05/18/2010 06:22 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

As Priests Decline, Deacons Step In

By Daniel Burke
Religion News Service

BALTIMORE (RNS) He's performed so many funerals, they call him "Burying Joe."

A recent Saturday afternoon found Joe Krysiak again at a cemetery, his white alb and paisley stole whipping in the wind as he recited the Rite of Christian Burial and sprinkled holy water drawn from a Smucker's jar on the ground below the flag-draped coffin.

The day and night before, Krysiak put in six hours at St. Anthony of Padua/Most Precious Blood, the joint parishes he runs in Baltimore, visited a sick parishioner in the hospital, and comforted a bereaved family at a funeral home.

Krysiak is on call 24/7 for his Catholic parishes, doing everything, or almost everything, a priest would do. But the spry 79-year-old is not a priest--he's a deacon.

"Everybody sees us on the altar and thinks we are almost like mini-priests," Krysiak said. "Nobody realizes all the things that deacons do."

For more than a millennium, the Roman Catholic Church relied on a corps of celibate priests to celebrate its sacraments, run its parishes, and offer spiritual guidance to its faithful. But the number of U.S. priests has plummeted from 59,000 in 1975 to 40,600 last year. Meanwhile, the country's Catholic population has grown to 65 million, leaving thousands of parishes without a resident priest.

At the same time, permanent deacons in the U.S. have swelled from seven in 1971 to an estimated 17,000 in 2010. Worldwide, the permanent diaconate has expanded roughly 30 times faster than the priesthood since 2000, according to the Vatican, with much of the growth attributed to the United States.

As recipients of one of the three levels of ordination in the Roman Catholic Church, permanent deacons can perform almost all the sacraments, except celebrate the Eucharist, absolve penitents and anoint the sick.

Both very old and very new, the permanent diaconate dates to the New Testament, but later became subsumed as a stepping-stone to the priesthood.

Permanent deacons must be male, at least 35 in most dioceses, and spend three to four years intensely studying church history, moral theology, Scripture, canon law, liturgy and other subjects. Most are not paid for their work.

Straddling the border between lay Catholics and the professional priesthood, between the sacred and secular world, deacons are God's middlemen, called to a busy life of holy service.

"When you take this step, you basically say 'There go my weekends, my friends, my life as I knew it,'" said Deacon Greg Kandra, who works in the Diocese of Brooklyn and writes the popular blog "The Deacon's Bench."

Increasingly, bishops are relying on deacons to serve tasks that were once the sole province of priests, such as celebrating marriages, preaching the Gospel, and running parishes.

More than 40 percent of U.S. dioceses entrust a deacon with the pastoral care of one or more parishes, according to a study published in April by Georgetown University's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. Often, a rotation of priests will celebrate Mass or hear confessions at these parishes.

"With the decrease in vocations to the priesthood that we experienced in the 1970s and '80s, we now have a dip in the number of priests," said the Rev. David Toups, interim director of the U.S. bishops' Secretariat on Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations. "By God's grace, deacons have been there to literally stand in the gap."

If the trend continues, it could have monumental consequences for the Roman Catholic Church.

"As more and more deacons filter into parishes that have fewer and fewer priests, the most familiar face in the Catholic parish is going to be a married man with children," said Kandra. "It's almost a back door to having a married priesthood."

Eastern Catholic priests and some clergy converts are married, but their numbers are a blip on the U.S. Catholic landscape.

Nine in 10 U.S. deacons are married, and the vast majority are retirees who often have more in common with parishioners than fresh-faced celibate priests straight from seminary, said Thomas Plante, a psychologist at Santa Clara University in California.

"Parishioners are drawn to deacons because they can relate better," said Plante, who studies and evaluates deacons for U.S. dioceses.

But some Catholics argue that permanent deacons are ordained for specific purposes and are not an appropriate answer to the church's priest shortage.

When Pope Paul VI and the Second Vatican Council began to revive the permanent diaconate in the mid-1960s, they expected deacons to work in the world, not the sacristy, said Deacon William Ditewig, a former executive director of the Secretariat for the Diaconate at the U.S. bishops conference.

After witnessing the horrors of the Holocaust and World War II, Catholic leaders were haunted by the question: Why couldn't the church stop this? Deacons--living exemplars of Christian service--formed part of their answer.

"If the church needs more priests," Ditewig said, "the church needs to find more ways to get more priests, not distort other ministries like the diaconate to fill that need."

When the U.S. bishops petitioned the Vatican for permission to begin training deacons in 1968, they gave five reasons, including the need for a "new group of devout and competent men" to provide liturgical and charitable services, particularly in large cities and rural towns "where few or no priests are available."

As he prepares for ordination next month, Dan Finn, a 60-year-old Marriott International executive who lives in Maryland, said he worries a bit about the looming responsibilities, particularly the pastoral and sacramental duties.

Will he correctly baptize new Catholics into the Church, make marriage ceremonies pleasing and profound for young couples, and find the right words to comfort grieving families?

"I quiver a little in terms of the responsibilities," Finn said. "Ordination raises the bar on the whole way you live your life."