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Shining a Light on the Vocation of Deacon

By Lisa M. Hendey
©Catholic Online 2005

An Author Interview with Deacon William T. Ditewig, PhD, author of 101 Questions & Answers on Deacons

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 & 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 & 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 America).

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 involved.

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 service.

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!

For more information on 101 Questions & Answers on Deacons visit

Lisa M. Hendey is a mother of two sons, webmaster of numerous web sites, including and, and an avid reader of Catholic fiction and non-fiction.

Contact CA, US
Lisa M. Hendey - webmaster, 559 5551212



catholic, deacon, ditewig, vocation

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