get around to all the communities especially on a Sunday, The Lord’s Day. Of course Celebrations of the Word are life giving and spiritually nourishing but to be true to our belief that the Eucharist is the apex and center of a community no amount of deacons can ever subsitute this. Pope John Paul II in his encyclical ‘Ecclesia de Eucharistia’, chapter 3 no 32 writes: “When a community is deprived of a priest a just remedy should be sought so that the Sunday celebrations be continued, and the religious and laity who guide their brothers and sisters in prayer exercise in a praiseworthy way the common priesthood of all the faithful based on the grace of Baptism. But these solutions should be considered temporary while the community awaits a priest”.
Bernard Haring once said: “The People of God have a god-given right to the Eucharist. On the bases of human law, to deprive them of the Eucharist, is , objectively, gravely sinful”.
It would demand great conviction and courage on the part of Bishops to ordain mature married men. Yet they are the pastors of their flocks, they know what are the spiritual needs of their people. They are responsible before God to ensure that devotion to the Eucharist is not lost and this can happen with the passage of time if the communities right to the Eucharist is made impossible due to the shortage of priests. It maybe though that Rome has a hidden agenda with relation to the married deacon program. Maybe it wants people to become accustomed to seeing married men doing most of the things that priests usually do as a step towards the day when we may have celibate and married priests working side by side for the good of the community.
The married deacon is permanent in the sense that it is not simply a stage on the way to the priesthood. This maybe so but what about the needs of the faithful today? Only priests can say Mass. Those of the older generation will recall the time when the Eucharistic fast was from midnight, then it was changed to three hours and now it is one hour. These changes were introduced in answer to the needs of the faithful in the modern world. So for the good of the faithful can we not also offer another model of priesthood, that is the married man. This might lead to an increase in vocations as not everyone is called to be celibate. In the meantime whole generations will be brought up without frequent access to the Eucharist. Yet statistics show in various countries that people are already open to a married priesthood. In Ireland 87% are in favour as shown in a recent survey. So why wait when the command of Our Lord is so clear: “Do this in memory of me”. This is a call to celebrate the Eucharist and if a community is deprived of this regularly, this is unthinkable.