Shining a Light on the Vocation of
An Author Interview with Deacon William T. Ditewig, PhD, author of
101 Questions and Answers On Deacons
By Lisa M. Hendey
In the late 1960s, Vatican II reinstated the role of “permanent”
deacon and new generations of men were called to a vocation in the
diaconate. Since then, this important role of service has flourished
and is now one of the most rapidly expanding vocations in the Catholic
Church. Despite this growth, many outside the Church and even many of
those served by deacons within their own parish settings have a
limited understanding of the nature of the permanent diaconate.
In his new book
101 Questions and Answers On Deacons (Paulist Press,
November 2004, paperback, 144 pages), Deacon William T. Ditewig, PhD
answers many of the most common questions on the role of permanent
deacons. Deacon Ditewig’s approachable style and the question and
answer format of this book make it an accessible, informative resource
for those looking to learn more about this unique form of service. The
book’s introduction discusses the function of deacons in the
contemporary Catholic Church.
Deacon Ditewig, Executive Director of the Secretariat for the
Diaconate at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops,
recently took time to discuss the role of the deacon and the special
men called to live out this vocation.
Q. It is a great pleasure to share this Catholic Book Spotlight
interview with Deacon William Ditewig, author of
101 Questions and Answers On Deacons. Deacon Ditewig, thank you for your time. Would you
please share a bit about your own background and vocation as a deacon?
A: I was born and raised in Peoria, Illinois, and I spent high school
and college as a seminarian for the Peoria Diocese. After leaving the
seminary after college (and a BA in Philosophy) I soon found myself
about to be drafted into the military. Not wishing to be drafted, I
joined the Navy, and served for 22 years, retiring as a Commander in
1993. During my Navy career, I remained active in ministry and in
education, serving in a variety of lay ministries at the many places
we lived around the United States and the world.
A close friend of mine, a priest of the Peoria Diocese, was the
director of the diaconate for the diocese for many years, and when my
family and I would visit home, he and I would talk about his work with
deacons, and I was increasingly intrigued by the possibilities of the
ministry. Eventually, during a military assignment in the Archdiocese
of Washington, DC, I applied for the diaconate formation program and
was accepted. I was ordained a deacon by James Cardinal Hickey in
1990. Since I was still on active duty in the Navy at that time, I
spent three years as a deacon at an Air Force base on Okinawa while I
was serving as Executive Officer of a Navy base at the same time.
Since my retirement from the Navy in 1993 I have served in parish
ministry, as well as diocesan ministry. I served as Director of
Pastoral Services for the Dioceses of Davenport, Iowa and Belleville,
Illinois and as Executive Director of the Office of the Permanent
Diaconate for the Archdiocese of Washington, DC. Since 2002, I have
been the Executive Director of the Secretariat for the Diaconate for
the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington.
Normally, my parish-based ministries include adult faith formation in
addition to the assorted other ministries normally associated with
parish life (communion calls and so forth). I also teach graduate
courses in Ecclesiology and Church History (my Ph.D. is from the
School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of
Q. Given the rising popularity of the permanent diaconate as a
vocation, your new book is very timely. What prompted you to write
this book and what is your goal for the book?
A: There are still many myths and misperceptions within the Catholic
community about the nature and ministry of the diaconate. I hoped that
this book would be a useful resource for anyone who was interested in
finding out more about the diaconate. There has been remarkably little
written about the diaconate over the years, and I hoped that this
popular format (101 Q & A) would be particularly suited to the issues
Q. I don’t want to “give away” too many of the questions you answer in
the book, but I do have a few questions about the role of the
diaconate. How does one know that he has a call to be a deacon?
A: A person can examine his life and trace his involvement in serving
others, for a start. "Being a deacon" is not something that a person
can be taught; what we look for are people who are already serving in
many diaconal capacities already: reaching out to the marginalized,
active in parish life, attempting to find ways of meeting the needs of
others. Although all of the baptized are called to do such things, a
life being lived in such a way might be an indicator of a vocation to
the ordained diaconate.
Q. What role does a deacon’s family play in his vocation? How has
being a deacon impacted upon your own family and relationships?
A: The family is a critical dimension in the living out of a deacon's
vocation. First, no married man may be ordained a deacon without the
formal consent of his wife. Second, the whole family needs to have a
sense of how ordained ministry may impact family life. The children of
deacons, for example, can often be put into tough spots. One of our
daughters, for example, when she was still in Catholic grade school,
would be expected to know questions about "religion" because "you're
the deacon's daughter"! Every deacon realizes very early just how much
the family's generosity at sharing husband and father with others
means to his ability to serve. This is a blessing, and a challenge. It
demands that communications skills between husband and wife, and
between parents and children, be as healthy as possible. Through all
of this, one of the most important things for the deacon to maintain
is balance. Deacons and their families are constantly balancing the
obligations of marriage, family life and ministry.
Q. Do you foresee any possibility that women will one day be ordained
as deacons? In today’s Church, what roles do you see for women in
serving and supporting the Catholic Church?
A: Obviously you're asking two distinct, albeit related, questions.
With regard to the possibility of ordaining women as deacons: the Holy
See has indicated that the teaching of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis
restricting ordination to men, applies only to the priesthood. That
means that the possibility of ordaining women as deacons remains open
at this point in time. Scholars such as Phyllis Zagano have
contributed significantly to the theological discourse necessary to
have a profitable discussion on the issues involved.
On a broader level of course, moving beyond ordained ministries, women
are already the backbone of lay ecclesial ministry! In addition to the
wide variety of ministries being exercised by women in parish,
diocesan and national venues, there are countless women serving as
professors, administrators and in other senior leadership positions of
Q. Many aspects of the diaconate are misunderstood. What are some of
the most frequent questions you find yourself answering about deacons?
A: Generally, folks mistakenly focus their concerns on the functions
that deacons perform. "What do deacons do that priests do not?" "What
can a deacon do that a lay person cannot?" By focusing simply on
functions, a person can miss the larger significance of ordained
ministry. For example, we all realize that there is more to "being a
priest" than simply the functions the priest performs; we know that
there is more to "being married" than simply listing the various
activities a married couple do during the day. There is a sacramental
foundation to all of these various functions, and it is that
sacramental foundation that is often overlooked in discussions and
questions about deacons.
Also, many people do not realize that deacons are DIOCESAN ministers,
just as their priests are. Bishops ordain priests and deacons to serve
throughout the diocese and not just within a particular parish.
Increasingly, deacons are being asked to serve in regional ministries
in addition to parish ministries, and are often assigned to parishes
other than the one they came from originally; many people think of the
parish deacons as simply "their" deacon because they've always known
him as a fellow parishioner in that parish.
Q. How can Catholic families support their parish Deacons?
A: Deacons by nature want to be of service to others. So, parishioners
can support deacons by learning all they can about deacons and their
own unique ministries. Parishioners should think of turning to their
deacons for help, rather than turning solely to the pastor. But most
of all, parishioners should pray for their deacons and their families,
and remember to pray for more vocations to the diaconate!
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