The Permanent Diaconate in Germany
From the very beginning, the dichotomy between “deacon with/in a civilian profession” and “deacon working solely for the Church” has been characteristic for Germany
Worldwide, the first permanent deacons of the modern times were ordained in the Archdiocese of Cologne on April 28 1968. Within 8 years, there were permanent deacons in 90 % of the dioceses (a total of 1,984). Today there are more than 3,300.
Many aspects were developed (Regulatory framework of the German Bishops’ Conference, formation concepts and regulations for the ministry, works on the theology of the diaconate) and discussed in the Working Group on Permanent Diaconate. All the deacons are involved in the diakonia of charity, of the Word and of the liturgy – with emphases being place differently by the dioceses.
From the very beginning, the dichotomy between “deacon with/in a civilian profession” and “deacon working solely for the Church” has been characteristic for Germany.
Among the over 3,300 deacons, 42 % are exercising their ministry with/in a civilian profession, 26 % work only for the Church and 32 % are retired or released from duty.
A specific aspect one has to consider is the full-time professional involvement of committed “laypeople” with a qualification in theology or religious pedagogy, who, oftentimes (with some limitations in the liturgical-sacramental area) perform the same tasks and functions as the deacons.
The age structure gives on pause for reflection: deacons under 50 years of age make up 10 %, under 60 years 30 %, under 65 another 15 %; almost 44 % of the deacons are 65 and older, which means at or over the age of retirement. Even though almost 300 men are currently in formation and 70 new deacons were ordained in Germany in the year 2019, a decrease in numbers is to be expected. The deacons’ activities will not be so extensive and comprehensive in the future; could they instead orient their ministry in a more exemplary, “prophetic” direction!?
Possibilities and opportunities
If one looks not only inwardly but also outwardly, towards the “margins”, then the deacons in/with a civilian profession – as “heralds” , border crossers and bridge builders – are a true missionary opportunity and one with potential (world of work, extra-ecclesial experience and competences).
Finally, the diaconate’s flexibility could become a special quality feature. As Pope Benedict underscored in one of his speeches in 2007: “ I think that one characteristic of the diaconal ministry is precisely the multiplicity of its applications”. And also: “there is no single profile. What must be done varies according to a person’s formation and situation.”
By ordaining the deacons, i.e. endowing them with an immediate and independent mission stemming from Christ, the Church strengthens the diakonia within herself in the most fundamental way. In order for the deacons to act as advocates of a diaconal-missionary Church and, create for themselves a prophetical-critical sense, they need a good structural anchoring, which must be further developed.
Although so much and well-founded theological work has been done, some questions remain open. One of the objectives is to keep (or to acquire) a relevant theological language: how can one speak adequately about the sacramentality of the ordained ministry – without any “clericalization” or “sacralization”? Pope Francis writes: “Lay people are, put simply, the vast majority of the people of God. The minority – ordained ministers – are at their service”. How exactly can one describe this service to the people of God by means of the special ministry of service, which differentiates itself “by essence, not by grace” from the common priesthood of all the faithful? In the case of the sacramental diaconate, opinions differ to some extent, given that, in finding a rationale for it, one cannot “take refuge” in exclusive functions or sacramental powers. In the German speaking countries, the issues are exacerbated, not only because of increasingly vehement demands for gender equality. Many fail to understand why they actually perform a diaconal service (with an official episcopal commissioning) without, however, “being strengthened by the grace of the diaconate”, in order to perform this service in a “more effective” way.
Thomas Nixdorf, Deacon
Graduate Theologian, Graduate Psychologist
President of the Working Group on the Permanent Diaconate, Germany