Volume 48 Number 1
Winter 2015

Special Feature

Ministers with Mission: Living One’s Faith in Action as a Permanent Deacon

Written by Dcn. Joseph R. Ferrari, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology & St. Vincent DePaul Distinguished Professor, DePaul University, Chicago, IL

Author Notes

Joe was ordained a Deacon for the Diocese of Joliet, IL, in August, 2013, and has been a professor at DePaul University since 1994. The calling to be deacon was not his so it goes first before his name; his doctorate which he earned, comes after his name. Gratitude for edits and encouragement from Rae Jean Proeschold, Catherine Roster, Mona Shattell, Danielle Vaclavik, Steve Fawcett, Vince Francisco, and Lenny Jason.

Correspondence should be sent to: or (773) 325-4244

Social justice, charity, building community.

These are cornerstone concepts to our field, which any student in community psychology will recognize. And, they are cornerstone concepts to an ordained clergy in the Roman Catholic Church, called the permanent deacon. People generally do not know that there are married clergy in the Catholic Church, familiar only with celibate priests. Permanent deacons fill quite a different role than the parish priest, who usually runs the "business" side of the parish.

Within the Catholic tradition, the permanent deacon is a category of clergy that has seen a sharp rise over the past several decades (over 18,000 in the US alone). Most deacons are married with children, middle-aged, often working, and many hold some college education. Permanent deacons take a vow and are ordained to their bishop for a life committed to service (permanent means not continuing toward becoming a priest). Deacons traditionally serve in ministries of “word, sacrament, and charity.” The ministry of word generally means reading the Gospels (Holy Scripture) at the Catholic Mass, and teaching and engaging in the study of Holy Scripture. Sacramental ministry by deacons may include, for example, baptizing members into the Church, prep and presiding over weddings, wake services and funerals, blessings of people, objects, and places, and distribution of Holy Eucharist. Above all, the permanent deacon is a ministry of charity. Deacons vow to serve others, humbly and always, improving the quality of life for all. Deacons create, implement, and facilitate programs that assist disenfranchised persons and those in need of charity, for the sake of social justice.

A permanent deacon is not a “mini-priest,”  “partial priest,” or “substitute priest,” and is certainly not a “super lay-person.” Deacons are a sacred ministry in their own right, an unpaid cleric who focuses on social justice, charity, and the communal needs of others. Deacons stand between the Church and the world, with their feet solidly in the liturgical and their hands squarely in the service of others. They interpret the needs of the world to the Church and commit to a life of service to others reflective of Christian values and virtues. During Mass, they read the Gospel, offer the people’s intentions and prayers, invite the people to welcome each other, receive the people’s gifts, assist in administering the Sacrament of Communion, and dismiss the assembly to go into the world to serve as Christ. When the mass has ended, the priest returns to the rectory; deacons return to the community where they live. Deacons today are deeply embedded in the world, but not of the world – bridging the liturgical Church and the needs of the world.

Role of Deacons in Community, and Psychology

It has been said that only 4% of faculty believe in or practice any organized religion. I wonder, what is the percentage among community psychologists? Perhaps, we are more open to alternative world views, even those that are religious or spiritual. I would argue that for many of us involved in community practice and research, our need to help others reflects spirituality and a sense there is something greater than just ourselves – something that transcends our present self so we focus our interventions and prevention strategies on more of “WE, not ME.”

Over 92% of people in the US see religion as an important dimension to their lives, which is at odds to the beliefs of many academics. As community psychologists, it is important to include faith-beliefs in our practices, interventions, and efforts to enhance the quality of life for others. To be sure, “clergy” have not always been “saints” and not always performed well as a model of a loving God. Add “Catholic” before the word clergy, and many people think of male-dominance, power, prestige, and a host of negative ills. Few people realize that there are many female “Doctors of the Church” who contributed to theology, doctrine, and the living spirit of social justice. Women’s voices must continue to be included today, even in Church governance. True, deacons and priests are men only: this issue is actively debated. However, my focus is on how our research and practice should include religion, rather than a larger analysis of norms and values of the Church. Our entire legal justice system came from working for social justice by the Church, developing an advocacy process for the accused (rather than judgment from a king). The same institution built our hospitals, schools, and social services. Unfortunately, under the label of the Church, others engaged in abuses, embezzlements, discrimination, and ostracizing. The world is full of saints and sinners; so is the Catholic Church.

Studying Permanent Deacons

As a Catholic community psychologist, the call to serve as a permanent deacon seemed right for me - a perfect way to extend my scholarship pursuits of nearly 30 years. This way, I could help the marginalized, disenfranchised, the hurting, the “least of these” in our society on another level. This past year, while on sabbatical, one of the major projects I engaged in with students and colleagues was the study of the personality traits, leadership styles, and religiosity of a national sample of US and Canadian deacons.  We collected information from about 2,000 deacons and another 424 men in formation. In this anonymous on-line survey, respondents completed reliable and valid measures of personality traits, religious commitment, spiritual transcendence beliefs, servant and transformational leadership styles, and parish sense of community.

Currently, we are analyzing responses to these measures crossed with self-reported demographic variables. We are not finding much “statistically significance,” comparing generational cohorts or geographic regions of deacons. More specifically, those ordained from 1971 to 1983 (considered the first generation of deacons reinstated in the Catholic Church after nearly a 1,000 year absence), 1984 to 2004, and then 2005 to the present reported the same personality traits (e.g., extremely high levels of humility and honesty, controlling for social desirability tendencies), servant and transformational leadership styles, and religious commitment and spirituality beliefs. As scientists, we prefer to find significant differences, but sometimes the opposite poses far more interesting questions.  For instance, the lack of significant differences between generational cohorts begs the question: is there something “special” about deacons who felt a call from a “higher power,” to serve others? They are not “better” (and most deacons I know would be the first to tell you that), but “different.”  The distinguishing qualities of deacons are qualitative, not quantitative.

Parish sense of community. One area of analysis focused on the parish sense of community, as perceived by the deacon. Sense of community was assessed using the 24-item Sense of Community Index, SCI-2, created by Chavis, Lee, and Acosta (2009). Respondents rated each item along a 4-point scale (1 = not at all; 4 = completely) across four dimensions of a sense of community based on the model by McMillan and Chavis (1986):  reinforcement of needs, a reciprocal relationship of cooperation and assistance between members: membership, belief they belong to a group that is inclusive and familiar with them: influence, belief they have some impact on the lives of each other in this community; and shared emotional connection, participants’ state they share events and have affection for each other.

We initially wrote a paper (under journal review) exploring the presence and absence of a Catholic elementary school on the parish sense of community. Among parishes with a school, we then examined the sense of community if the principal was a woman or man, and a religious or lay person. Parishioners often report that a school binds people together in a parish community; alternatively, others say that parish schools create diverseness among the faith-community. Also, some parish members say the school needs a nun as principal, not a female or male lay principal, to lead the education of the students. Interestingly, our study found that the presence of a local Catholic elementary school did not relate to the parish sense of community, and neither did the sex or status of the principal.

            We also examined how the parish sense of community varied by the number of deacons. Some parish members say “if only” we had more priests, or more deacons, then we would all get along better. We wondered if the number of clergy might impact on the sense of belonging, as assessed by the SCI-2.In my national data set, 33.1% of parishes had one deacon, 28.7% had two deacons, 28.2% had 3 or 4 deacons, and 9.6% had 5 or more deacons. Results found no significant correlation between the number of deacons (or number of priests) and their perceived sense of parish community, as measured by the SCI-2 (and controlling for number of parish families).

So, you might ask: what does this mean? Why should we care? One reason to care is that churches experience issues of diversity and community-building, and handle them in different ways.  Study of church communities may provide information on various approaches to diversity and community-building work.  Community psychologists may be able to apply this information in other contexts, offering religious communities important skills in program evaluation and needs assessments. Partnering with deacons who are engaged in community service offers community practitioners and researchers access and resources not available before. Deacons who also are community psychologists offer religious communities an understanding of their faith, its traditions, and a way to blend the secular with the spiritual. Working with religious groups extends our reach, enhances our understanding of community, and may be a great place to launch solutions to community needs. As professionals, we need to understand how religion impacts our communities. As persons, we may want to consider how religion impacts our lives in serve to others.

Current Studies on Permanent Deacons:

Ferrari, J.R. (2014: November).  Reinstated, renewed, and now research: Exploring the personality,

            leadership, and life styles of permanent deacons. Deacon Digest, 28, in press.

Ferrari, J.R. “But, who do I say that I am?” The personality traits of Catholic deacons.

Ferrari, J.R. Religious commitment, spiritual transcendence, and the permanent deacon’s life:      

            Burnout or wisdom with age?

Ferrari, J.R. Size does not matter: Exploring the number of clergy on the parish sense of


Ferrari, J.R. & Dosen, A. The deacon’s perception of the parish sense of community: Impact of   

            school’s presence and principal characteristics.

Ferrari, J.R., & Vaclavik, D.S. Deacons as leaders: Sheep dog, guard dog, or … ?

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