The situation of the permanent diaconate in (Southern) Africa
The South African situation is anomalous when compared to the rest of the continent, as 58% of all permanent deacons in Africa are to be found in this one country. Namibia is the country with the next highest number of deacons, with 49 ordained men. The numbers then shrink considerably, with some countries having 1 or 3 permanent deacons, and many having none, implying that the permanent diaconate has not been restored in these local churches.
Deacons have been engaged in the evangelisation of Africa since the first century. Amid the most ancient Christian presences on the African continent, is that of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, whose origins include the baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch, to whom Philip the Deacon and Evangelist preached the Good News on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza (Acts 8:26-40), after which the man sought baptism from Philip. Consequently, the diaconate was present to African Christianity from the earliest times.
However, since the missionary activity of Latin Catholics began on the continent in the 15th century, coinciding with the colonial conquest of the people of this continent, the only deacons which existed until after the Second Vatican Council were – like in the rest of the Latin Church – transitional deacons. The seeking of permission to restore the permanent diaconate in Africa began in 1967, as Owen Cardinal McCann (AD 1907-1994), Archbishop of Cape Town (1950-1984) and then-President of the SACBC (Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference), sought permission from the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith. Also in 1967, Abbot-Bishop Francis Clement van Hoeck OSB (AD 1903-1976), wanted to establish the diaconate in his abbey nullius of Pietersburg (1954-1974) , and there it was that the first two ordinations of permanent deacons were celebrated in 1970. Of the twenty-seven dioceses that comprise the Catholic hierarchy in South Africa, the permanent diaconate has been restored in 21 of South Africa’s ecclesiastical territories, making a current estimated total of 224 permanent deacons (based on 2019 statistics). Although many deacons are retired from active ministry, and others have passed away, the growth in this vocation over the last fifty years has been phenomenal. But there are dioceses that have no deacons and some that have never had any. There are also dioceses where the diaconate was enthusiastically restored in the 1970s, but that fervour appears to have waned, leaving these dioceses with a few, very old deacons, mostly retired. The Dioceses of Tzaneen and Polokwane are examples, who currently have 3 and 1 permanent deacons, respectively. Other dioceses, in particular the dioceses centred in metropoles have really run with the diaconate: Johannesburg (69 deacons), Cape Town (50 deacons), Durban (42 deacons), Port Elizabeth (26 deacons) and Pretoria (21 deacons) (2019 statistics). Both due to reasons of greater Catholic populations and availability to human and other resources, these dioceses can operate programmes for the orientation and formation of candidates as ongoing apostolates within the local churches, thus recognising the validity of the diaconal vocation.
To the consolation of the permanent deacons, our Bishops of Southern Africa (SACBC) demonstrated their commitment to the permanent diaconate by their promulgation in 2019 of new Guidelines for the Formation of Permanent Deacons (2020). In his foreword to this document, the diaconate is highlighted as an “important enrichment” to the Church’s ministry by Bishop Teddy Kumalo of Witbank (2020: p. 2).
The South African situation is anomalous when compared to the rest of the continent, as 58% of all permanent deacons in Africa are to be found in this one country. Namibia is the country with the next highest number of deacons, with 49 ordained men. The numbers then shrink considerably, with some countries having 1 or 3 permanent deacons, and many having none, implying that the permanent diaconate has not been restored in these local churches, as the graphic below demonstrates:
In Zimbabwe, a country which saw its first permanent deacons ordained in 1979, of the three dioceses that have permanent deacons, Deacon Charles Dube of Bulawayo Archdiocese previously reported to the IDC that from 2009 the incumbent local ordinary suspended the formation of candidates to the permanent diaconate. Although anecdotal, one does hear of bishops throughout Africa being sceptical of reinstating the deacons’ vocation for fear that the option of ordained married men will reduce the number of priestly vocations to their dioceses, or that married men in clerical collars will cause scandal if seen with their wives and children by the faithful, and the rather erroneous understanding that deacons are laity, so there is no need to ordain such laity given that the laity already have sufficient space for ministry in the parishes. Perhaps the poorest argument – from the vantage of ecclesiology and sacramentology – is that there is no need to ordain deacons in many African dioceses, because there is no shortage of priests! A cursory reading of the documents of the Second Vatican Council as well as Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem of Pope St Paul VI should set such fears and misunderstandings aside! However, on more than one occasion I have met people from outwith the South African context who have never heard of – let alone met – a deacon who was no desire to be ordained as a priest in a few months’ time! This includes faithful from Lesotho – a land-locked, mountain kingdom that is completely surrounded by South Africa – where there are no deacons.
Returning to the Southern African situation, which I know best, the SACBC plenary of August 2022 has begun anew its concern for its deacons by appointing a new liaison bishop for the national Council of Deacons (falling under the Bishops’ Conference’s Department for Clergy), which had taken a lull following the sudden death of the Reverend Mike Carroll, a deacon of Johannesburg archdiocese, whilst having surgery in 2021. Deacon Carroll had been a stalwart organiser of the national council and a strong promoter of the permanent diaconate in the Southern African Church. The new liaison bishop who is in the process of re-establishing the national Council, is Bishop Sylvester David OMI, auxiliary bishop of Cape Town. It is our hope that the new Council will work with the Bishops of the Conference and the diocesan councils of deacons – where these are established – to further promote and strengthen the diaconal vocation in our region.
As with the rest of the Catholic world, the main area of pastoral work for deacons in Africa is the parish setting. Many of our parishes are comprised not just of one parish church, but a parish church with up to forty or more “outstations”, namely, chapels that need to be served for the people to receive the Lord in Word and Sacrament. In my own archdiocese, this is particularly the case in the outlying areas of the archdiocese. Oftentimes, the permanent deacons will preside at “Sunday celebrations in the absence of a priest”, bringing communion from the parish church to outlying churches and chapels on Sundays, preaching, catechising, presiding at funerals and burying the dead. Some deacons are involved in the ministry of charity, working with migrants and refugees, whilst others serve as spiritual directors, formators, catechists, lecturers, prison, school, hospital, old age and frail care, and hospice chaplains, as well as chaplains to sodalities within the diocese.
The Archdiocese of Pretoria ordained its first permanent deacons in the early 1970s, in the time of the late Archbishop John Colburn Garner. His successor, Archbishop emeritus George Francis Daniel was also involved in the formation of deacons as a parish priest, alongside Monsignor Vincent Hill (a great friend of the diaconate who passed away late last year after almost 67 years of missionary priesthood in this local church). In this sense, the diaconate is well-established in our archdiocese, as was witnessed just a few weeks ago as we celebrated the 45th anniversary of ordination of one of our brethren, the Reverend Tiko Maeko, who was ordained on the 16th December 1977. A retired hospital administrator, Deacon Maeko has worked for the last 43 years as the parish deacon of St Anne’s Parish, Saulsville, Pretoria. This is an uncommon milestone for a permanent deacon to reach.
Although our diaconate community in Pretoria would appear to be shrinking in size, as each year we face retirements from active ministry as well as deaths, there is also hope for this vocation in our local church. Our ordinary is adamant that there will be deacons in the archdiocese, and to highlight our vocation, he has instituted the annual renewal of our ordination promises on the Sunday nearest the feast of St Lawrence. Each year, we will move this celebration to different parishes in our archdiocese to enable more the faithful to see that permanent deacons exist. The witness of the permanent deacons must be bearing fruit as annually we have approximately 12 men in our formation programme, which lasts on average 5 years, including a propaedeutic/spiritual orientation year, before the formal period of theological study commences. The formators attempt to form the spiritual, pastoral, human and academic dimensions of the candidates to aid their discernment and preparation. The last ordination was on the 16th December 2021, when the Reverend Timothy Molea was ordained. However, we are hopeful that in 2023 we will have some more men who will be ordained for diaconal service to this local church.
Whereas the priests in the Southern African Church have a national council which facilitates meetings, especially of those ordained for less than five years, the deacons within our episcopal conference do not meet on a national level outside of the few who form the national Council of Deacons. In 2023, one of the priorities of the deacons of Pretoria is to attempt to reach beyond the boundaries of our own local church, to gather with and come to know deacons of nearby dioceses, in the hope that we may learn from them, and share our diaconate in a broader context than just our immediate diocesan situation.
The Catholic Church in Africa is youthful and vibrant. We have the “happy fault” that our churches are often too small for the numbers who wish to attend Sunday masses, and many bishops are in the situation that they do not have enough churches for the faithful who need them. In the World Values Survey (WVS), it has been estimated that Sunday mass attendance in Africa is extraordinarily high: for example, of the total number of people who identify as Catholics in Nigeria, 94% are at least Sunday mass goers. In a growing Church, there are many needs and ministerial opportunities for deacons to be of service to God’s people in our unique diaconal way.
Rev. Dcn Callum D. Scott, Archdiocese of Pretoria, South Africa; IDC Delegate for Africa