What Deacons Should Know, and How They Should Know It
Over the past year, since I was dismissed from the diaconate formation program in my diocese, I have been thinking about the way the program was structured. Part of this was selfish: there were pedagogical issues that contributed, I think, to my dismissal. (To date I have never gotten a coherent explanation for why I was dismissed, but that is another story and not relevant to the topic at hand.) But I am also a teacher by profession, and the questions involved in educating deacons are complex and I find them interesting and challenging.
Indeed, were I to be put in charge of diaconate formation by some miracle, I have already begun to sketch out a series of changes I would make. There is perhaps a little hubris at work here—this is a common failing among academics. I realize that there is a great deal I don’t know about formation programs, and many ideas that I have may seem good on paper, but may then fall short because of issues I simply have not considered, either because of a lack of experience or a lack of specialized knowledge.
Therefore, I want to open some of my ideas up for discussion here. The first idea I want to cover is the question in the title: what should deacons know, and how should they know it? The first half of the question is relatively straightforward: what knowledge, information and skills should be in the “toolkit” of every new deacon? There is plenty of room for disagreement here—see, for instance, my earlier post on one question on the entrance exam administered by my diocese. However, there are some broad areas that I think most people will agree deacons need to have some competency: e.g., scripture, preaching, liturgy, pastoral care, Catholic ethical and social teaching. But I would be interested in seeing where people would place their emphases and priorities, and why. And it is worth bearing in mind that the USCCB has written extensively about diaconate formation programs.
The second half of the title is a more subtle epistemological question which I think I can illustrate by way of two examples. When I got my Ph.D. 20 years ago, I “knew” introductory calculus very well. Not only had I studied it, but I had chosen my research specialty in an area (harmonic analysis) that is closely related to the material covered in a standard calculus course. However, I would now say that I know calculus much better than I did then, because I now know how to teach calculus. I know which ideas are intuitively clear and which are not; I have a better grasp of which ideas to emphasize and which to omit the first time a student sees the material; I understand how to draw out connections between ideas that help my students begin to see the “big picture” more clearly. Unfortunately (particularly for the students I taught in the first few years of my career) I was not taught any of this when I “learned” calculus—I pretty much learned it by trial and error in the classroom and in discussions with other colleagues. I would argue that this knowledge is not simply pedagogical skills separate from the content of calculus. Rather, I think it is an integral part of the conceptual organization of calculus in my own mind.
The second example comes from the doctoral program in preaching at the Aquinas Institute. I stumbled across this program while looking for resources on homiletics. One feature that I found intriguing was the entrance requirements: students were required to have a masters in divinity and at least three years of ministerial experience. In other words, the students were required to have considerable experience in preaching, including having gone through the entire lectionary at least once. This suggests to me that the program organizers want their students to already “know” scripture in a particular way: not just from a close reading of the texts (as would be gotten in any M. Div. program) but also from having to respond to these texts in the context of preaching on them.
So with these examples in mind, I am asking: how should deacons “know” the topics listed above (and others that may be proposed)? What do you expect deacons to do with their acquired knowledge and skills, and how does this shape how they should know the material? Is “book learning” (however defined) sufficient? How should experiential knowledge be organized?
To start the discussion, let me sketch my own approach. I believe that the education of deacons should be organized functionally. It should start with what we (the Church) want deacons to be and to do, and work backwards to determine both the content and organization of their formation. For instance, deacons should have strong faith lives that are grounded in scripture—whence the obligation to pray the Liturgy of the Hours. They are also expected to preach on a regular basis, and their homilies should, ideally, help their congregations to better understand the scripture and apply it in their own lives. This suggests that they should engage with scripture by praying with it—the Liturgy of the Hours and Lectio Divina immediately come to mind—and proclaiming it. As I was learning to be a lector, I was told that I could not effectively proclaim it until I understood it: what do the words mean? Where in the Bible does this passage come from? What are the circumstances the author was confronted with, and how was he responding to them? This suggests some formal scripture study, but organized in a very different way. And finally, deacons should learn scripture by preaching on it: what does it mean in their own lives and in the lives of others? This would lead to both faith sharing (which is itself an acquired skill) and also to endless possibilities for tying scripture to Catholic teaching in a wide variety of areas.
Applying this reasoning to the other things a deacon should know leads to a formation program that is not organized around a “curriculum” with discrete academic topics (Introduction to the Old and New Testament, Catholic Ethics, Homiletics, etc.) but instead attempts to weave all of these topics together into an organic whole. For those familiar with it, the problems and issues involved bear some resemblance to those of the calculus reform movement of the past 25 years. And, though I know much less about it, I think there are some connections with Montessori education. Possible? Of course. Difficult? Yes. Such a program would require an interdisciplinary approach and the rejection (or at least substantive revision) of much received wisdom on education. But I think deacons educated in this way would be much bettered prepared for their ministries.
What do you think?