James Phelan: living his vocation through the Permanent Diaconate


Permanent Diaconate News Story
Deacon James Phelan with his wife, Patricia, and their family.

By Virginia Knight

As a permanent deacon for the Catholic Diocese of Parramatta, James Phelan sees his ministry as a bridge between the priests and the people of God.

“We personalise the role of the servants of Christ and imitate Him in our ministry as a servant of the people of God,” he said.

While the diaconate has really been around since the days of the early apostles, the Permanent Diaconate was founded in 1972 by Pope Paul VI. Prior to that, the ministry was a stepping stone for those on the path to priesthood – transitional deacons.

The establishment of the Permanent Diaconate opened up holy orders to married men who felt called to a life of ordained ministry.

In the Diocese of Parramatta, it is open to single men over the age of 21; or 35 years and over if married. As servants of the altar, word and charity, permanent deacons are seen in their ministry proclaiming the Gospel, assisting at the altar and presiding over celebrations of the sacraments at marriages, baptisms and funerals.

Their ministry also includes pastoral care, often as chaplains in hospitals, aged care facilities and prisons or wherever there is a need for the clergy to be involved on a day-to-day basis.

This aspect of the ministry focuses on the needs of those who are infirm, poor or disadvantaged, assisting through counselling, spiritual advice and advocacy.

“Our ministry is not limited to any one group, but is broad enough to be there for anyone who needs it,” James said.

“It is a broad call to ministry wherever there is a need for Christ to be present.”

At present, our Diocese has seven serving permanent deacons, several who are retired and several who, with their wives, are in formation.

“In our Diocese the Permanent Diaconate is made up of men who maintain their normal working lives in order to support their families,” James said.

“Their ministry is done, in the most part, in their spare time. The exception to that is, of course, those retired men who can become more involved because they have more free time.”

James works full-time in his ministry as a chaplain based at both Mt Druitt and Auburn hospitals, a role he has held for 15 years. He has also worked part time in parish ministry at Winston Hills, Rooty Hill, Dundas Valley, Blacktown and now at Harris Park.

In the service of God and care of His people

Permanent Diaconate News Story
Permanent Deacon James Phelan:
“I could not have done it without the support of my wife and family.”
Photo: Alphonsus Fok & Grace Lu

Before joining the diaconate, James had always been involved in parish life, through home visitation, Eucharistic ministry and many years as an acolyte.

“You would expect men offering themselves for the diaconate to have already been involved in their home parishes and have some form of ministry experience, either as an acolyte, part of the sacramental team, or in pastoral care,” James said.

“Otherwise, they would have no idea what they were taking on after ordination.”

However, being a deacon is never really a part-time ministry, but a 24-hour commitment to a vocation in the service of God and care of His people.

For married men, no candidate can be ordained without the full support of his wife and family.

James and his wife, Patricia, work together as a team, a relationship that is essential to allow him to devote the time to his ministry.

“She goes to all the Masses and is very involved in every aspect,” James said.

“Men considering the diaconate have to consider the sacrament of marriage and their obligations that go with that. I don’t believe I could have done it without the support of my wife and family. Patricia encouraged me and is my greatest support.”

James explains that the period of discernment is a time of prayer and discernment as a couple, as it obviously takes both personal and family commitment.

Preparation takes place over a minimum of four years with candidates completing full-time studies in theology, pastoral care, spirituality and formation. Part-time study options are also available.

Wives are encouraged to complete the Certificate in Pastoral Formation with their husbands at the Parramatta Institute for Mission and often go on to further study themselves. Many pursue their own interests and also work in parish ministry.

James believes that we should constantly be praying for all vocations.

“Sometimes we can be single-minded about the call to vocation and focus the priesthood and religious life,” he said.

“Just as important are the vocations of marriage and family as those who aspire to be in religious orders and the priesthood. After all, without vocation to family, there would be no candidates for priesthood.”

James said he combines his vocation to his marriage and family with his vocation to God in the service of all His people; and in this Year of Grace follows the call to see the face of Christ in all those you meet.

The Permanent Diaconate

A God-given calling to ordained ministry, open to married and single men.

In the service of the Liturgy, the Word and Charity

For more information about the Permanent Diaconate in the Catholic Diocese of Parramatta, contact:

Rev Dr Arthur Bridge AM

Director of Vocations for the Permanent Diaconate

Tel (02) 9637 1062


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