Forty years on ... a celebration of the Diaconate

By Simon Hart

‘Working with the bishops and priests, you are a pattern from the past which will give shape to our future’ – Archbishop Derek Worlock on the first intake of permanent deacons

‘You will, in the words of St Paul, have to “lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called” and you will have to be “patient, meek, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” especially when dealing with those who have not yet understood the nature and beauty of your vocation.’

These were words of advice given by Archbishop Derek Worlock to the first permanent deacons of Liverpool Archdiocese at their ordination at the Metropolitan Cathedral on 8 July 1979.

‘There were five of us,’ says Leo McNicholas, one of that number, looking back 40 years. ‘We were the first ordained as a result of a training programme. We had two years. Derek Worlock once described me as one of his “protodeacons”. It was something quite new and, to be frank, there wasn’t a lot of education either for the clergy or the laity. The Catholic Pic for three or four years kept referring to us as “lay deacons” but we’re not lay deacons, we’re ordained ministers. It was a learning curve for everybody.’

Leo spent his first eight years as a deacon in the Metropolitan Cathedral parish before moving to the parish that remains his home today, St Oswald’s in Longton. His fellow pioneers were Gerard Holmes, who went to serve in St Mary’s, Wigan; Gordon Leadbetter (St Anthony of Padua); Gerard Rodgers (Christ the King, Childwall); and John Murphy (St Thomas of Canterbury, Waterloo).

Of these others, only John Murphy is still alive and he was unable to attend the gala dinner to mark the 40th anniversary of their ordinations at Liverpool Hope University on Wednesday 10 July. This left Leo and his wife Margaret as guests of honour at the dinner at which Canon Chris Fallon, the diocesan Director for the Permanent Diaconate, gave a speech reflecting on the past four decades – starting with those first ordinations.

Chris, who succeeded Monsignor Austin Hunt in the role in 2016, said: ‘The press release stated that their principal work would be the pastoral service of the people and carrying out the charitable works of the Church and it also referred to their liturgical ministry at baptisms, weddings, funerals, preaching and distributing Holy Communion and assisting the priest in the celebration of Mass.’

Chris quoted a line from Archbishop Derek’s homily at that 1979 Mass that ‘this restoration of ancient usage, rather than innovation, is a great enrichment in the Church’s ministry to God’s people.’

And he also cited the four misunderstandings that the Archbishop said the new deacons could expect to encounter, starting with their mislabelling as lay deacons. ‘The diaconate,’ said the Archbishop, ‘is the first degree or rank of the triple order of ordained ministry: diaconate, priesthood and episcopate, a real and distinct ministry of itself and neither a probationary state for those preparing for priesthood nor a consolation prize for those who cannot approach the priesthood because of their married state or lack of educational opportunity’.

There would also be those ‘who will assume that your primary duty is to wear a deacon’s stole and sing the Gospel’ yet Archbishop Derek observed that their first duty in the ordination rite was to preach and teach the Gospel, which was ‘why so much time has been given to your doctrinal and theological training.’

The Archbishop’s homily went on: ‘Some will think and speak of you as part-time deacons, but you will all be full-time deacons wherever you are: heralds of the Gospel at work; ministers of the liturgy, of the Gospel and of charity in the parishes to which you are assigned; and deacons at home, your family happiness being an additional strength you will bring to your ministry.

‘Lastly, you will for a time still be thought by some to be unnecessary, whether as a luxury or an eccentricity. Where the teaching of the Church has failed, where people continue to close their eyes to the hard facts of the need for a developing ministry in our parishes, time and experience will have to tell … You are breaking new ground. You are helping to show the way. Working with the bishops and priests, you are a pattern from the past which will give shape to our future.’

Overall, 175 permanent deacons have been ordained in Liverpool Archdiocese – the four newest on 7 July. Today there are 71 active deacons and 28 retired, with 11 men currently in formation.

In the early days, under the guidance of Mgr Austin Hunt, diaconal candidates would study for the Catholic Teacher’s Certificate, now the Catholic Certificate in Religious Studies (CCRS). Candidates today also study for the Online Certificate in Pastoral Ministry and Leadership provided in partnership with Loyola University Chicago, which forms part of the Archdiocesan Diploma overseen by Liverpool Hope University.

In his gala dinner address, Canon Chris Fallon expressed his gratitude to all those who have ‘supported the formation programme’ and added: ‘The scope of ministry in which our deacons are involved has widened over the years, with deacons working directly for the Archdiocese in RE and Safeguarding and indirectly as chaplains to hospitals, schools and prisons, working with asylum seekers, stroke clubs, pro-life charities, movements like Cenacolo, Cursillo, Missio and  L’Arche and many others.

‘Liverpool has also made a contribution to the development of the diaconate on the national and international level. Austin chaired for many years the National Conference of Diaconate Directors and Deacon Delegates and was later followed in the role by Deacon John Traynor.’

Chris also spoke of the backing given to Liverpool’s deacons by the archbishops who succeeded Archbishop Derek, Archbishop Patrick Kelly and Archbishop Malcolm McMahon. He added: ‘[Archbishop Malcolm] and the Trustees have recently giving their backing to a funding bid for a research project, to be carried out at Liverpool Hope University by Father Peter McGrail and one of our newly ordained deacons, Paul Rooney, into the deployment and ministry of deacons and the new Pastoral Associates, which will feed into Synod 2020.’

Leo McNicholas will leave that future to others. Now 83, the Archdiocese’s longest-serving deacon will ‘hang up my stole’, as he puts it, in November following the Feast of Christ the King. ‘We’re supposed to retire at 75, but Archbishop Kelly let me stay on as I thought I had quite a bit to still offer.’

At July’s gala dinner, he received a copy of the painting by German artist Sieger Koder, ‘The Washing of the Feet’ – a fitting gift given it was in Germany, when teaching at a boarding school for army children, that he first began giving homilies for the simple fact the priest could speak not a word of English.

The 40 years since 1979 have brought challenges, and rewards. ‘When I was ordained, we had five children of school age. A lot of the success of any deacon depends on family and particularly your wife as without her support you couldn’t do it. We always had this thing about priorities – the family comes first, the job comes second, and the diaconate comes third. It’s like keeping balls up in the air.’

And for Leo, there was no prouder moment than being on the altar when Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass at the Metropolitan Cathedral in May 1982. ‘When we came down after Mass we came into sacristy and my youngest son, Kevin, got a kiss on top of his head because he was his mitre bearer and he gave me a hug, which is a special moment. I’ve been hugged by a saint.’