Formation Programme for the Permanent Diaconate
The Oscott programme for the formation of permanent deacons began in September 2005 and is still developing. It is open to candidates from the Archdiocese of Birmingham and any neighbouring dioceses who wish to participate. The programme currently has students from Birmingham, Nottingham, Portsmouth and Shrewsbury in formation, and the first deacons from the programme were ordained for the Archdiocese of Birmingham in July 2009. Building on the tradition of priestly formation at Oscott, the diaconate programme places the seminary resources at the service of developing the permanent diaconate in England and Wales and creates a diaconal formation community within the seminary community.
The Oscott programme is designed to promote a renewed vision of the permanent diaconate through a curriculum based on the specific intellectual, spiritual, pastoral and human needs of the deacon today.
Students for the permanent diaconate at Oscott follow a four-year programme which combines elements of distance learning and part time study. They are expected to attend eleven formation meetings at Oscott during the year alongside spiritual direction, private study, human formation and pastoral experience, all of which take place within their own diocese. The course is rooted in the theological tradition of the Church, summed up in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (paragraph 1554):
“The divinely instituted ecclesiastical ministry is exercised in different degrees by those who even from ancient times have been called bishops, priests, and deacons.” Catholic doctrine, expressed in the liturgy, the Magisterium, and the constant practice of the Church, recognises that there are two degrees of ministerial participation in the priesthood of Christ: the episcopacy and the presbyterate. The diaconate is intended to help and serve them. For this reason the term sacerdos in current usage denotes bishops and priests but not deacons. Yet Catholic doctrine teaches that the degrees of priestly participation (episcopate and presbyterate) and the degree of service (diaconate) are all three conferred by a sacramental act called “ordination,” that is, by the sacrament of Holy Orders”
These Church documents make it clear that the diaconate is a distinctive and ecclesial reality; an ordained ministry configured to Christ the Servant; a grade of holy order which communicates a specific sacramental grace and imprints an indelible character, and is dependent upon the bishop but in a special relationship with the priests of the diocese.
The focus of the Oscott programme, based on this teaching, is not only on the skills required of a deacon in the present pastoral and cultural environment, but also on developing ‘a diaconal heart’. This means that a deacon is helped to develop a strong sense of vocation and sacramental identity. Permanent deacons are formed to be to be ministers of the Word, of Charity and of the Altar, but a further explicit emphasis is placed on their role as agents of evangelisation within our culture and of new life in parishes and dioceses.
Formation of deacons is a natural extension of Oscott’s tradition of formation of priests and offers the opportunity for deacons to become part of the Oscott community and its tradition, and to develop their own formation community. While making use of Oscott’s experience of discernment and formation of vocations, it has been possible to create a completely new programme specifically designed to meet the needs of the permanent diaconate as it finds new roles within the Church. The diaconate is a distinctive order within the Church’s ministry, not a long-service award for leading laymen, nor a substitute for priesthood. The diaconate has its own sacramental identity, which the Church is in the process of rediscovering. The vocation of a deacon is to configure himself to Christ the Servant, giving his life in service to the Church, under the bishop.