“You are a critically important part of the emerging Church. What you do matters, and it matters a great deal.”
This was the message that NSW Ageing and Disability Commissioner Robert Fitzgerald AM told members of the permanent diaconate community of Australia during the Biennial National Deacons Conference on Friday 14 October.
The conference, hosted by the Diocese of Parramatta, gathered around 100 ordained deacons, deacons in training, wives of deacons, transitional deacons, religious and lay men and women over three days with a series of keynote addresses, workshops, faith and fellowship.
Mr Fitzgerald, the current Chair of Caritas Australia, a former Commissioner on the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse and a practicing Catholic, spoke on the topic ‘Deacons Missioning in a Church without Walls,’ exploring the role of a deacon in a changing and emerging Church.
“The Church in which we are all part is changing, has been changing and will continue to change at a much greater rate than most of us fully appreciate and that many of us would like.
“[As deacons] You may come from dioceses where you are either very enthusiastically received like here in Parramatta, some of you are in areas where it is lukewarm and then there are other areas where they have no idea what to do with you.
“But what is clear to us – to laypeople, to religious, to many priests and many bishops – is the role of the diaconate is very important in and of itself. It is not a second-rate ministry, you are not quasi-priests, you are not just the priest’s assistant, you are mission to the Church, the emerging Church.”
Mr Fitzgerald described the mission of the diaconate as having two elements – to listen and to love.
“The listening is critically important. You can listen in a way that a priest can’t. You listen in a way that is informed by your life’s experience – by marriage, by having children, by working in other environments. Your experiences relate directly to the lived reality of the people in our parishes and in our Church. That’s a unique feature that you bring to the table.
“The loving is based in your presence – it’s being present with people in their journey right throughout their lives. And again, you bring those unique experiences as couples and as individuals to that table.
“Every parish is enriched by your presence.”
Mr Fitzgerald spoke about the changing Catholic landscape in Australia, referencing the recent Plenary Council, and Pope Francis’ pontifical call to ‘go out to the margins’.
“What is critical for Church leaders is the ability to see, reflect and act, but Pope Francis has added a new dimension – to choose. You see the world and the Church as it is changing, we reflect upon that, and then we have a choice – you can choose to act or you can choose not to act.
“A Church without walls and boundaries which we are now emerging as, is a Church that goes out. Pope Francis has taken this to a new level, and the words he uses are openness, encounter and engagement with the world.
“Pope Francis says, ‘the Church is a place for urgent care and a sign of hope in the midst of a present day storm.’ The Pope believes that we are not so much living in an era of change, but a change of era, an era requiring ‘missionary discipleship’ and seeing the concrete reality of peoples’ lives and challenges. And that’s where you as deacons are at.
“We can meet the changing nature of Church, whilst remaining loyal to the traditions that hold us together. What gives me great hope in the Australian Church is that we are a well-educated, considerate, creative and faithful community of Catholics and we are absolutely capable of learning, discerning and renewal.”
In light of statistics that over 50,000 parishes worldwide are without a permanent priest in residence and that the number of Catholics in Australia attending worship services are only at 11%, Mr Fitzgerald encouraged the deacons in their ministry beyond the parishes.
“In Australia, the Church in our community is increasing and alive in Catholic schools, universities, healthcare providers and services. The Catholic Church has never been more present in the life of Australian society than it is today through all of these works. And, of course, you minister to these works. And the question is raised – is that Church or not?
“We have to make Church where it is. A Church without walls is already emerging, with people experiencing Church in many different ways during COVID, and many of those have not returned to being in a parish as frequently as they were or at all.
“According to Pope Francis, our role in Church is to ‘restore hope to young people, help the old, be open to the future, spread love, be poor among the poor, we need to include the excluded and preach peace.’ That’s the mission, that is what we should be fulfilling, and as deacons, what part of that can you minister to?
“The Church is forever a very practical Church and is out there [in the community], and I think the important part is the restoration of hope, and I think that’s what you do [as deacons].”
Referencing a recent presentation he attended on Catherine McAuley in which she was called a “dealer in hope”, Mr Fitzgerald called on the deacons to remain hopeful that their ministry gives people a reason to belong to the Church.
“During the Royal Commission, every single week, I was asked ‘why do you continue to belong to this mob?’
“What in your ministry, what in what you are or could be doing will help answer that question for those who are constantly challenged with ‘why should I prevail’ or ‘why should I belong’. What gives people a reason to belong to this Church.
“In my view, we have one mission – the mission of the Church to bring to life the Kingdom of God, now and beyond, we have two commandments expressed in multiple ways in the Word of God – Love of God and Love of neighbour as you would love yourself, we have three precious gifts – Baptism, the Eucharist and the grace of the Holy Spirit, and we have four wisdoms – Pope Francis urges a Church that is built on solidarity, dialogue, inclusion and mercy.
“If we were to create a Church without walls, without boundaries, what would it be that keeps us together? What would we have to give up, what would you retain and what do you have to gain? What this says to you is what you think is essentially Catholic.
“Together we can create new opportunities for worship, engagement, solidarity and inclusion.”
The Permanent Diaconate in the Diocese of Parramatta is growing faster than any other Diocese in Australia. There are currently 13 active deacons in the diocese, along with one deacon on extended leave and two retired deacons. In addition, there are 13 men in formation and most of their wives are also active in the formation process.
To learn more about the permanent diaconate in the Diocese of Parramatta, visit https://parracatholic.org/permanent-diaconate/ or contact the Diaconate Vocations team via email@example.com
View images from the 2022 Biennial National Deacons’ Conference here or below: