St Mary’s University College, Twickenham hosted a successful assembly and conference of permanent deacons, their wives and others involved in the formation of deacons from Friday 24th – Sunday 26th June. Those attending were mostly from England and Wales, but there were also participants from Scotland, Ireland, the Netherlands, Germany, Sweden and Lithuania.
On the first evening the participants gathered in the University College Chapel, scene of the visit of Pope Benedict XVI in September of last year, and were officially welcomed by Prof Philip Esler , Principal of St Mary’s, who in his address referred to the role now played by the University College in the formation of deacons. He also drew attention to St Mary’s heritage of providing a Catholic education to the poorest in society, drawing on biblical models. The gathering was then briefly addressed by Deacon Erik Thouet, Director of the International Diaconate Study Centre in Rottenburg, the official worldwide study institute on the permanent diaconate.
The first keynote address on the Friday was given by the Revd Prof Michael Hayes , Vice-Principal at St Mary’s and President-designate of Mary Immaculate College in Limerick. He referred to the partnership between The Pastoral Review (of which he is editor) and the new journal of the North European Circle of the International Diaconate Study Centre, the New Diaconal Review. He went on to illustrate how our understanding of pastoral ministry in the Church needs to be informed by sacramental imagination, the notion of koinonia (communion) and the idea of hierarchy – these all help us discern the ministry of deacons.
The second keynote address on the Saturday morning was given by Prof Bill Cavanaugh, Senior Research Professor in the Center for World Catholicism and International Theology at DePaul University, Chicago, and author of the acclaimed work Torture and Eucharist. He spoke of the necessity for our theology of the Church to be properly grounded in our theology of the Eucharist, to enable the baptised to be become fully the real Body of Christ on earth – and deacons have a key role to play in this because of their threefold ministry of Word, Eucharist and Charity.
Cardinal Keith O’Brien, Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh, was the Principal Celebrant at Mass on the Saturday. In his homily he spoke of the link for deacons between the sacraments of Holy Order and Matrimony, and how both speak to the world powerfully of love and commitment. In the afternoon a number of workshops took place simultaneously: Dr Anthony Towey , Head of the School of Theology, Philosophy and History  at St Mary’s led a Biblical reflection, drawing on Genesis, the Old Testament and the ministry of Jesus, linking these to the role of deacons.
Mrs Louisa Warren, Talent Management Practice Consultant at the Gallup organisation, spoke about how the StrengthsFinder programme has been used in the diaconate formation programme linked to the University College. Deacon Duncan Macpherson, a well known teacher and writer on preaching, led a well supported preaching workshop, concentrating on practical advice to the deacon preacher. Dr Benas Ulevicius, Dean of the Faculty of Catholic Theology at the Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas led sessions which described diaconal work being pioneered with different groups of young people in Lithuania.
The third keynote speaker, Prof Joseph Wissink, Professor of Practical Theology at the University of Tilburg in the Netherlands, was unable to attend because of a family bereavement, and his address, Messenger from the World to the Church, reflected on the opportunities for the deacon’s ministry in the light of Vatican II’s constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes.
At Vespers and Benediction for the beginning of the feast of Corpus Bishop Paul Hendricks, Auxiliary Bishop in Southwark, preached about the role of deacons in his experience as a bishop and, before that, as tutor to diaconate students. This was followed by a banquet in the 18th century Waldegrave Drawing Room (scene of Pope Benedict XVI’s meeting with other faith leaders) at which Prof Hayes spoke and additional entertainment was provided by Ignatius Kusiak, publisher of the Tablet and The Pastoral Review, who were sponsoring the conference.
On the Sunday morning there was a meeting of the wives of deacons, and the launch took place of the latest book of Dr Duncan Macpherson, The Splendour of the Preachers. The final session was a lecture on the pastoral care of the widows of deacons given by Mrs Nelleke Wijngaards-Serrarens, formerly Vice-Director of the Deacons’ Formation programme for the Archdiocese of Utrecht. The assembly and conference ended with Mass for the feast of Corpus Christi where the Principal Celebrant was the Archbishop of Westminster, the Most Revd Vincent Nichols. In his homily he focused on the meaning of the specific role and words spoken by the deacon during the celebration of the Mass.
All the addresses and lectures will be published in the November 2011 edition of the New Diaconal Review