Deacons prepare to distribute communion at Mass. Register file photo

Permanent diaconate in Toronto marks 50 years

  • September 29, 2022

Deacon Steve Pitre is determined not to celebrate 50 years of the permanent diaconate in the Archdiocese of Toronto. Instead, he wants to celebrate the Church that embraced, encouraged and prayed with deacons over the past 50 years.

“The journey isn’t just about the diaconate. It’s the whole Church,” said Pitre.

For the first time since COVID sent everybody home in 2020, Toronto’s permanent deacons and their wives are meeting live and in-person for their 11th “Coming Together” event Sept. 30 to Oct. 2 at the Nottawasaga Inn in Alliston, Ont., north of Toronto. It will be a chance for the deacons and wives to celebrate the 50 years they’ve been serving and preaching the Gospel — 50 years since Archbishop Philip Pocock greeted the first 33 aspiring deacons at St. Augustine’s Seminary, Sept. 30, 1972.

Since then, 325 men have been ordained by four grateful archbishops — Pocock, Cardinal Gerald Emmett Carter, Cardinal Aloysius Ambrozic and Cardinal Thomas Collins.

Pitre, who runs the diaconate office at the archdiocese’s curia offices, is grateful for the support of archbishops, of course. But he’s equally humbled by the support of ordinary parishioners and priests who have welcomed and supported the ministry of deacons — to the poor, the sick, the homeless, the imprisoned and more.

“What we can look at is those parishes that united themselves and took on that collaborative mission, and realized they are serving the mission of Christ,” Pitre said. “This isn’t about them (the deacons). We are serving the mission of Christ.”

The 1972 decision to restore the permanent diaconate in Toronto had been brewing since the 1920s, when a generation of towering theologians began researching the structure of the Church by looking at the earliest forms of Christian community. The new theologians were inspired by the idea of “resourssement” (a lot of them were French), looking at the sources of Church life in the Gospels and the early Church Fathers.

There they found deacons serving alongside the Apostles.

“Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food,” reports St. Luke in the Acts of the Apostles.

“And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, ‘It is not right that we should neglect the Word of God in order to wait on tables. Therefore, brothers and sisters, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the Word.’ ”

That was the kind of thing the resourssement theologians thought should live again in the Church. Resourssement ideas captivated Pocock when he was studying theology as a brilliant young priest on his way to being ordained a bishop at just 38 years old. Then in Rome at the Second Vatican Council, Pocock saw the ideas that had inspired him as a young priest now inspiring the whole Church as it opened its windows to the world.

“His commitment to the permanent diaconate flowed directly from his commitment to the Second Vatican Council,” said Pocock biographer Peter Meehan, president and vice chancellor at St. Jerome’s University at the University of Waterloo. “Which represented the fulfillment of his priestly and episcopal longings for the Church to engage with the needs of the modern world.”

For Pocock, getting a restored permanent diaconate up and running was just part of a full reception of the great council.

“After and even during the council, (Pocock) ensured that the Archdiocese of Toronto became a virtual laboratory for the renewal of the Church — embracing and in many cases pioneering many of the innovations and changes that were part of that renewal.”

This didn’t translate into immediate approval from all quarters. There were priests who didn’t want “mini-priests” mucking about in their parishes. There were lay people who couldn’t imagine that a restored diaconate wasn’t just one more confusing innovation.

“Vernacular Masses, concelebration of the Eucharist, communion in the hand, changes to religious life and formation were either welcomed or rejected by the faithful,” said Meehan. “This was a major struggle for Pocock, who believed in the council.”

For that first generation of Toronto deacons, reception of the Second Vatican Council and the insights of French theologians wasn’t really their concern. They were there to do the work.

“Talk about Pope Francis’ vision of smelling like the sheep, they got in there and rolled up their shirtsleeves and did it,” said Pitre.

Just doing it is exactly what Max Choy has in mind as he embarks on his third year in the permanent diaconate formation program.

The 60-year-old immigrant from Hong Kong, who works the front desk at Toronto’s Sheraton Hotel, started out believing he was neither qualified, capable nor worthy of serving the Church in any official capacity. With just a high school education and a lifetime of hard work behind him, he thought service in the Church was somebody else’s territory.

A back injury literally arrested him and gave him a chance to rethink while he stayed at home flat on his back.

“I did not move,” Choy recalled. “For the first two months I was totally immobilized.”

This led naturally enough to a lot of decades of the rosary. But that wasn’t the end of Choy’s conversion experience. When he tried to stand up next to his bed, he received another shock. He fell backwards, knocking a hole in the bedroom wall with his head.

“I was so grateful I was not killed,” he said. “In the pain and all of that, I prayed.”

Those prayers led Choy on a pilgrimage to Medjugorje, where he experienced Mary’s call to follow Christ.

“I understood that I’m not worthless,” he said. “I realized that God loves me so much. So I had to devote myself. I just had that feeling.”

His watchwords come from the miracle at Cana, where Mary tells the waiters at the wedding to “Do whatever He tells you.”

“Those words really entered into me seriously,” Choy said. “I just remembered that Mary’s ‘yes’ to God changed the whole world. At that time I said, ‘Mother Mary, I’m going to follow you. Whatever God wants me to do, I would say ‘Yes.’ ”

Which didn’t make it easy. He entered the program never having written an essay in his life, let alone an essay in his second language.

“Everything is new and challenging,” he said. “But God gave me a lot of help, with all the angels around me.”

Chief among the angels is Choy’s wife, Angela Chu, an administrator at the Children’s Aid Society of Toronto. Choy credits Chu with giving him the courage to face all the difficulties.

If Choy’s focus is on the future, so is Pitre’s.

“We have to look ahead,” he said. “We’re not going to be able to get back into the things we were doing (before COVID). Some prisons won’t let us in yet. I’ve talked to other dioceses, it’s the same thing. This is an opportunity for us to maybe expand in other areas, or look at new areas of things we could be doing.”

Even if future ministries look different, Pitre believes it will be more of the same — the same dedication to service with the help of the entire community.

“We wouldn’t have survived without everybody,. I believe, if you look at some of the parishes and the way they’ve embraced the diaconate, allowed it to animate the people and animate the priests — when that really works, some parishes have experienced a more fulfilling mission.”

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