JUDITH VALENTE, correspondent: On a typical weekend at Our Lady of the Snows Catholic Church in Chicago, this man might baptize a few babies … preside at a wedding … then give the sermon at Sunday Mass. His name is Franco Foti, and he’s not a priest. He’s a married layman – one who is part of a unique ministry within Catholicism called the “diaconate.”
DEACON FRANCES FOTI (Our Lady of the Snows Catholic Church): The word deacon comes from diakonos which means ‘to be of service.’ And that’s why we service everyone who comes here.
VALENTE: Only one priest is assigned to Our Lady of the Snows – which was once a parish of mostly Polish immigrants, but now includes a mix of Polish Americans, Hispanics and Anglos. As a deacon, Foti performs many of the duties of a priest. However, celebrating Mass is a function reserved only for priests who are considered heirs to the original apostles.
But Foti did have to step in recently to speak the words of consecration at communion – for Catholics the most sacred part of the Mass. That’s because his pastor is on leave, and the priest filling in doesn’t speak English.
There are currently about 18,000 deacons in the U.S. compared to 37,500 priests. Like Foti, most deacons are married, and usually have careers outside the church. Foti quit his previous job as a computer analyst to work fulltime at his parish, because he felt he was needed there.
DEACON FOTI: Once you become a deacon, you cannot just take your shirt off or your collar off and then you’re no longer a deacon. Particularly in this parish, I have a very close relationship with the pastor so we take turns sometimes to answer sick calls.
VALENTE: With a drastic drop in the number of men willing to commit to a celibate priesthood, married deacons have become crucial to carrying out the sacramental life of the church as well as its charitable work. This group of deacons, good with a hammer, drill and level is installing a laundry room in the basement of a home for women emerging from crisis. Deacon John Vidmar is part of “Hope’s on the Way,” a ministry that responds to crises and repairs and renovates church buildings.
VALENTE: Deacon you’re not in your traditional deacon garb today. You’re in very different clothing. How does that feel?
DEACON JOHN VIDMAR (Hope’s on the Way): It’s interesting, I would argue this probably should be the normal garb for a deacon. Besides doing liturgical functions, we’re also called to serve the poor and serve the people of God.
VALENTE: In the early church, male and female deacons preached. They handled the finances and ministered to the poor and marginalized. In the Middle Ages the role of deacons began to fade as the power of priests and bishops grew. In the 1960s, the Second Vatican Council restored the role of deacons – but only for men.
VALENTE: Theologian Phyllis Zagano at Hofstra University on Long Island has written six books on women in the church. She says the New Testament refers to women deacons, and mentions one by name -- Phoebe, who appears in a Letter of St. Paul to the Romans.
PROF. PHYLLIS ZAGANO (Hofstra University): Women deacons ministered to sick women, women deacons ministered to children, women deacons assisted in the baptisms of new members, female members. If the Holy Father wants women to have some authority and some governance in the church, which says he does, the easiest way really would be to restore women to the diaconate because the deacon is a cleric.”
VALENTE: Until recently, the wives of deacons were required to take the same classes over four years as their husbands did to prepare for the diaconate.
MAUREEN GARVEY: We had the exact same training – two nights a week, one weekend a month, summer internships. I wrote every paper he wrote.
VALENTE: Maureen Garvey says most parishioners at Holy Cross Church in the Chicago suburbs consider her and her husband Kevin, a “deacon couple.”
GARVEY: The only thing that was different was the day of ordination, I had tears in my eyes when all the guys were called up and they left their wives there sitting in the pews.
VALENTE: Maureen has a degree in pastoral counseling and Kevin is a retired Marine Colonel. At Mass, Maureen often serves as a lector reading passages from the Old or New Testaments. But only her husband can stand beside the priest at the altar … or preach a sermon on the gospel, something she often helps him to write.
GARVEY: I would love to be able to reflect on the gospel in a woman’s voice. That’s what I feel called to. And then I guess if we could do baptisms and weddings together, that would be lovely. I don’t feel the need to do that by myself. We’re a team.
DEACON KEVIN GARVEY (Holy Cross Church): At the parish level, and just practically, I would love to have help and women would be awesome.
VALENTE: If women are allowed to enter the diaconate, Cynthia Bowns says she’ll be at the head of the line. Bowns worked at a Catholic seminary, has a master’s degree in divinity, a certificate in spiritual formation … and is married to a deacon.
CYNTHIA BOWNS: Women often are mothers, or like me, a grandmother. We have a sensitivity for listening to people, to perceiving things. I’m not saying men don’t, but we come at the world in a slightly different way.
DEACON LOREN BOWNS: She worked so hard. We were in classes together, there were things that she’d bring up that as men, we didn’t see, good men, I mean good classmates who do amazing things, but we didn’t see.
BOWNS: It’s not about self. It’s not about being up on the altar. It’s about the gift you give to others of yourself.
VALENTE: To underscore the fine line Bowns currently must walk as an aspiring deacon, the pastor at the parish where her husband is a deacon, would not allow the couple to be videotaped ministering together at the church.
BOWNS: Quite frankly, I think there’s a fear on the part of some of the people who decide our course of events. Will they be replaced, displaced?
VALENTE: Sylvia Foti is one deacon’s wife who says she has no desire to become a deacon herself, and isn’t sure female deacons are a good idea.
SYLVIA FOTI: I’m worried that this might be another trend or fad – it’s like a push from feminism to become an ordained minister, and I’m concerned about that. I haven’t fully embraced it, but I haven’t fully rejected it.
VALENTE: Like some Catholics, Foti wonders if female deacons ultimately will open the door to women priests. Zagano, the theologian, says that’s not likely.
PROF. ZAGANO: I find no history of women ordained as priests. I think that if people say that if you can ordain a woman a deacon then you can ordain a woman a priest, I think you are actually arguing not only against history, but you’re arguing against church teaching.”
VALENTE: Being a deacon is currently a step on the way to priesthood for celibate men, but married men who become deacons are part what’s called the “permanent diaconate.” That means they will always be deacons. In a rule some hope will change, married deacons whose wives pre-decease them, cannot remarry. After increasing for several decades, the number of men entering the permanent diaconate has begun to decline, despite a growing need.
DEACON GARVEY: We just had a diaconate convocation last weekend and the number of deacons who passed away was greater than the those we ordained this year. So I believe the diaconate might have the same issues as the priesthood.
VALENTE: Still, Garvey and other deacons say theirs is an extraordinary ministry. They say deacons are often better equipped than priests to relate the faith to everyday struggles people encounter.
DEACON GARVEY: Some of the compliments I get after church, some guy said, ‘Boy you really made me think.’ I mean, what’s better than that? You know, I was honest, I was sharing my struggles.
DEACON BOWNS: I do know the diaconate service concept means a lot to me and it’s very important.
VALENTE: The presence of women deacons, if allowed, may breathe new life into this ancient ministry. Until just a few decades ago, girls were not allowed to be altar servers. Now they are a familiar presence on the altars of most parishes. Can women deacons be far behind?
For Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, I’m Judy Valente in Chicago.