A permanent deacon and his wife have taken over the day-to-day leadership of a Portuguese parish.

– Faro bishop says involvement of deacons and laity in parish leadership “should be a matter of principle”, not merely a response to shortage of priests

Last October 18, Deacon Nuno Francisco, a 44-year-old married father of two, took over the running of the parish of Odiáxere in the Algarve with the blessing of the local bishop and the local Jesuit community, which will provide sacramental support for the uncommon arrangement.

Though it is not the first time a parish in the Faro diocese has been entrusted to a permanent deacon, it is the first time such an arrangement has been made between the diocese and a religious order, diocesan newspaper Folha do Domingo reported.

According to Bishop of Faro Manuel Quintas, “the lack of vocations to the ordained ministry may well also be a sign that God is telling us to serve the Church in another way… with priests, with deacons, but also with laypeople”.

Quintas said that the involvement of deacons and laypeople in parish leadership “should not only be in situations of need”.

“It should be a matter of principle, not least of all because our priests have an increasing number of parishes and it is not possible, humanly and in terms of time, to accompany as they would like and as the communities need in the parishes that are under their responsibility”, the bishop explained.

– Local Jesuits: appointment a response “to the vision of the Second Vatican Council, which dreams of a more participative Church”

Quintas was careful to point out that lay leaders must have “adequate training” and must be “accredited to serve the community” – not as “pastors” but as “facilitators” of local parish life. But he said such appointments of lay leaders to parishes are happening more and more “in younger churches and [churches] in difficulty in terms of finding a priest”.

Not only is Bishop Quintas on board with Deacon Nuno’s appointment, but the Jesuits are too.

“This is for us a new experience which seems to correspond to the best collaboration we can give to the Diocese of the Algarve”, Portuguese Jesuit provincial Miguel Almeida told Folha do Domingo.

Stressing that it was “a privilege to find a community available to risk the newness which the Spirit inspires in the Church”, Almeida added that the Odiáxere parish “has the opportunity to be a precursor in an invitation for communities to live with more sharing of responsibilities and greater involvement of all”.

Quintas and Almeida both recognised that they had taken inspiration in Deacon Nuno’s appointment from the Latin American and African Churches, where it is more common that a non-priestly figure takes over the leadership of a parish community.

But beyond the question of geographical inspiration, Almeida stressed that the permanent deacon’s new role is a “response of the Spirit in the search for a more participative Church, more open to the concrete reality of people”, and also “an attempt to respond to the vision of the Church that comes from the Second Vatican Council, which dreams of a more participative Church in which the laity have an active role and not only as recipients [of ministry]”.

“We are trying to follow the path of Pope Francis, who invites us to consider how time is superior to space. Time allows us to begin projects which the Spirit leads”, Almeida further explained.

– Couple at the helm: “In the Church there are other paths” apart from priesthood, “a diversity of vocations”

For his part, Deacon Nuno said that he has had an eye on an appointment of this type since before he was ordained in June 2019, since during his path of formation for the permanent diaconate he and his wife Cristina, 42, “spoke a few times with the bishop about this, telling him that if there was a shortage, we would be available”.

Nuno, who also works as a schoolteacher, likened his previous service in the Odiáxere parish to that of “an older acolyte”, but celebrated that now his new appointment “has put into practice and made possible the enrichment of our diaconal vocation, and we hope the enrichment of this community too”.

“It didn’t make sense for us to say no”, added Cristina, who works as a nurse. “Of course we were stunned and afraid, but at the same time we have the inner conviction that by saying ‘no’ we would be nullifying the grace received during the sacrament [of holy orders]”.

“If we received a sacrament in order to serve, how then, called to serve the Church, could we say no?”, Cristina asked.

Cristina also expressed her hope that she and her husband could be witnesses above all to younger Catholics that other types of ministry in the Church apart from the ordained priesthood are necessary and appreciated.

“When one says: ‘I am not going to be a priest because I cannot get married’, [one must] realise that in the Church there are other ways, a diversity of vocations. Since the harvest is so great we must all put ourselves to use… we cannot stand still”, Cristina insisted.

“What we most desire is to be an asset because we are also aware that more than what we have to give, we will certainly have much more to receive in growth, wisdom and grace, in the hope that the Church will open itself more and more to this path” of more non-priestly leadership, Cristina concluded.

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PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.