Deacons down under
by Nicholas Kerr, chair, Australia’s National Association of Deacons
We, the executive of Australia’s National Association of Deacons (NAD), took some risks with our recent national deacons’ conference (23 to 26 March 2017, Hobart). We broke some of the rules of good conference planning.
Risk no. 1: Australia’s a vast country. Australia’s 160 deacons are scattered across it. People have to travel huge distances. Australian airfares are notoriously expensive. We agreed to a proposal from the Tasmanian deacons to have our conference in their archdiocese of Hobart.
Tasmania’s an island 240 kilometres south of the Australian mainland. It’s roughly the size of Ireland, or Switzerland or West Virginia. That meant a three and a half hour flight, with one stop, for me and my wife, Eveleen. For others it was less. For some it meant a five and a half hour flight. For one couple it meant a seven and a half hour flight.
Risk no. 2: The archdiocese of Hobart has only three deacons. Traditionally the local deacons organise the conference content, in conjunction, of course, with the NAD executive – but the locals look after the local arrangements themselves. Would it be too much for three already busy deacons? Tasmania’s rather isolated.
The three energetic Tasmanian deacons, and their energetic wives, working with the NAD executive, put together an excellent program around the theme “Go therefore and make disciples – Deacons as ministers of the new evangelisation”. There was a good line up of speakers from the Hobart archdiocese and the mainland. There was time for networking and some sightseeing. There’s spectacular scenery near Hobart. It was shaping up to be a good conference.
We did discuss the possibility of someone coming from the International Diaconate Centre (IDC) as a keynote speaker – but the cost of airfares seemed prohibitive.
Risk no. 3: Then came some good news for Australia’s deacons. The Vatican had approved new norms for the formation of permanent deacons in Australia and new guidelines for our life and ministry. Our bishops arranged an intensive session for formators of deacons the month before our conference. This was important stuff. We invited two of the key presenters at the session for formators to speak at our conference.
After our last conference, two years ago, people had asked for more time just to be together informally, to network. This is important for us because of what Australians call “the tyranny of distance”. We looked at the program – and cut the time we had allowed for networking.
Risk no. 4: Then came more good news, this time from the IDC. It would be possible for the IDC to be represented at our conference – and represented by both president, Prof. Dr. Klaus Kießling, and manager, Dr. Stefan Sander. This would add a whole new international dimension to our meeting.
We hurriedly revised the program – again. We removed almost all the networking time from the program. The sightseeing was transferred from the free afternoon, which was no longer free, till after the final conference Mass.
The backlash we feared didn’t come. Most of the 95 delegates were staying on site, so there was still some time for people to catch up with each other over meals and during breaks. The feedback we got after the conference was overwhelmingly positive. The speakers – with one exception I won’t name – were extremely well received.
One of the Tasmanian organisers, Deacon Nick MacFarlane, welcomed people to the conference. He said: “This conference is very important to the future of the Church and the nation of Australia because the diaconate is an important part of the way the Church must change to meet present challenges.”
Hobart’s Archbishop Julian Porteous said the secularisation of our society is not inevitable. “Christianity is not dying. The Holy Spirit is with the Church … Even though so many people today are living, as Pope John Paul II has said, ‘as though God does not exist’, there is still in every human person an essential thirst for God … We have in our Catholic faith what every human heart yearns. We just need to find the ways to enable people to discover that Christ is the answer to their deepest needs.”
Different presenters spoke about evangelization programs, like Alpha, and the Catherine of Siena Institute’s Called and Gifted program.
We probably had more on theology of the diaconate than at any other of our conferences. We had a valuable session on our new norms and guidelines. They have a stronger statement of the theology of the diaconate than earlier norms and guidelines.
The presentations by Klaus Kießling and Stefan Sander were conference highlights. They were packed with information and ideas. As one deacon said afterwards, “You could almost hear minds popping round the conference hall.”
We found having the two IDC speakers incredibly enriching. It would have been good if there had been time to develop a way to process the wealth they were offering us, perhaps by having breaks for discussion and more structured question times. It was almost too much to pack into one day. However, we have their papers. The deacons in our diocese have settled on a plan to study their presentations, with our new national norms and guidelines, over the next two years.
Having the IDC leaders prompted us to invite Deacon Sandy Boyce, president of the IDC’s Protestant sister body, the DIAKONIA World Federation, to attend our conference and bring a greeting. Sandy is a deacon of the Uniting Church in Australia. (Sandy is deacon at Pilgrim Uniting Church, Adelaide. I’m deacon at St Francis’ Xavier’s Cathedral, Adelaide. Both churches face onto Victoria Square, the very centre of the city, and are just a few moments’ walk from each other.)
Risk no. 5? This year’s conference was so successful that we’ve decided to take a risk for our next conference in 2019. We’ll challenge the tyranny of Australia’s distance again. We’ve accepted an invitation from the deacons of Perth, Western Australia, to hold our conference there. The Perth deacons have suggested a theme that came up at the IDC Rome jubilee study conference – the deacon as a bridge. We’re still considering it.
Perth is a long way from the more populated eastern seaboard. Some of our people will be flying five or more hours to get there. Being in Adelaide, I’m in the capital city that’s closest to Perth. My wife and I could drive there – but it would be a 2,693 km journey.