A Need to Be Heard: The Voice of a Former Deacon

By Gerard Weigel

[continue from Vineyard article]

Jerry Weigel remarried six years after his wife of 56 years died. But first he had to be “laicized.” When the laicization came, he also was told to avoid his long-time parish in Somerset KY–a problem in such a small community. Here in his own words is why Dr. Weigel, a VOTF supporter, sees his case as part of a larger problem in the Church: the failure to listen.

If the last election taught a lesson, it is that people have a real need to be heard. While they realize that all their needs will not be met, they want to feel that at least someone was listening. Not having that happen can change the face of many things, as well demonstrated.

In much the same way, the seeming unwillingness to acknowledge that need to be heard is a real failing in our beloved Church, in big ways and in small. Sadly, it is turning thoughtful people away, and no one seems to care. There are few forums that invite dialogue for different outlooks on legitimately controversial issues in the Catholic Church. Most people do not want a democracy [in the Church], but they do seek benevolent and caring leadership.

Pope Francis is at least able to raise such questions as ordaining women to the Permanent Diaconate because he is the Pope, bless his soul. Others raise issues and support thinkers, but even those often seem voices crying in the wilderness.

On a more personal level, the wife of one of our grandsons left the RCIA group in which she had participated because she was told it was not the place to discuss the role of women in the Church. She only wanted to talk about it. Should it always be that people are left with a sense of “take it or leave it”?

Some of those issues affect large groups, others lesser numbers, and they are unlikely to garner attention unless someone at a higher level champions them, and that is a rare circumstance. I suggest as an example my own experience as a Permanent Deacon of 35 years who chose to be laicized in order to remarry.

Though our diocese is small, the same difficult decision had to be made by at least three other deacons in recent years. If it is reasonable to at least consider a Permanent Diaconate for women, would it not be as well to consider remarriage for current Permanent Deacons if that were their choice. There may be justifiable positions for disagreement; just be willing to talk about it.

When my wife died after 56 happy years, I had the opportunity to remarry and decided as I had many years before that my personality was better suited to living out the remainder of my life with female companionship while serving the Lord, even though I would have to sacrifice belonging to the Deacon community, which I cherished. It was necessary for me to be laicized, which turned out to be a much more complex process than I anticipated—taking more than two years because our bishop was transferred and no one could act in his place. At my age, we were clearly living on the edge but there was no one to talk to about it.

Ultimately word came from Rome that the laicization was approved but with certain provisions. One, I must avoid those places where my previous status as a deacon was known. That was difficult in our small town where there is but one parish. Was I to move to be in conformity?

Another, I was not to act as acolyte or lector and could under no circumstance distribute Communion anywhere. That was hard since it was my favorite ministry to the sick and shut-ins.

Also, I could not be involved in RCIA, and “some form of piety or charity was to be imposed” on me.

I must admit I thought Rome looked at me as an outcast in my parish, and totally lacking in loyalty, although they knew me not at all. It just didn’t seem to make sense.

I can truthfully say that this is not a matter of “sour grapes” (well, maybe just a little). I appreciated being a deacon and served as faithfully as I could. I had a very good relationship in our small parish community. I especially miss not being able to be a more intimate part of Baptisms and Marriages in our large nuclear family and being a part of friend’s funerals. I accept the need for standards and have tried to accept them while not always understanding them. I will try to be a true “son of the Church,” as the response to the petition suggested I should seek to be—and that apparently I had now somehow become less so when I asked to be laicized.

My purpose in speaking up now is to try to establish a dialogue among those in authority concerning the possibility that deacons whose wives have died might remarry and remain deacons.

Already, at the discretion of the local bishop, a dispensation can be requested for a deacon with young children, or with aged parents, or when a deacon is considered too valuable a resource for the diocese to lose. Does the latter suggest that being administratively important to the diocese is somehow more important than a deacon acting as a servant to the poor and needy, which Scripture suggests is his real purpose? Then it would seem that there is nothing ontologically contradictory about permitting a Permanent Deacon to remarry, and it does appear that the local bishop has considerable latitude in how he interprets the requirements that ask for exemption. Yet, with some exceptions, the edict from Rome is simply followed to the letter.

In its effect, ordination to the Permanent Diaconate is simply not the same as ordination to the priesthood. How big a jump would it be for the privilege [of an exemption] to be extended to all Permanent Deacons? Why not? Younger deacons who chose to remarry could continue their ministry rather than have the Church lose the benefit of their experience. It would seem to be a wonderful application of the mercy and understanding that Pope Francis encourages so much.

But where to begin? It seemed to me most appropriate to approach the Deacon Digest, the magazine of the Permanent Diaconate, with an article similar to this essay. Yet, despite the fact that I had written for this magazine in the past, there was no response. Nor was there a response to a follow-up letter. If it is not appropriate to have this conversation in the Digest, then where? It is hard for me to believe that other deacons would not have an interest in this idea. While large numbers may not be affected, for those who are it is very important.

Obviously this is being written in the interest of Permanent Deacons in the future. I considered it a privilege to be able to serve as a deacon and deeply regret my not being able to die as one. But I will be content if somehow, somewhere, there exists someone willing at least to talk about the idea for the sake of other Permanent Deacons.

More than that, [the silence about this issue] is a reflection of the larger problem, that too many of our people are leaving the Church simply because they want to be heard. Sadly, there is no one to listen.

You can read more about Dr. Weigel’s experience in the National Catholic Reporter.