Threefold celebration of the Diaconate

By Father Chris Fallon

More than 500 people gathered at the Metropolitan Cathedral on Sunday 12 June for the annual celebration of the ordination of permanent deacons, but this year there were two more reasons to celebrate: the 40th anniversary of the diaconal formation programme in Liverpool and the retirement of Monsignor Austin Hunt, who has directed the programme for all those years.

This time there were two men to be ordained: Jim Byrne from St Oswald's, Ashton-in-Makerfield and Joe Morgan from St Aidan's in Huyton. They were joined by their families and by coachloads of friends and parishioners. Archbishop Malcolm, presiding at the Mass, spoke of the long journey of formation these men had undertaken, the vital support of their wives, families and friends throughout that process and his confidence that the support will continue as they carry out their ministry of service in their parishes, at work and in the wider community. Like all the permanent deacons in the Archdiocese, Joe and Jim were presented for ordination to the Archbishop by Monsignor Austin Hunt.

Archbishop Malcolm paid tribute to Monsignor Hunt's dedication in guiding the diaconal programme since his appointment in 1976 by Archbishop Derek Worlock as Liverpool's first director for the permanent diaconate. Although restored by Vatican II, the permanent diaconate was then still in its infancy in England and Wales, so Father Hunt visited many dioceses in Europe and the United States to learn from their experience of selecting, forming and deploying deacons. With the help of many dedicated tutors and speakers, he developed a programme of formation, initially based at the Metropolitan Cathedral, which led to the ordination of the first permanent deacons in 1979, including Deacon Leo McNicholas, who proclaimed the Gospel at this anniversary Mass.

Father Hunt has overseen the formation of over 100 deacons, tirelessly visiting candidates and ordained deacons at home and arranging events for them and their wives and families. His dedication was recognised with the title Monsignor in 1992. As a member of the International Diaconate Committee, he addressed several international conferences and the Liverpool diaconal community has happy memories of hosting the International Diaconate Conference in 1995. As the permanent diaconate developed in this country, Monsignor Hunt chaired the National Conference of Diaconate Directors and Deacon Delegates for England and Wales, and he also shared his knowledge and enthusiasm about the diaconate with bishops in Scotland and Ireland.

At the end of the Ordination Mass a Papal Blessing for Monsignor Hunt was read out, commending the contribution he has made to the permanent diaconate in Liverpool and extending Pope Francis's blessing to all those present at the celebration.

At the reception in the Cathedral's Pontifical Hall, the Archbishop communicated a personal message to Monsignor Hunt from Cardinal Vincent Nichols, who helped to develop the first diaconate programme in Liverpool. While regretting that he could not attend in person, the Cardinal wrote: "It gives me great pleasure to write this personal message of congratulations to you as you begin your well-earned retirement, or should I say, prepare to gracefully fade into the background! I thank God for all the gifts that he has given you and I thank you for your generosity in sharing those gifts so readily with others. You have done a remarkable job in directing the diaconate programme in the Archdiocese of Liverpool over these past 40 years."

Commenting that behind every good man is a good woman, Archbishop Malcolm presented flowers to Jim Byrne's wife Barbara and to Joe Morgan's wife Julie, before paying tribute to the good woman behind Monsignor Hunt, his sister Barbara, who has tirelessly supported him throughout his leadership of the diaconal programme and continues to care for him. The Archbishop also thanked Bridget Alexander, who has voluntarily provided such efficient administrative support to the programme during the last seven years.

The celebration marked an important milestone in the history of the diaconate in Liverpool, which continues to grow and develop. There are currently nine men in the formation programme, a further nine in the selection process to begin formation this September, and many others who are considering whether God may be calling them to this particular form of service in the Church. Like all formation processes in the Church, the diaconal programme is a continuous process of discernment which has a number of different stages.

It starts with the Enquiry Period which, like the enquiry period for the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, can be a short or a long process – giving time for the candidate and his family to find out about the diaconate and to think, pray and consult others as to whether God might be calling him to this ministry, and for the formation team to get to know him and to help with his discernment.

This is followed by the Introductory Period, a year of further discernment and introduction to formation, partly within the Archdiocese and partly shared with other northern dioceses, leading to a three-year programme of study, prayer and practice of the ministry of Word, Altar and Charity.

Throughout the formation process each man has the support of a Spiritual Director and is tutored and mentored by the formation team. Since it is a two-way process of discernment, at any point the candidate is free to withdraw from the programme and equally the Archbishop can decide at any point that he believes God is calling the candidate in some other direction rather than the specific ministry of diaconate.

The ministry of the deacon has had a varied history in the life of the Church, taking different forms at different times and in different places and almost disappearing for long periods in the Western Church. This means that it can be flexible in responding to the specific needs of our time. It was reintroduced after Vatican Two, not because of a shortage of priests, but because of the new challenges of bringing the Good News to the modern world, and those challenges have become even greater in the years since Vatican II.

The specific ministry of the deacon will be explored in a National Assembly on the first weekend in September at Leeds Trinity University with the title Justice in Action – The Joy of the Gospel. Leading speakers will explore this theme, and deacons involved in many different kinds of charitable work will lead workshops on how their ministry is bringing the Good News to the people who need it most. The conference is open to anyone interested in the diaconate. Details are available from deaconconf16@gmail.com.

Edward Echlin, writing in 1971 about the restoration of the diaconate, described it like this: "The deacon has returned to his ministry to meet the unprecedented needs of alienated societies in a world where instant communications have telescoped the universe, where technocratic societies fear the future, and where the Church is groping for a key to unlock the door that bars the Church from relevance to the world." He believed that the diaconate could be that key.

To find out more about the diaconate in Liverpool, contact Father Chris Fallon – tel. 07932 648221 or email c.fallon@rcaolp.co.uk.