The ministry of deacons has been intertwined with peacemaking from the church’s very beginning. Deacons in the early church worked to bring unity between Jews and Greeks, adults and seniors, the married and the widowed. The order was founded, Acts tells us (6:1-6), when the unity of the primitive church was threatened by disputes over inequities in the distribution of aid to the elderly. The Greek-speaking members of the community complained that their Jewish confreres were overlooking Greek-speaking widows in the allotment of food. In response, the apostles asked the community to set aside “seven men of good reputation, filled with the Spirit and with wisdom” to oversee support of the elderly.
In subsequent centuries, deacons continued to oversee the charitable work of the community. In so doing, they served the common good of the church and of society, and thereby preserved the unity and peace of both. Today deacons continue in that tradition when they administer the charity of the community, operate soup kitchens and food pantries, witness for justice and organize to defend human rights. They do so, too, when they build up bonds within the church across ethnic, racial and class lines, when they listen to the complaints of parishioners and when they mediate between conflicting tendencies within the parish. In building up the unity of the church, they help the church serve as a sacrament of unity for the world.
The Second Vatican Council defined the church as “a sacrament of communion with God and of the unity of humankind” (“Dogmatic Constitution on the Church,” No. 1). The church’s mission is to cooperate with the Spirit both in being a sign and an instrument of union with God and in promoting peace among people of “every race, language and way of life.” In some circles, Catholics’ grasp of their vocation to peacemaking has been growing rapidly over the past few decades, but in others it remains virtually unknown. Living in the world’s single superpower, many American Catholics have had their moral imaginations corrupted, so they are unable to think of themselves as fundamentally peacemakers. As Gerald Schlabach has written, the church’s teaching on peace must still become “church-wide and parish-deep.” It is essential to the deacon’s vocation that he make that teaching both “church-wide and parish-deep.”
It is characteristic of the Catholic imagination that it sees the potential for unity at work in the whole of human life. This is more true than ever in our time. Forty years ago, the “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World” took notice of “growing interdependence of men on one another,” and it urged “the promotion of this communion between persons...”(No. 23). “To men growing daily more dependent on one another, and to the world becoming more unified everyday, this truth [love for God and neighbor] proves to be of paramount importance” (No. 24). Accordingly, in the teaching of the council, our human vocation is a communitarian one; created as one human family, humanity has been redeemed by one savior, Jesus Christ, and is destined for a common end in glory as members of his one body. The work of peacemaking is able to build, therefore, on the dynamics of our interdependent world.
Pope John Paul II, likewise, saw “the positive and moral value of the growing awareness of interdependence among individuals and nations.” He also contended in his encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis that interdependence needs to be “accepted as a moral category” and transformed into the virtue of solidarity, “a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good....” John Paul, however, saw the dark side of globalization as well. The desire for profit and the thirst for power, he observed, constitute structures of sin preventing the development of people and their communities. These vices, he believed, may be overcome only by a “diametrically opposed attitude: a commitment to the good of one’s neighbor with the readiness, in the Gospel sense, to ‘lose oneself’ for the sake of the other....” Such a commitment is necessary, he wrote, to overcome the domination, exploitation and marginalization present in the existing international system.
In the 40 years since the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council, the church has also come to recognize the importance of the dimensions of peacemaking related to the nonviolent resolution of conflict. As John Coleman, S.J., has often argued, until recently the church’s own theory of conflict remained relatively underdeveloped, compared with its positive teaching on peace. In times of tension Catholics have found themselves thrown back, often prematurely, on the just war tradition. The church in the United States, for example, despite an extensive positive teaching on peace—particularly in terms of development and human rights—has been seen more frequently as deliberating the moral use of force than offering alternatives to war, though it did that, too. At other times, especially in the third world, church leaders have been thrown into the role of conciliators because of the credibility of their work in fields like human rights, but then found themselves bereft of tools and support as they attempted to exercise their responsibilities in conflict resolution. But that deficit over conflict resolution has begun to be filled. In 1993, in The Harvest of Justice Is Sown in Peace, the U.S. bishops recognized the place of nonviolence even in setting public policy in times of conflict, and third world bishops are increasingly finding ways in which to address the problems facing their people with active non-violent means.
The church’s peacemaking vocation is still unfolding. Pope John Paul II gave extraordinary examples of peacemaking in the interreligious days of prayer he convoked at Assisi; in his personal ministry of forgiveness, both to his own assassin and to those victimized by church authorities in the past; and, most of all, by his teaching and practice of nonviolence. Lay ecclesial movements like Pax Christi, the Community of Sant’Egidio and Focolare have been involved in a range of peace initiatives. Bishops, too, have served as national conciliators in civil wars and divided societies.
Deacons have much to offer this unfolding dimension of Catholic identity, the church as peacemaker. In parishes deacons function as leaders in social ministry and as preachers of the word. In their service to the needy of the community, they make manifest the unity of the church and of the entire human community, showing Christ’s new way of charity and solidarity with all people. Their work depends upon the virtue of solidarity, as they help bring people together, building networks that allow everyone to work and flourish together, creating the atmosphere of communion which is a foretaste of the kingdom of God. This ministry calls forth that virtue in fellow parishioners, coworkers, political and community leaders.
In their role as preachers, deacons have an extraordinary opportunity to explore with their congregations the church’s identity and mission as peacemakers. The faithful very much need a catechesis of peacemaking. Unfolding the peace themes in the Sunday readings needs to take place over time until they become familiar and second nature to people in the pews. It is too late to preach peace when war is at hand. Preaching the word of God is always a two-edged sword, but when listeners are well acquainted with “the Gospel of peace,” then we can expect the sword to cut cleanly, without bringing unnecessary division in the community.
Still, preaching peace is not an easy mission. In the midst of conflict, truth is hard to find and very hard indeed to speak. Christian peacemakers must struggle just to find the ground from which they can enter the conflict. As Jesus taught his disciples, priests and deacons must be ready to have their word of peace rejected (Mt 10:13).
In the pursuit of peace we need to avoid the illusion that religious peacemaking is as simple as putting flowers into gun barrels. It is not. Every religious peacemaker has experienced loneliness and rejection. Very often they have suffered persecution, been imprisoned and killed, like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. To be sure, we can take steps to prevent unnecessary divisions. We can and ought to be scrupulous about the sensitivities of the two sides. Recall Jesus’ admonition: “I send you as sheep among wolves. Be as wily as serpents and as innocent as doves” (Mt 10:16). At the same time, we must recognize that third parties will always be open to attack. Extremists on both sides and even pragmatic moderates, desirous of gaining just a little more advantage for their side, inevitably take the voices of reconciliation to task for failing them.
Imbued With Peace
In the Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius regarded peace, for those who had already turned to God, as a divine prompting, signaling God’s action in the soul. In prayer, according to Ignatius, peace functions as a confirmation of our inspirations and decisions. Yet the experience of peace is not separated from difficulty. Indeed, many of the great peacemakers of history, like St. Francis of Assisi and Gandhi, had their deepest experience of God’s peace in the midst of conflict. Often they have been visited with peace in prison cells and under torture. In John’s account of Jesus’ farewell discourse (Jn 14:27-31), the gift of peace is promised to the disciples in the hour of “the ruler of this world” as consolation in facing the conflict with the unbelieving world upon which they were to enter. For Ignatius, moreover, the experience of peace is to be found with the desire to be not only humble but even humiliated with Christ. Peace, as a spiritual affection and gift of the Spirit, is not incompatible with situations of risk and conflict; it is a resource motivating us to do great things for God.
Ignatius’ insights on peace offer lessons for deacons as they proceed in their ministry of peacemaking. First and foremost, peace is a gift of the Spirit. We can dispose ourselves to receive it, but we cannot reach out and grasp it. Through stillness in prayer and meditation, we open ourselves to God who bestows it. Ongoing discernment of spirits allows us to recognize and combat the evil spirits that move within and among us in times of tension, spirits of restlessness, divisiveness, anger, resentment and revenge. Carrying out our work for peace with humility and love for others, especially love for adversaries, further prepares peacemakers to receive God’s peace. And having discerned, we can put ourselves on the line, knowing that this is where God’s grace has led us. Always and at every step, we are in God’s hands.
Second, there is a unity of means and ends. If people want peace, they must not only be at peace themselves in all they do; they must also make use of the tools of peace. Self-certainty and self-righteousness are among the great risks of peacemaking. When people become too closely identified with their cause, however good, however right, they lose the capacity to love everyone deeply with God’s love; and in whatever good they do, they fail to sow the seeds of peace. In the end, if Christians want to be peacemakers, they must be imbued with peace—in their words, in their works and above all in their persons.
It was as he preached to his persecutors that St. Stephen, a deacon and the first Christian martyr, saw the Lord. Today’s deacons will be instruments of peace when, like St. Stephen, they too are willing to face hostility and rejection for the sake of the Gospel in meeting the challenges to the unity of the one human family found in today’s world.