Wives of Deacons
by Dr Nelleke Wijngaards-Serrarens
Published in Briefing, vol 32, issue 4, 10th
April 2002, pp. 35-37.
Republished on our website with the necessary
Firstly, I would like to thank you for your invitation to attend your assembly as a representative of the board of the International Diaconate Centre (IDC). When Mgr Austin Hunt invited me, I asked him whether it would be possible to say a few words about the wives network. I am very honoured to get a good opportunity to talk about that network.
I would like to introduce myself. In short, I live in the Netherlands, in Arnhem, with my husband Aloys. We have three children and three grandchildren. I am a sociologist and for eighteen years my husband and I have been responsible for the formation of permanent deacons in the Archdiocese of Utrecht. I am the vice-delegate for the diaconate and coordinator of practical training (exposure and pastoral).
In April 2001, I was elected to the board of the IDC as the representative of deacons wives. My predecessor, Sheila Callaghan, well known to you all, helped me to create the IDC wives network at the IDC Conference at Salzburg, Austria. In July, she came over to the Netherlands to talk over several important issues and opportunities to expand the network.
The wives network
The wives network is intended as a platform to exchange ideas and experiences of wives (and families) of deacons. Its aim is also to be an international bond of friendship and support for wives all over the world. At the meeting in Salzburg a lot of issues were raised, for example:
Where do we experience joy and fulfilment in the diaconal ministry? What are the main problems for us and our families?
How do we support our husbands - in what fields and to what degree?
How do we keep our own identity whilst supporting our husbands? We must be able to choose our own level of involvement.
Would it be possible to organise a meeting for wives in our own dioceses to share positive or problematic experiences?
How do we succeed in expanding the international wives network?
In September, I sent a set of questions and ideas to the members of the network. I am very happy to say that several wives from different countries have had the opportunity to talk over those questions and give me a report of the results.
Most wives experience the diaconate as an enrichment for their lives. They support their husbands wholeheartedly, but in different ways and degrees. This is the basic positive experience of many couples. It is very important to keep this statement in mind when talking about other findings.
Most wives agree that it is essential to give a lot of attention to the feelings and expectations of the wife and the family too, right from the beginning and through the whole formation period. After years of marriage, the husband is entering a new and intensive process in the direction of the diaconate. That has consequences for the whole family. An open communication between husband and wife, and also with the children, about all the ins and outs is of utmost importance.
Here also lies a big responsibility for the bishops delegate and the formation leaders to offer many opportunities for wives: for example, to follow the courses, to organise meetings to talk over and discuss several questions and issues. In my opinion, many wives are really interested in the diaconate, but think that they are the only ones with a certain question or problem. When they have a chance to speak to each other about it, it is often a relief to know that questions or doubts are generally recognised by other wives or couples.
A meeting with wives of already ordained deacons can also be very helpful. In some dioceses, there is the possibility of bringing the children to the formation centre, where there is a Kindergarten during the courses. In general, it is important to have several opportunities to participate, but each couple has to decide for itself what they and their family want or can do. There is not one standard model that is ideal. Most important is the regular and open exchange of experiences of husband and wife, also with regard to their spiritual process.
The ordination, which is a very impressive and spiritual event, is also the start of a new life for the deacon, but also for his wife and children. The husband and father is now not only a member of the family, but also of the clergy. For some women and children, for example, it can be a little bit of a shock when their husband is addressed as Reverend! Some wives report a sense of loss and loneliness after the ordination.The relationship with the parish members can change because of the ordination and that calls for adjustment. It is very important that not only the deacon and church authorities talk about the size of the appointment the deacon will receive, but that there is a consultation with the family too, especially in the case of deacons with jobs.
At the end of the IDC Conference in Salzburg, Archbishop Vlk, at that time chairman of the Commission of European Bishops Conferences, stated that it is very important to remember that for deacons their marriage and family will always come first, then their jobs, followed by their work for the Church. Besides, you are also a deacon in your neighbourhood and at your work!
Most wives support their husbands enormously in their work as deacon, by giving him the opportunity to go and engage in the care for the lonely and sick, and sometimes by working hard in the Church themselves. You can really say these are diaconal couples! Inspired by their faith and their will to live in the footsteps of Christ, they live and work together for people in need, for the lonely, the poor, for disadvantaged children, for the homeless.
But there are several models with different levels of involvement, and model A is not essentially better than model B or C or Z. It is very important that the wife can develop her own identity and choose her own level or sort of involvement. Of course that also goes for the children. Besides, there are also important and worthwhile tasks outside the Church.
From the reports coming from different dioceses and countries there are some very valuable ideas and advice. In several dioceses, but not at all everywhere, there are meetings of wives with the opportunity for exchange of ideas and experiences; also days of spirituality especially organised for wives, or conferences with programmes for husbands and wives, and also for wives only.
In the reports, it is emphasised how important is an open and regular communication in the family - communication about and evaluation of the different tasks and responsibilities, compared with the appointment. Often the work of the deacon is expanding and taking more and more time. And sometimes the amount of time that he can spend at home and with the family is under pressure.
Therefore, it is most important to have an open communication about the different tasks and needs and the consequences of the dedication regularly. I do not want to be pessimistic, but one has to be realistic. From research in Germany and Sweden for example, it can be concluded that the divorce rates for vicars are among the highest in these countries. Therefore, not a negative approach but a prudent one: open and honest communication.
The same goes for the relations with the parish and especially the parish priest. Sometimes it is new for them to have a married minister whose bonds are not only with the parish but first and before all with their families and their job. More than often the expectations of the extent of time the deacon can give to the parish are enormous, and sometimes that also goes for his wife. So be firm and honest and evaluate regularly.
In this context I like to refer to the lecture given by Deacon Owen Cummings at the International Diaconate Conference in Liverpool in 1995. In Images of the Diaconate, he also speaks about dysfunctional traits that may exist in the relationship with the deacons family: for example, messianism and exemplarisrn. Messianism is the attitude that without me, the deacon, the Church will fall apart. The messianic deacon wants to be involved in everything that is taking place in his parish or community. If I dont do it myself, nothing will get done.You can imagine what the impact of such an attitude is on the life of the family of the deacon (and on the deacon himself).
The second trait Cummings refers to is exemplarism. Exemplarism, he states, happens when a deacon feels that he and his wife and family need to be flagships of familial propriety and domestic perfection: no harsh words, no relationship difficulties, attendance at every parish and diocesan event, etc. Exemplarism is unfair both to the deacons family and to himself because it imposes unrealistic expectations, and the failure to realise them becomes a major source of stress, personal and familial.
As I stated above: you can avoid a lot of serious problems by being open and honest with each other and have a regular evaluation about how things are going and about priorities. In most cases, the wife and family support their husband and father in the diaconate in a great and loyal way. They know how essential his vocation as deacon is in his life but in their lives as well. Compassion, solidarity and dedication to people constitute a Christian mission for all of us. They are also a source of human and spiritual growth and fulfilment, and create a strong bond between people. In this sense the diaconate can be a real blessing to a couple and family.
There is still one major point that I want to give attention to. It was a real shock for me to discover how many couples in dioceses all over the world do not know about the dispensation grounds for remarrying after a deacon becomes a widower. A lot of people think that a deacon cannot marry again when his wives dies. In the first decades after the reinstitution of the diaconate there were three grounds for dispensation, of which all had to count together: the great and proven usefulness of the deacon for his diocese; the presence of young children who need the caring of a mother; the presence of old parents or parents-in-law who need caring for.
In his letter of 3 June 1997, Archbishop Estevez declares, in the name of the Pope, that in case of widowhood each of the three criteria separately can now be a ground for dispensation. In my experience, it was a real matter of conscience for a lot of couples. Could they go down the path in the direction of the diaconate if it was impossible for the husband to marry again when the wife and mother died? It is very important to make this known to people interested in becoming a deacon, and also to couples in and after formation and ordination.
The creating of the international network of wives of deacons gives an opportunity to exchange ideas and experiences. It is also a way of support and friendship all over the world. There were already several reports from different countries which had a lot in common:
Developing together in spirituality and sharing experiences in the formation period, but also after the ordination, is extremely important.
There is a great willingness on the part of wives to support their husbands in the diaconate in very different ways, and they experience joy and fulfilment in doing so. But they also experience the need to keep their own identity and choose their own level of involvement.
All agree that an open and regular communication between husband and wife, with the family and with the parish, is of utmost importance.
A combined idealistic and realistic approach to the diaconate can bring forward a way of living and caring in solidarity, which is a blessing for all involved, for the society and for the Church.
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