Program Overview

Ancient Tradition Begets New Life

Maryknoll partnership with deacons and their wives ignites flame of mission for all

By Matt Dulka

In the 50 years since Vatican II, one development that has taken off in the United States is the restoration of the permanent diaconate. Today there are more than 16,000 deacons living and working in almost every U.S. diocese.

Most people are surprised to hear that the call to restore permanent deacons can be found in Vatican II's document on mission, Ad Gentes. What is the connection between deacons and mission? And how is it related to a new partnership initiated by Maryknoll to reach out to deacons and their wives?

The connection between deacons and mission dates back to the Acts of the Apostles, which recounts the Apostles laying hands on seven men and commissioning them to correct an injustice in the early Christian community of Greek widows not receiving their share of the daily distribution of food. One of these deacons, Philip, was moved by the Spirit to also become one of the first missionaries, proclaiming the Good News in Samaria. Over time, the role of permanent deacons disappeared in the West, as the order of deacon became the last step in priestly ordination.

When the permanent diaconate was restored in the late 1960s, this rich missionary history was captured in the understanding that "the deacon's ministry of service is linked with the missionary dimension of the Church." As the diaconate began to grow throughout the United States, it was inevitable that Maryknoll missioners in their own efforts to reach out to the U.S. church would bump into deacons.

One of Maryknoll's early experiences with deacons came in 2000, when I was ordained a permanent deacon for the Diocese of Oakland, Calif. I was working full-time with the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers as a mission promoter. My bishop, John Cummins, was delighted to assign me to Maryknoll and saw the relationship as mutually beneficial. At Maryknoll, many thought it was great to have a deacon onboard, but they didn't seem to know what to do with me as a deacon. One benefit was that I could preach about mission in the parishes.

It became obvious that deacons' focus on service, proclamation of the Word and performing works of charity and justice made them natural Maryknoll partners in mission. Although deacons' wives do not have an official ministry in the Church, most accompany their husbands throughout formation. After ordination, many deacons and their wives look for opportunities to minister together.

In 2008, about the time the Maryknoll Society was beginning to consider a more intentional involvement with deacons and their wives as part of its efforts to engage U.S. Catholics in mission, two deacons and their wives from the Norwich, Conn., Diocese asked if the Society could help them get better connected with mission.

One of the deacons, Dennis Dolan, remembers, "As a state prison chaplain, I knew that there was a mission dimension to my ministry, but I was looking for a formal connection to global mission. Maryknoll naturally came to mind." This interest generated a series of four annual retreats and gatherings at Maryknoll for deacons and their wives from around the country. Their enthusiasm for mission was evident and contagious.

These gatherings confirmed that deacons and their wives want more information about their role in mission. Thus, the Maryknoll Deacon Mission Partners Program was born last year.

"We are called to go out and bring the Church to people everywhere we go," says Deacon Jim Krupka from Michigan. "By the nature of our lives in families and jobs, deacons go where bishops and priests cannot. That is mission. We can enable American Catholics aching to respond to their own Gospel call to connect with people beyond their reach. Maryknoll helps make solidarity real, and through Maryknoll I consistently see people—ordained, religious and lay, men and women—living the Gospel in a way that makes the Church of the Acts of the Apostles alive."

This year the Maryknoll Society will be involved in deacon formation programs in Seattle, Los Angeles, New York and the San Francisco Bay Area and hopes to reach out to more dioceses with its mission education programs.

Deacons and their wives have discovered that one of the best ways to experience mission is through immersion trips. Deacon Joe Symkowick, a deacon from Sacramento, Calif., who worked with Catholic Relief Services, and his wife Patty, a Maryknoll Affiliate, participated in a Maryknoll immersion trip to Jamaica. "It was deeply moving," he says. "We were sent to Jamaica. We accompanied those there. We left Jamaica, but we are now one with those in that place. As one, we all continue to accompany one another in one Spirit. Mission is all about this cycle continuously repeating itself whether the place is our own parish, the neighboring parish or a community overseas."

When a deacon begins to see himself as a missionary, it encourages all Catholics to realize their own call to mission that comes from baptism. Deacon Leonel Yoque, a native of Guatemala and a deacon for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles who works with Maryknoll as a full-time mission promoter, feels the connection to Maryknoll has enriched his diaconal ministry. "I started to call myself a 'missionary deacon' when I preach," he says. "It has been an eye-opener for people to hear that I'm a missionary. It opens the opportunity for them to expand their understanding of mission and challenges them to see themselves as missionaries." In this Year of Faith, with an emphasis on a new evangelization, deacons and their wives are strategically placed to ignite a new passion for mission.

Last year, to widen the circle to more deacons and their wives, Maryknoll Superior General Father Edward Dougherty sent them a letter asking them to consider joining the Maryknoll Deacon Mission Partners Program. He explained that the program would offer them mission formation programs, opportunities to participate in immersion trips, resources for developing a spirituality grounded in mission and support to place their own ministries in the context of the Church's universal mission.

Just as the permanent diaconate is still evolving in the U.S. church, the role of deacons and their wives in mission is also evolving. We hope these efforts will not only bear fruit in deacons and their wives as mission animators in their parishes and dioceses, but that eventually they will serve in mission overseas.

Today I am not the only deacon working with Maryknoll. Besides many joining as Deacon Mission Partners, there are four permanent deacons ministering full-time with the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers and two part-time. Another full-time mission promoter hopes to be ordained a deacon next year.

In its more than 100-year history of engaging and supporting the Church in the United States to participate in the mission of Jesus, the Maryknoll movement has involved priests, Brothers, Sisters, lay missioners, Affiliates and now deacons and their wives. While this is in some ways a new development, it brings us back full circle to the early Christian community and the important role Philip and other deacons played in mission.

Find out more about the Maryknoll Deacon Mission Partners Program at

Matt Dulka is in full-time ministry with the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers as Associate Director for the Church Engagement Division and Mission Promotion and together with Deacon Dennis Holley, co-directs the Maryknoll Deacon Mission Partners Program.