217 deacons in the country of of kangaroos and koalas
World Café Australia
When people think of Australia they usually think of kangaroos, koalas, wide open spaces and the great outback. We’re a big country, not much smaller in size than the US, about 50 per cent greater in size than Europe and 32 times greater in size than the UK. But we’re very sparsely populated. Most of us – about 89 per cent of us – live in cities, with about 40 percent of us in just two of them, Melbourne and Sydney. We’re one of the most urbanised countries in the world.
We claim to be one of the most multicultural countries in the world, although in these COVID-19 pandemic days some politicians are calling for a substantial cut to future Australian temporary immigration intakes.
We’re preparing for a Plenary Council on the future of the Catholic Church in Australia. The first Assembly was to have been held in Adelaide this October. Because of the pandemic it has been postponed until October next year. The second Assembly will be in Sydney in April 2022.
Our National Association of Deacons made a submission during the “listening” stage in preparation for the council. We emailed a draft submission to all Australian deacons and reshaped the submission in the light of their comments. We included many of their comments as an addendum to the main submission.
Our main point was a plea to the Australian bishops “in every diocese to make a deep commitment to the permanent diaconate and to the promotion of vocations to the diaconate”.
Vocations to the permanent diaconate are growing faster than any other vocation in the Church. But in Australia the number of deacons is still small. We quoted some of the deacons’ comments:
“We wonder why every diocese is not enthusiastically embracing the diaconate and promoting vocations to the diaconate,” said one.
Another said: “The small number of deacons is hindering the ministry of the Church.”
While overall numbers are still small, the growth in numbers is significant. When we prepared the submission last year Australia had 2900 priests and 176 deacons. That figure of 176 last year has grown to 217 this year – an encouraging increase. The growth has been mainly in the mainland metropolitan dioceses and in Parramatta diocese, which includes the western suburbs of Sydney.
The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference petitioned the Holy See to introduce the permanent diaconate in 1970. The first deacon was ordained in 1972.
Deacons tend to be concentrated in the main population centres – and Australia is a vast continent. The two biggest cities are Sydney and Melbourne. They’re relatively close together by Australian standards – but they’re 900 kilometres or a 10 hour drive apart. Adelaide and Perth are 2695 kilometres and a 35 hour drive apart. The rural dioceses have small numbers of deacons, in some cases just one or two. Creating a sense of community among deacons is difficult. Universities and theological colleges are in the major cities. Academic formation for rural candidates presents challenges.
Because our numbers are so small, many people haven’t experienced diaconal ministry and don’t know about the diaconate. We want to raise awareness of the diaconate.
The body through which we reported to the Australian bishops has been abolished. We’ve lost our direct line to the bishops’ conference. The Vatican approved the bishops’ Norms for the Formation of Permanent Deacons and Guidelines for the Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons for six years. That was in 2016. We don’t know how the norms and guidelines will be assessed and new ones formulated.
The COVID 19 experience has forced us to use technology to meet each other – and to keep in touch with parishioners and those we minister to. We’ve shown that even spiritual direction and mentoring can be done online. More diaconal training than ever is being done online, opening up new opportunities, especially for aspirants in remote areas.
We want to bring Australians deacons closer together, by our website and email updates. Our national conferences held every two years are well attended but there’s not a lot of contact in between conferences, except at the local level. Deacons often say they feel lonely and unsupported in their ministry and we hope to help overcome that.
Diaconal formators have been meeting in the last few years. Some of us have been part of their meetings and we hope to deepen that relationship.