Book Review – Deacons Today: New Wine & New Wineskins

By Deacon Tony Hoban, 21 July 2020
Deacon Roque Dias from the Parish of Baulkham Hills. Image: Diocese of Parramatta.


Book Review: Anthony Gooley, Deacons Today: New Wine & New Wineskins, Coventry Press, ISBN 9780648566151

When Bishops from around the world were consulted as to what key topics they believed should be discussed at the Second Vatican Council, one of the top three to emerge was one that may have surprised many people. It was to restore the permanent ministry of deacons (the diaconate).

The Council ultimately overwhelmingly voted for this restoration. But how has it played out in the six decades since then?

Deacon Anthony Gooley has a timely new book addressing the global situation of the diaconate but very much with an Australian lens. He argues that the restoration of the diaconate has not been fully received into the life of the Church and represents new wine which needs to be placed into new wineskins.

He believes the confusion that exists today about the role of deacons goes back to the way certain Biblical texts have been translated. One key text, Acts 6: 1-7, is seen by many as marking the appointment of the first deacons (Saint Stephen and six others) in answer to Greek widows being neglected. But Gooley points out that Vatican II, in restoring the diaconate, did not appeal to Acts Chapter 6.

Some translations say the Greek widows were being neglected “in the daily distribution of food.” However, Gooley, drawing on work by the Australian Biblical scholar, John N Collins, which uncovered the original Greek language, writes that the Revised Standard Version correctly translates Acts 6:1 as “…their widows were neglected in the daily distribution.” Not the daily distribution of food. He adds that the needs of the Greek widows were that they were not being ministered the word of God in their own language – not that they were missing out on food.

Gooley says that (while there were deacons in the church from the very early days) the seven men in Acts 6 may or may not have been deacons. “The one word Luke does not use for them is diaconos, the noun from which we get our word deacon.”

In the New Testament, those called by the noun diaconos are associated with very significant roles such as proclaiming the Word, leading communities, and taking messages between communities.

Gooley argues that the mistranslation of Acts 6 was the beginning of the deacon ‘servant myth’. “I do not argue that deacons cannot have or will not have a charitable or service role, only that it is not the distinctive character of their ministry,” writes Gooley. Instead, they are primarily called to the diaconia of Christ, being the proclamation of the Gospel or the ministry of the Word.

But confusion around the diaconate is not limited to the servant myth. As a permanent deacon myself, when I am introduced to people in the church as a deacon, they often say: “Oh, when will you be ordained?” The answer is “I have been ordained. I’m a permanent deacon – a married man.” The confusion stems from men seeking the priesthood being firstly ordained as (transitional) deacons. Gooley takes up this issue writing on the cursus honorum (course of honours) which plots the stepping stones of Holy Orders. This has a man seeking Ordination starting by installed as a lector, then acolyte, before ordination as a deacon, presbyter/priest and, for some, as bishop.

Gooley argues: “There is, in fact, no theological justification for sequential ordination or transitioning candidates for the diaconate and presbyterate through the lay ministries (lector and acolyte) and we must ask ourselves how much flexibility we have to engage with a new way of thinking.”

He argues ordination should be direct. That is for a priest, ordination directly to the presbyterate and not as a deacon along the way. He says men being ordained as priests are not formed to be deacons and their formation is directed at the presbyterate. This is nothing new. He points that in the first 1000 years of the Church it was common direct ordination. “That is why it was common for deacons to be ordained bishop but not as presbyters along the way “and no one considered this a theological problem to be solved.”

In terms of ministry today for deacons, Gooley suggests that the primary orientation of the deacon is toward the dispersed community (for example, young adults, couples preparing for marriage, RCIA, migrants, refugees, university or school chaplaincies, hospital chaplaincies, ministries of evangelisation and outreach to those who have left the church, the poor, marginalised and homeless) “…But that is not because deacon means servant of the poor but because the Christian community has identified a need and is sending a minister to bring the grace and presence of the church’s ministry to this situation.” He adds: “As heralds of the new evangelisation, the deacon must go where, perhaps, the church has not gone before or go in a way that the church has not gone before.”

In terms of putting the new wine into new wineskins, Gooley concludes with a set of ten recommendations, including advocacy for women deacons, arguing that it seems convincing that “at one time the Church intended to ordain women to the order of deacon, however ordination and the sacrament of orders was understood at that time.” He advocates for promotion of vocations to the diaconate so that every diocese has deacons, for substantial resources to be put into deacon formation, and for review of the cursus honorum to allow for direct and not sequential ordination.

He argues that, rather than implementing a diaconate “… that really has the presbyterate and presbyteral type ministry in mind…” that each bishop “… in communion with the deacons, presbyters and lay people, should carefully discern who is neglected in the daily diaconia (ministry) and find fresh and creative ways to appoint deacons to new ministries, to new places and to find new ways to bring the Gospel to where people are. That place will frequently be some place other than parish.”

The book constitutes a valuable contribution to the discussion on how the restored diaconate should evolve in Australia and throughout the universal Church.

Anthony Gooley is a permanent deacon of the Diocese of Brisbane who has worked as a theologian for several Catholic institutions in Australia and currently works in the Mission Directorate at Catholic Health Australia.

Deacon Tony is the Pastoral Director of St Luke’s Parochial District, Marsden Park, and the Director of Formation for Deacons in the Diocese of Parramatta.


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