Almost 37 years have passed since Pope Paul VI set in motion the restoration of the permanent diaconate with his apostolic letter of June 18, 1967, Sacram Diaconatus Ordinem. One year after the promulgation of that letter, the bishops of the United States began restoring the permanent diaconate in this country. But even with all that has transpired in the intervening years, there is still much misinformation and confusion concerning this ordained ministry, even about its role in the liturgy.
We are familiar with hearing about what sounds like two different diaconates. There are the “transitional” deacons, who are ordained deacons as an interim step toward priesthood; and there are “permanent” deacons, the deacons we often see ministering in parishes. Permanent deacons are usually married men well known in the community, husbands and fathers active in parish life, who have been ordained. Unfortunately, however—because the permanent diaconate had fallen out of sight for so many centuries in the church, and the only deacons Catholics knew were men who were “transitional” deacons—when permanent deacons re-emerged on the scene, they were often thought of as “mini-priests.” Both lay people and even some deacons themselves did not, and sometimes still don’t, understand the permanent diaconate.
In all fairness, much of this confusion is understandable. We are still in the process of renewing our understanding of the sacrament of holy orders in general. By returning the church to its roots, the Second Vatican Council gave the church a renewed understanding of church life in many different areas. Perhaps this sense of recovering an ancient understanding of ministry is the best way to approach a clarification of the meaning of the diaconate in the church’s liturgical life.
After Vatican II
What Vatican II initiated in this case can best be understood as the restoration of the order of deacons with its own identity. In other words, it must be seen as a full, permanent and stable order in its own right. There is only one order of deacons, as the praenotanda to the Rite of Ordination of Deacons make clear: “Since there is but one diaconate, it is fitting that even in the celebration of ordination no distinction be made on the basis of the status of the candidates” (No. 183). As one of the ranks within the threefold ministry of holy orders—episcopacy, presbyterate and diaconate—deacons have a distinct sacramental identity, which is tied to the sacramental identity of the church itself. Vatican II recovered the ancient notion of the church as servant to the world, the body of Christ that ministers to the world in order to help bring about its sanctification and redemption. This is the distinct sacramental identity of the deacon, ordained to diakonia, or service.
This mission of charity and service oriented toward the salvation of all people is highlighted in the ordination rite and is essential to understanding the restoration of the order of deacons. Unfortunately, many Catholics look upon a permanent deacon simply as a man who has been given permission (or even more unfortunately, the “power”) to dress in vestments and function liturgically, and then, incidentally, to do other things as well in the name of the church. Truly impoverished is the deacon who understands his ministry primarily as a liturgical one. Permanent deacons are not “mini-priests,” nor do they want to be.
Historically, a deacon was admitted to service at the eucharistic table because he served at the table of the poor. It was his service in and to the world that provided the context for his liturgical service. This is why, for example, the deacon is the one to announce petitions of the prayers of the faithful (the general intercessions). As one who worked directly with the sick, the poor and the needy in the community, the deacon intimately knew their needs and brought those needs to the attention of the praying community as a whole.
This also helps us understand the liturgical functioning of the deacon in general. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (No. 94) sees the deacon as holding “first place among those who minister in the eucharistic celebration.” Although a deacon cannot preside at the Eucharist (that is, he cannot “celebrate Mass”), the Roman rite envisions the deacon’s actions as a normative part of the Eucharist along with the ministries of reader, server and cantor. Thus the various roles that make up the body of Christ, not just the role of the priest-presider, show Christ’s presence more fully.
In one sense, the liturgical functioning of the deacon might be seen as a kind of “mediator” between the priest and the people. The functioning of a deacon as an ordained minister at Mass helps us to avoid a misguided overemphasis on the power of the priesthood—as if the role of the priest, though essential and irreplaceable, were the only important role at Mass. The deacon authentically sacramentalizes this role at the liturgy to the degree that he is intimately involved with those who are most in need of the church’s ministry—the poor, the sick and the needy. He is the link that helps the assembly “lift up their hearts” to the Lord in the eucharistic sacrifice. The suggested homily for the rite of ordination makes clear this connection between diaconal service and liturgical offering: “Holding the mystery of faith with a clear conscience, express by your actions the word of God which your lips proclaim, so that the Christian people, brought to life by the Spirit, may be a pure offering accepted by God” (No. 199).
It is exactly this presence in the world that gives the diaconate its unique sacramental identity. The deacon is one who is called to bring the ministry of the church—its mission of charity and justice—to the workplace, to the community, to the neighborhood and to all the places in which he lives and interacts with others daily.
The Good Deacon
What, then, are the qualities of a good deacon? While the following list is not exhaustive and not in any particular order of importance, I think these aspects represent a bare minimum.
An understanding of being called by God and a desire to pursue holiness. A man pursuing the diaconate must see his desire to serve as a true vocation. Essential to that calling is a commitment to the person and mission of Jesus Christ, a commitment that includes a willingness and ability to live such Gospel values as simplicity of life, compassion and forgiveness, humility and obedience. Inherent in this call to holiness is the mature understanding of his own identity as a disciple and as a deacon, not as a “mini-priest.” As such, it is obvious that the permanent diaconate is not something just for retired men. It is a calling to service and to ministry that is appropriate for a man of any age. Nor is the permanent diaconate just something that represents a “next step” for a man who has long been involved in parish life and is looking for the next thing to do. Rather, it is a gift to the church that has its own charism and brings its own contribution to the life of the church.
Willingness to be a man of the church. Deacons have a special relationship to the bishop. Their service to the church is through their relationship to the bishop and their obedience to him, promised at ordination. Since most permanent deacons serve in their home parish, some Catholics assume that they are ordained for their parish and are linked to their pastor, but this is not true. In my own diocese, Rockville Centre, for example, it is commonly understood that permanent deacons will not automatically serve in their home parish. Instead, they are assigned by the bishop according to the needs of the diocese, in order to allow them to function where they are most needed. Such an equitable distribution of deacons throughout the diocese is especially important with the ever-growing priest shortage and is also a more accurate reflection of our common life as a diocesan church.
This aspect of the diaconal vocation was described very powerfully to me by Thomas Bast, a deacon in our diocese who requested that our bishop transfer his assignment from his home parish—where he and his wife had resided for 25 years and where their children received most of their sacraments—to a parish that had just been “downsized” to a one-priest parish. Deacon Tom describes it thus: “My calling to the diaconate always involved an understanding on my part that the primary reason for becoming a deacon was to be of service where needed. It meant walking away from everything that was good and comfortable, but I kept coming back to my primary reason for answering the call to become a deacon—to serve where needed. All of this meant a greater sacrifice on my part. But isn’t that what diaconate is all about—to put the needs of others ahead of our own needs and wants?”
Willingness to be intimately involved with the needs of the sick, the poor and the needy. Given their call to sacramentalize the church’s mission of service, deacons must be in the midst of the community, serving the needs of the poor, the forgotten and the neglected. The traditional scriptural foundation for the church’s diakonia is found in Chapter 6 of the Acts of the Apostles, in which seven men of good repute are prayed over and have hands laid on them in order to minister to the Greek-speaking widows neglected in the daily distribution of food. Service at the table of the poor precedes, and in a sense is a prerequisite for, service at the altar. Without such service, the diaconate becomes an empty clerical rank within the church hierarchy.
In our diocese, men preparing for the diaconate are increasingly aware of this important aspect of their formation. Four deacon candidates traveled recently with two ordained deacons to our diocesan mission in the Dominican Republic. Thomas Reilly, one of the candidates, explained how the trip transformed his view of mission work from one of just a functional “giving money to poor people” to a real solidarity with them: “It was amazing how the people of the Dominican Republic illustrated that the people are the church,”he told me. “We have heard it stated before; many of us believe it to be true. But we had never experienced the spirit of church working through the followers of Jesus as clearly as on this trip. We learned that the table of the Lord can be a stool placed on a dirt floor and that Jesus can be fully worshiped there. You can see what love, devotion, community and celebration are all about.” The trip changed Tom’s entire outlook on preparation for ordained diaconal ministry. “We learned what it means to serve selflessly,” he said. “It was a great opportunity to witness that service is not only a privilege, but also a pleasure.”
The ability to be a “man of community,” calling forth the gifts of all the baptized. As one who has a foot in both worlds,the world of the laity and the clerical world, the deacon is in a unique position to build up the body of Christ and promote the gifts and ministries of all the baptized. The deacon must be especially aware of both the individualism and anti-institutional bias rampant today: he must be one who gives witness to the necessity of communion and our responsibility to one another in the body of Christ.
The personal integrity to balance family, work and service to the church. As an ordained minister, the deacon has the responsibility to give public witness in the name of the church by following Christ in all areas of his life—his marriage, his family, his secular occupation and his style of life. This is a daunting task. The homily in the rite of ordination says it well: “Like those once chosen by the Apostles for the ministry of charity, you should be men of good reputation, filled with wisdom and the Holy Spirit. Firmly rooted and grounded in faith, you are to show yourselves chaste and beyond reproach before God and man, as is proper for the ministers of Christ and the stewards of God’s mysteries” (No. 199).
The ability to be a man of the word. Although his ministry is supposed to be much broader than just the liturgical ministry of functioning at Mass, the fact is that most people come into contact with deacons in precisely this role, as ministers of the word at Mass. It is the deacon who is charged with proclaiming the Gospel during the celebration of the Eucharist. But as with his service at the table of the altar, this ministry at the table of the word should stem from his being a man of the word in every aspect of his life. In the ordination rite, the ordaining bishop places the book of the Gospels in the hands of the newly ordained deacon and says, “Receive the Gospel of Christ, whose herald you have become. Believe what you read, teach what you believe, and practice what you teach.” A deacon is also empowered to preach at Mass. Thus, as a minister of God’s word, the deacon must allow the power of Scripture to pervade every aspect of his life. He must constantly be meditating on the word and applying it to his life so that by both preaching and example he shows how the word of God can be active in the hearts and minds of all who follow Christ.
Ministry to the World
Seeing the order of deacons as a separate and distinct order lies at the heart of understanding this ordained ministry. There should be no desire, then, to ordain permanent deacons as priests as an answer to the priest shortage, since this would make the diaconate nothing more than a stepping-stone or a mini-priesthood. The church is ill served when all three levels of holy orders—bishop, priest and deacon—are not fully evident in the community. Jesus Christ is most fully sacramentalized in the church’s ministry to the world only when the order of diakonia is fully understood, recognized and appreciated as a stable, permanent order of its own.