50th Anniversary of “Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem”

By Dr. Paul Severn

In the Acts of the Apostles (chap 6) we read that as the number of disciples increased the Apostles appointed seven ‘helpers’ to assist them and these are generally considered to be the first deacons. Foremost among them was St. Stephen who was also the first Christian Martyr (feast day 26 December). Deacons were common in the early Church and another notable deacon was St. Laurence (10 August) who was one of the seven deacons of the Church in Rome. He was possibly a Frenchman and was martyred on a gridiron under Emperor Valerian in about 258. Deacons are mentioned in the medieval period in the writings of Peter Lombard and St. Thomas Aquinas, and St. Francis of Assisi was a deacon too.

By the sixteenth century there had been something of a decline in the permanent diaconate although the Council of Trent (1545-63) attempted unsuccessfully to revive it. In time, the diaconate simply became a stage on the way to ordination to the priesthood. Some four hundred years later, two priests imprisoned at Dachau started an effort to restore the permanent diaconate and their efforts bore fruit as the permanent diaconate was restored to the Church hierarchy by The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). The broad principles are to be found in Lumen Gentium and the further details are set out in the document Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem, which is fifty years old this year. Notably, these documents teach that whilst priests and bishops must normally be celibate, it is possible, and indeed common, to confer diaconal order on men who are married.

The first permanent deacon to be ordained in our own diocese of Portsmouth was Patrick Taylor who was ordained by Bishop Derek Worlock on 2 June 1974. He was a married man and a business executive and had his first pastoral responsibility in a group ministry in Basingstoke. In 2014 he celebrated the ruby anniversary of his ordination. There are now almost fifty permanent deacons in our Diocese of Portsmouth.

In 1985 Deacon Anthony Ward was ordained by the late Bishop Charles Henderson in the Southwark Diocese. He moved to the Island in 2011 and served for a number of years in Newport until his retirement.

Most recently (2015) Gary May, a former Police Sergeant was ordained to the permanent diaconate by Bishop Philip Egan. He trained initially at Maryvale College and completed his formation at Oscott Seminary in Sutton Coldfield, near Birmingham. Deacon Gary serves in the South Wight Parish and has been appointed as Prison Chaplain at Parkhurst Prison.

Currently in formation at Oscott is Dr. Paul Severn, a former mathematics teacher, who moved to the island in 2014. Paul visits the seminary one Saturday per month for lectures and tutorials and has essays to write – approximately one every other month! He has much of his other formation in the parish. Initially this was at St. Mary’s in Ryde and more recently with Fr Jonathan Redvers Harris in St. David’s East Cowes and St. Thomas’ Cowes. As well as serving and reading at Holy Mass, Paul has been particularly ‘shadowing’ baptisms, marriages and funerals. Additionally he makes home communion visits to the housebound and those in nursing homes. He has become involved in the work of the Apostleship of the Sea (Stella Maris) visiting ships, and has started teaching parish Bible classes: Matthew last Lent and Isaiah, pending in Advent. Paul is scheduled to complete his course in July 2019 – please keep him in your prayers.

Bishop Philip Egan is an enthusiastic supporter of the permanent diaconate and has said that in a perfect world he could imagine that “ever parish would have a permanent deacon.” With some ninety parishes in our diocese and some fifty deacons, we are perhaps about half way there!

Paul Severn
November 2017