1976 Bishop Anton Hänggi ordained the first permanent deacon
On the 30th of May, 1976 – more than one year before the reintroduction of the permanent diaconate in Switzerland – Bishop Anton Hänggi ordained the first permanent deacon for the Diocese of Basel. The reintroduction was not without its controversies. In particular, the pastoral assistants, female and male, saw in it yet another instance of clericalization and disenfranchisement of women, to whom this option was not open. In the German-speaking dioceses, the diaconate is only accessible to those with a theological formation. It is, therefore, a pastoral diaconate. This is still the case now. The situation is different in Western and Southern Switzerland. In these areas, the diaconate with a civilian profession is preferred. In matters of numbers, the pastoral diaconate is the majority, despite the recent rise in the number of ordinations in Western Switzerland. There are approximately 250 deacons in Switzerland today.
Permanent deacons in German-speaking Switzerland identify themselves primarily as spiritual care providers. They see but little differentiation between themselves and the priests and pastoral assistants. What is of primary importance for them is the common and complementary ministerial work. The pastoral areas (Diocese of Basel) may be administratively managed by priests, deacons or laypeople. Flat hierarchies are characteristic for German-speaking Switzerland. This has the disadvantage that deacons are not well organized and that a specifically diaconal identity could barely develop.
Deacons can be found working pastorally in many places and, together with the other ministries, they reflect the diversity of vocations. They are categorial chaplains, managers of special departments or parish ministers. They are bridge builders between clergy and laity, between sacrament and everyday life and they often recognize themselves as such, given that their position is similar to that of the laypeople in social and family life, but at the same time, they do belong to the clergy.
The deacons keep a “low profile”. On the on hand, it is nice that deacons don’t overstate their own importance. However, in the long run, both the Church authorities and the deacons will have to tackle the issue of the profile and the mission of the deacon. The model we spoke about is very well established in Switzerland but, in the Church worldwide, it is more of an exception. Could the “Swiss model” be an opportunity for other local Churches?
Deacon Martin Brunner-Artho, IDC Delegate, MISSIO Director