The unique path taken by Toronto's diaconate

  • June 30, 2010
Michael PowerTORONTO - Bringing back the permanent diaconate was a spiritual stroke of Vatican II genius, according to historian Michael Power, one that traces its history to the Nazi death camp at Dachau.

Priests in Dachau — facing their deaths, resigned to their imprisonment and steeped in a near monastic routine of prayer and work — began to ask themselves what had gone wrong with the world and the Church, that saving sacrament of their world. They came to the conclusion that priests were living in isolation from the people of God and that the Church needed a way to break through.

In his new book, Servants of All: A History of the Permanent Diaconate in the Archdiocese of Toronto 1972-2007, Power traces those seminal discussions in Dachau back to the Council of Trent and forward to Archbishop Philip Pocock’s decision to institute the permanent diaconate in Toronto.

Toronto’s mostly married deacons were the second in Canada, the first in English Canada and pioneers in North America.

Before the archdiocese of Toronto could begin ordaining men for a life of service they had to work out a clear sense of what the diaconate would mean to the Church in Toronto.

“They are not mini-priests,” Power told The Catholic Register at a recent book signing in Toronto.

Deacons are ordained for liturgical and charitable service, but charitable service is primary and gives meaning to their liturgical service.

“If he’s just the big altar boy, it will atrophy,” said Power.

One of the most interesting fruits of the revival of the diaconate has been how the work of deacons has helped to more clearly define the priesthood, said Power. Deacons, priests and bishops all partake in the same sacrament of orders, but the deacons as models of service clearly show how broadly ordination can be lived in the Church.

The decision to involve families, particularly wives, in every aspect of the education and ministry of deacons set Toronto on an almost unique path with its deacons. Pocock gave wives the ultimate say in whether a deacon could be ordained or not. It was a path that soon many were following as the dioceses of Kingston, Hamilton, London, Calgary, St. Paul and Edmonton came to Toronto asking for advice on how to institute the permanent diaconate.

{sa 289646218X}All this is essential history not just in Toronto but in the Church in Canada, said Power.

It’s no surprise that Power’s book was financed and instigated by Cardinal Aloysius Ambrozic two-and-a-half years ago. History has always meant a great deal to Toronto’s archbishop-emeritus.

In the two years of combing through archives and interviewing deacons for the book, Power found himself increasingly impressed by the men Toronto has ordained over the years.

“I always came away (from interviews with deacons) saying ‘Wow,’ ” recalled Power. “How did we live without these guys? How did the Church get along without them?”

Servants of All isn’t Power’s first book about the history of the Church in Canada. The freelance academic from Welland, Ont., has written A History of the Roman Catholic Church in the Niagara Peninsula 1615-1815 and A Promise Fulfilled: Highlights in the Political History of Catholic Separate Schools in Ontario. He is also co-author of Gather Up the Fragments: A History of the Diocese of London.

While the book has plenty of footnotes and a proper index, it’s not meant just for scholars, said Power.

“I believe in narrative and story telling, and I believe in a broad audience,” said Power.

Servants of All is published by Novalis and is available for $24.95.

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