An Order of Its Own

The Permanent Diaconateby By Kenan B. Osborne, O.F.M.Paulist Press. 214p $18.95

The permanent diaconate, a reality in the ecclesial structure of the church in the United States since its renewal by the Second Vatican Council, has been the topic of several volumes in the Paulist Press Deacon’s Library series. Kenan Osborne, O.F.M., emeritus professor of systematic theology at the Franciscan School of Theology, Berkeley, is a distinguished author whose past works include Christian Sacraments in a Postmodern World (1999).


There is no question that the evolving ministry of the permanent deacon in the United States continues to be in search of a theology. Nor is there any question that the deacons themselves find it difficult to articulate a clear personal identity. As Osborne points out, while the Second Vatican Council paved the way for the emergence of the diaconate after a hiatus of some 1,200 years, the actual implementation of the order has been left to the local bishop. Clearly this presents a problem for the development of the diaconate in the future.

Part I of this book, “Ministry and Leadership in the Latin Church Today: Contextual Considerations,” contains several chapters that lay a solid groundwork for discussing the identity of the deacon within the hierarchical structure of the church. Osborne sets the stage by calling for a clear articulation of the context in which one must view the diaconate. A “wide-ranging view of today’s institutional church and ministry,” he writes, provides this context. The author suggests that the ministry of all baptized-confirmed Christians, the papacy, episcopacy, priesthood, diaconate and lay men and women must be factored in to develop the context. This section of the book offers a well-crafted synthesis of each of the ministries as it unfolds, beginning with the Second Vatican Council. The chapters offer a solid foundation for continued discussion of the diaconate.

Significant to the discussion is the author’s ongoing exposition of the threefold ministry (priest, prophet, king) as found in each of the texts of the Vatican Council that relate to specific orders within the church. The redefinition of the episcopacy and of priesthood are presented clearly and at length as they have evolved since Vatican II. So, too, are the challenges that such redefinitions pose. Rather than see each order as separate from the other, Osborne stresses the need for a perspective of interrelationship that recognizes the role of each as carrying out the mission of Christ in some unique fashion.

In the chapter on the renewal of the permanent diaconate, Osborne identifies three areas that pose problems regarding the place of the deacon within the ecclesial structure. The first issue is at the theological level—namely, the relationship of bishop-priest-deacon. The second, at the pastoral level, is boundary issues, while the third, at the personal level, is the issue of self-identity. Throughout this chapter, Osborne focuses on the most significant issues related to the order of deacon today.

The following chapter, unfortunately, is devoted to a study of the emerging role of lay men and women in ministry today. While no doubt a challenge to the development of a unique ministry of deacon (the topic has already been discussed in a prior book in the Paulist Deacon Library), it diverts the reader from the primary focus of this book.

Part II, “Diaconal Ministry in a Post-Vatican II Church,” takes up various topics related, at some level, to those raised in the first part of the book—questions, for instance, related to deacon formation. The author appears to be under the impression that all deacons are being formed without a solid theological foundation. While this may be true of many, it is not universally so. Some dioceses provide graduate programs for those in formation.

Quite interesting are the chapters on deaconesses and on the anointing of the sick. Missing from the conversation is any development of the fact that the majority of permanent deacons are married men. This certainly has an impact on their self-identity as deacons and on the people’s understanding of clerical ministry.

Seen within the corpus of The Paulist Press Deacon’s Library, Osborne’s volume certainly has a place. Standing alone, however, as a single volume on the diaconate, it does not sufficiently cover the history of the order nor the questions related to its future development.


, is director of faith formation for the Diocese of Rockville Centre, N.Y.


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11 years ago
I wish to respond to Sr. Mary Alice Piil’s review of The Permanent Diaconate, by Kenan B. Osborne, O.F.M., (July 30), in which she hints at her personal displeasure with the diaconate, by her opening comment: “There is no question that the evolving ministry of the permanent deacon in the United States continues to be in search of a theology. Nor is there any question that the deacons themselves find it difficult to articulate a clear personal identity.” In the model of my personal theology of ministry, which is based on, not only 5-1/2 years of formation, my understanding of Tradition, Scripture and Church History, as well as the experiences I have had in my communities of faith and how that has helped to shape who I am, it has influenced how I think, speak, act and react. In the method of my personal theology of ministry, in how I am influenced to pastoral action, I see a three-fold stage of: listening attentively, discerning the values of my own needs (and respecting the needs of others), and acting with in a theological, biblical and pastoral response. Yet I am a person of great contrast. On one hand, I find myself being very orthodox in many of my theological and sacramental beliefs. Yet on the other hand, I find myself being very “liberated” in the expression of those theological and sacramental beliefs. I am a child of pre-Vatican II rubrics of “pray, pay and obey”. The dogmas and doctrines of that era did not identify my theology or my ministry; it simply dictated how I was to act. Expressing my personal theology was either stifled, suppressed, or simply ignored. When the windows of the Church were opened - and many contracted pneumonia from the breath of the Holy Spirit - I inhaled the fresh scents of permission to explore a personal faith journey; not one designed and preordained for me, but one in which I was allowed to explore the gifts that God has given me, demanded of me, to give critical thought to the ways in which the Church opens herself to me through scripture, tradition and my experiences. But, “Who am I?”, and "What is my ministry?". I see that I am the face of Jesus - disguised as Jim - reflecting God’s love, God’s forgiveness, God’s understanding, and God’s compassion. Being enveloped by God’s saving Grace is what it must be like when I see the face of Jesus in others, and sometimes, however briefly, in myself. I rejoice that, as relatively newly ordained, I strive to become an authentic deacon. With the tension between Ordination as the theology of ministry and Baptism as the theology of ministry, I see myself as a minister based on the theology of Baptism, a ministry of service to my community, through my own brokenness, serving those who are also broken. A deacon of the hierarchy I will be to some; a minister of the people, I hope to be for most. As stated in Lumen Gentium, we must answer the universal call to holiness, not just through ordination, but also through our baptism. However, while I do recognize that through ordination there is that outward sign of “authority” in exercising service and leadership, my initial call to be of service and leadership must come through my Baptism. Yes, I believe that I will eventually become an authentic minister, for I wish to live my life - my ministry - in the simplicity (and complexity) of the Sermon on the Mount and with the graces of the Holy Spirit. I need to preach from my own experiences, my authenticity of self, from my personal theology, making sure it is grounded in theological tradition, yet not solely from the theology of the hierarchy. Wanting to be an authentic minister, I am reminded that Second Vatican Council documents speaks clearly and lovingly of the shift in paradigm of faith from an observant member who is given their place, knows their place, accepts their place, and stays in their place, to a community of believers who participates in the mystical body of Christ - through baptism. We moved f


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