Last month, the Catholic Church in Mumbai appointed two married men — one of them a former business executive, the other a former journalist — as deacons.
A deacon ranks lower than a priest and can perform most of the religious work that a priest does, but he cannot conduct mass, hear confessions and administer the sacrament called anointing the sick. They can preach, baptise, bless marriages and visit the sick and the aged –– providing relief to regular priests whose work days can get crowded, especially Sundays.
The practice of appointing deacons is not new. In Mumbai, the first deacons were appointed in January 2006 when two men, including a 74-year-old , were appointed to the post. “Though it was first proposed by the Catholic Bishops Conference of India (the highest decision making body of the church)in 1966, the archdiocese of Bombay was the first to take the lead in appointing deacons,” said Father Gilbert Lima from St Peter’s College, a seminary in Goregaon.
Bishop Bosco Penha, now retired, who promoted the idea and was in charge of the programme when it started in Mumbai, said that there are now 16 deacons in Mumbai. “As far as I know, it has progressed well. It is a difficult thing – married men have to train for four years, but we are getting candidates. There are four to five people who are preparing for the work,” said Penha.
Church members feel that deacons are a necessity because of the shortage of priests. Melwyn Fernandes, a Thane resident, said that they have one deacon who visits five or six churches in the area, providing religious services. “Families are becoming smaller and there are fewer people who will be interested in priesthood,” said Fernandes.
Data confirms this. The number of priests have been dropping: between 1970 and 2014, the world’s Catholic population grew from 654 million to 1.23 billion, while the number of priests declined from 420,000 to 414,000.
But Lima said that the appointment of deacons, at least in Mumbai, is not related to the decline in the number of men taking up priesthood. “There are enough vocations (ordainment of priests) in Mumbai,” said Lima. “The reason why there is an increase in the number of deacons is because the church realises that some men may want to serve as permanent deacons.”
Lima says that the church is not complete without deacons. “Bishops, priests and deacons are part of the hierarchy,” said Lima.
Gordon D’Souza, former president of the Bombay Catholic Sabha, an association of lay church members, said that it was a useful concept. “Married men can strive towards a semi-consecrated life. Deacons can offer almost all sacraments except a few. To that extent they are of help. They have done theology, so they are useful in pastoral activities.”
“It is like opening the door for the future,” said D’Souza. “A shortage of priests is definitely there; number of vocations has dropped. We have to look up to lay people to provide some of the religious services.”
There are sceptics. “We do not see it is a very good idea,” said a priest from south Mumbai. “They cannot bless marriages or conduct mass – which a regular priest has to do. Even for funerals people prefer a priest rather than a deacon.”
“Because people have been ingrained and brought up in this manner,” the priest added.
Permanent deacons are married men. Unmarried men working as deacons can become priests after the training. Pope Francis, the head of the 1.2 billion-member church has more radical ideas. In a recent interview, he suggested that he would be open to the idea of allowing married men to become priests. Though scriptures do not clearly say that priests need to be celibate – the first pope, St Peter, was married. The rule forbidding priests was introduced in the 12th century.