(OSV News) – When bishops, other delegates and observers gather in October at the Vatican for the general assembly of the world Synod of Bishops on Synodality, one of the wide-ranging topics they are anticipated to discuss is on the role of permanent deacons in the church. The synod's working document, published in June, included the reflection question: "How is the ministry of the permanent diaconate to be understood within a missionary synodal church?"
Deacon Dennis Dorner, who oversees diaconate formation for the Archdiocese of Atlanta, said the question is not difficult to answer.
"As a missionary disciple, the first and primary role that we have is to be meeting people where they are, and the only way we can possibly do that is by listening and understanding who they are and what they are dealing with in their lives," he said. "We then can meet them there (and) have the opportunity to share the message of the Gospel with them."
Deacon Dorner, who also serves as chairman of the board of directors for the National Association of Diaconate Directors, describes the permanent diaconate as a "bridge" between the clergy and laity, and the sacred and the secular. The crux of the vocation, he said, is listening, which dovetails with what Pope Francis has called for in "a listening church."
"I certainly see my role as deacon – and I think most of my brother deacons sense that their role -- is to be available, to listen to what the needs of the people are," he said, noting that deacons can then share those needs with priests and bishops. "The very nature of what we're called to do is synodal, if synodal means listening."
When Pope Francis opened the Synod on Synodality Oct. 9, 2021, he said, "The Synod then offers us the opportunity to become a listening church, to break out of our routine and pause from our pastoral concerns in order to stop and listen. To listen to the Spirit in adoration and prayer. … To listen to our brothers and sisters speak of their hopes and of the crises of faith present in different parts of the world, of the need for a renewed pastoral life and of the signals we are receiving from those on the ground."
Deacon Scott Dodge, director of the diaconate office for the Diocese of Salt Lake City, said ministry of the permanent diaconate, while pastoral, differs from that of priests, because it "is not primarily about making the sacraments available."
Rather, he said, "deacons make the church present in an institutional and sacramental way in places where the hierarchy usually isn't and often cannot be. … I think this contributes a lot to synodality."
Like many permanent deacons, Deacon Dodge is married, has children and works in a secular job, in addition to his pastoral outreach, which has included jail and prison ministry, ministry to men and women who are homeless or experience addiction, and people who identify as LGBTQ+.
"Being pioneers of bi-vocational ministry … the permanent diaconate is inherently quite missionary," he said, pointing to the late German Catholic theologian Herbert Vorgrimler's description of the diaconate: "In his person, the deacon makes it clear that the liturgy must have consequences in the world with all its needs, and that work in the world that is done in a spirit of charity has a spiritual dimension."
Deacon Bill Ditewig, a theologian who was ordained for the Archdiocese of Washington, said, "Deacons are ordained with no other 'agenda' than to serve, in the name of the bishop and the church, others in need."
"To do that, we need to reach out beyond the borders of the church," he told OSV News. "As one bishop put it: 'We don't care for others because they're Catholic, but because we are.' To do all of this we need to listen, to accompany, to place others' needs ahead of our own. Sounds like missionary solidarity to me."
Deacon Ditewig is among deacons who have expressed concern about the dearth of deacons invited to have voting roles in the synod's general assembly, which begins Oct. 4. The unique character of the permanent diaconate, along with the wide pastoral experience from which deacons can draw, make the assembly's inclusion of only one or two identified permanent deacons disappointing, he said.
That's especially true when one of the more controversial topics the synod plans to address is the question of women in the diaconate. The synod's working document called for reflection on the question, stating, "Most of the Continental Assemblies and the syntheses of several Episcopal Conferences call for the question of women's inclusion in the diaconate to be considered. Is it possible to envision this, and in what way?"
Deacon Ditewig, who explored the question with other experts in the 2012 book "Women Deacons: Past, Present, Future," said that the general assembly's conversation on the topic would be enhanced by permanent deacons sharing their experience of ministering as part of the order, which the church reinstated following the Second Vatican Council.
"We've learned a lot of lessons, things that work, things that don't work, pitfalls, blessings. There's a lot of lived experience to be part of that conversation," he said. However, he added, "I wouldn't want false expectations raised" about where the synod's discussion of women in the diaconate might lead.
While few deacons are expected to be at this year's general assembly, which also will reconvene in October 2024, Deacon Ditewig is encouraging deacons to lead in the synod's implementation in their dioceses.
Deacon Dorner feels similarly, and said deacons should look at what they can do in the place where they are.
"I'm more convinced than ever that the real work will begin back here in the Archdiocese (of Atlanta)," he said of his own ministry. "But we don't have to wait for that direction coming from a gathering in Rome. We know what the Gospel says, and we can start living it each and every day. We can, and should, be synodal without the synod."