Monthly Archives: October 2020

Reconfiguring the image of the permanent deacon

Much has been written recently about the need for a more profound theology and spirituality of the permanent diaconate. I would like to propose several dimensions of the permanent diaconate that we might want to consider. I offer these thoughts not as the final word, but as starting points for reflection. These thoughts come from my formation, my reading, and from my experience as a celibate permanent deacon in a rural parish in southwestern Honduras.

I invite others to a discussion to help clarify our calling.


First of all, ordination to the permanent diaconate is a deepening of the vocational call of all the baptized to be members of Christ, prophet, priest, and servant/king. 

The call to holy orders – as deacon, priest, or bishop – should not be considered separate from our call to be members of the Body of Christ that we received at Baptism. Separating the theology of holy orders from the theology of baptism could lead to a failure to consider he saving power of God in the sacrament of Baptism and the call to follow Christ of every baptized person. 

In our diocese here in Honduras, ministry is organized in terms of the prophetic, the liturgical, and the social – because these are what we are baptized into, as member of the Body of Chrsit. 

In the prayer before anointing the newly baptized child with Holy Chrism, we pray: 

Les unja con el crisma de la salvación, para que se incorporen a su pueblo y sean para siempre miembros de Cristo, Sacerdote, Profeta y Rey.” 

“May He anoint you with the Chrism of Salvation, that you may be incorporated into His people and be forever members of Christ, Priest, Prophet, and King.”

(My translation from the Spanish.)

As I see it, the deacon is ordained to live this baptismal call in a special way, with an emphasis on being the servant. For me the diaconate is trying to live as evangelizer, servant of the poor, and minister at the altar.


Secondly, the deacon is ordained to the ordering of the community and to be a driving force for the diakonia of the whole church. 

I recently finished reading a work from the early 1960s by Yves Congar, OP, Power and Poverty in the Church. I heartily recommend this small book. At several points he puts the sacrament of orders in perspective:

“St. Paul expressly says that ordained ministers organize the ministry of the saints, that is, of Christians, (Eph 4:23). They organize it, but they also invigorate and animate it and drive it forward. They are the drivers and the governors of the Body in that condition of responsibility and universal service that is the Christian condition itself.”  

Yves Congar, OP, Power and Poverty in the Church, p. 45.

One is ordained for the ordering of the People of God in its evangelization, its charity, and its prayer in common (the liturgy, the work [ergon] of the people [laos]).

Thus, the sacrament of orders is for ordering the community and assuring that the Church reflects who it is. It is not insignificant that the diaconate is called to be the animator, the driving force for diakonia, as both Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II affirmed.


Thirdly, the deacon has a special relation to the bishop and in the early church was spoken of as “the eyes and ears of the bishop”. I think this has dimension has not been developed sufficiently. 

Take note of this passage from Pseudo-Clement, from his letter to James, chapter 12

“Moreover, let the deacons of the Church, going about with intelligence, be as eyes to the bishop, carefully inquiring into the doings of each member of the Church, ascertaining who is about to sin, in order that, being arrested with admonition by the president, he may happily not accomplish the sin. Let them check the disorderly, that they may not desist from assembling to hear the discourses, so that they may be able to counteract by the word of truth those anxieties that fall upon the heart from every side, by means of worldly casualties and evil communications; for if they long remain fallow, they become fuel for the fire. And let them learn those who are suffering under bodily disease, and let them bring them to the notice of the multitude who do not know of them, that they may visit them and supply their wants according to the judgment of the president. Yea, though they do this without his knowledge, they do nothing amiss. These things, then, and things like to this, let the deacons attend to.”

(Found in the Compendium of the Diaconate: Kindle Location 1849 ff.)

I would like to suggest that the recovery of the diaconate as a permanent state offers a new way of doing this.

It is notable that the Vatican II restoration of the diaconate owes much to the discussions in the priest block at the Dachau concentration camp. Many of the priests there lamented the failure of the church to recognize the evil of Nazism. As Deacon William Ditewig wrote: 

“Following the war, these survivors wrote of how the Church would have to adapt itself to better meet the needs of the contemporary world if the horrors of the first half of the 20th Century were to be avoided in the future. Deacons were seen as a critical component of that strategy of ecclesial renewal. Why? Because deacons were understood as being grounded in their communities in practical and substantial ways, while priests and bishops had gradually become perceived as being too distant and remote from the people they were there to serve.”

Having people as clergy who worked in the world, outside the institutions of the church, might be a way to keep the church more aware of the challenges of the modern world and the temptations of modern people and nations. A permanent deacon who worked “in the world” might be able, in the words of pseudo-Clement, to “carefully inquire into the doings of each member of the Church, ascertain who is about to sin, in order that, being arrested with admonition by the president, that person [or that nation] may happily not accomplish the sin.”

In addition, the permanent deacon might be able to see more clearly the strain and the pains suffered by the people of God, especially the poor.

As Bishop (now Cardinal Walter Kasper) said at an IDC conference in 1997, 

“The deacons can act as the eyes and ears of the bishop in identifying areas of need and can help him in his task of being father to the poor.”

He can bring the needs of the community to the bishop and, in his pastoral ministry, as Cardinal Kasper also wrote, he can “make the parish aware of urgent situations of need, motivating them to share with one another and to give practical help.”

The deacon’s connection to the bishop is not only in being a herald of the Gospel, but in being the one who assures that the church is aware of the sins of the world and the needs of the poor. He can thus help make real the first paragraph of Gaudium et Spes, the Vatican II Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World.

“The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts. For theirs is a community composed of men. United in Christ, they are led by the Holy Spirit in their journey to the Kingdom of their Father and they have welcomed the news of salvation which is meant for every man. That is why this community realizes that it is truly linked with mankind and its history by the deepest of bonds.”

I think Deacon James Keating puts it well:

“The deacon is sent by the Holy Spirit to the forsaken. This is why it is crucial for the diaconate to remain a liminal vocation. The deacon lives at the doorstep between the culture and the liturgical mysteries so that he can see and hear the cry of the poor and lay these needs at the foot of the altar and the pastor. The deacon is also an ecclesial porter, open the gates of mystery to those who desire to have their spiritual needs satisfied by God, and unbolting the doors of society to other clerics who may want to more deeply understand lay life.”

(Deacon James Keating, “The Moral Life of the Deacon,” in The Deacon Reader, p. 132.)


Fourthly, the deacon is to be the icon of Christ the servant, taking into account the kenosis of Jesus.

When Pope John Paul II spoke to US deacons in 1987, he noted:

“By your ordination you are configured to Christ in his servant role. You are also meant to be living signs of the servanthood of his Church.”

The deacon at the altar is a sign of Christ the Servant, who came “not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a rescue for many.”

But I would also suggest that the deacon is a sign of the servants who are members of the Body of Christ and see their service sacramentalized, present at the Table of the Lord.

The deacon might thus be a double icon – an icon of Christ the Servant and an icon of the Servant Body of Christ, the Servant People of God.

Can the people of God see in the deacon their living out of their baptismal call to be servants? Does the deacon call them to recognize that calling and put it into practice?


Fifthly, the deacon is called to the margins, to the periphery, to those neglected. It is worthwhile noting that the call of the seven (who are sometimes called the first deacons) came in response to those who felt marginalized, the widows and orphans of the Hellenists. 

Some have argued that this is a limited understanding of the deacon arguing mostly from the work of John Collins. But from the beginning, the deacon has been called to serve the poor, to look after their needs, and distribute the resources of the community to those in need. Note the example of Saint Lawrence. 

I would suggest that a major part of the call of the seven was to attend to those who were marginalized, first of all the widows and orphans of the Hellenists in the community. We might also note that one of the seven, Philip, is seen as evangelizing those outside the community, most notably the Ethiopian eunuch and a Samaritan village. 

I believe that a major part of the deacon’s identity must be his attention to those on the margins, those left out of the church and of the wider society. He is to bring their presence to the Church and to bring the presence of the Church to them, where they are. 


Fundamentally, the deacon is for evangelization and charity, to show the connection of these with the altar. The crossroads of evangelization and charity is found at the altar. 

In July 2020, the Vatican’s Congregation on the Clergy released an Instruction on The Pastoral Conversion of the Parish Community in the Service of the Evangelizing Mission of the Church. Significantly there is a large section on deacons. There, the deacon is seen mostly in terms of evangelization and charity. The liturgical dimension is extremely important, but the key aspects of the diaconate seem to be “evangelization” and “charity.” 

Paragraph 82 reads, in part:

“the history of the diaconate recalls that it was established within the framework of a ministerial vision of the Church, as an ordained ministry at the service of the Word and of charity; this latter context includes the administration of goods. The twofold mission of the deacon is expressed in the liturgical sphere, where he is called to proclaim the Gospel and to serve at the Eucharistic table.”

These two aspects are not unrelated, nor are they separated from liturgy. Indded, the intersection of evangelization and charity is found at the Table of the Lord, in the Eucharist.

The deacon should come with the concerns of the people of God, especially the poor, as the minister who would normally offer the Prayers of the Faithful. 

The deacon also is the one who sends out the people to evangelize the world. As Pope Paul VI said at the end of the Second Vatican Council:

“We stress that the teaching of the Council is channeled in one direction, the service of humankind, of every condition, in every weakness and need. The Church has declared herself a servant of humanity…”

The connection of evangelization and charity with the Table of the Lord is perhaps the area where we most need to reflect to develop a theology and spirituality of the diaconate. 


What images could we use to describe the permanent deacon? 

Some have called his ministry as a bridge between the church and the world. This has its limitations because it seems to posit and breach between the two.

Others have spoken of the permanent deacon being in a liminal space, the place where the world and the church meet. 

I wonder if we might think of the deacon as being at the crossroads. 

At first, I thought of describing the permanent deacon as being at the intersection of evangelization and charity at the altar. But, driving to a distant community in our parish, I thought it might be better to speak of the crossroads of these two dimensions in the Eucharist. One of the words for an intersection in Spanish is cruce, which reminded me of cruz, the cross.

The cross reminds us of the integrity of our ministry – Word and Charity united at the Altar. It also reminds us of our identity in Christ, who humbled himself even to the Cross (Philippians 2: 5-11). Finally, it reminds us of our commitment of witness, martirio, even to martyrdom, servants of the Blood of Christ, willing to pour out our blood for the Reign of God.

Eileen Egan, artisan of peace

“My life has had a single strain: to see Jesus in every human being,
to realize that each one is inviolable and sacred in the eyes of God,
and then to translate that into everything I do.
This is the heart of anything I’ve done,
the heart of my peace work.”
Eileen Egan

Eileen Egan died on October 7, 2000, twenty years ago today.

Photo copyright by Bill Barrett. used with permission.

She was a peacemaker, an advocate of nonviolence, a friend of the world’s poor, a project coordinator with Catholic Relief Services for more than 40 years, and a co-founder of Pax Christi USA. She was a prolific writer – including books and pamphlets on nonviolence, Dorothy Day, Mother Teresa, refugees, and more.

In this photo she is with two great holy women of the twentieth century. She met Mother Teresa when she was working with Catholic Relief Services in India. She knew Dorothy Day, working for peace and the poor in New York City at the Catholic Worker.

But her commitment for peace was connected with her commitment to the refugee, the poor, the suffering. As she once wrote, noting that the works of war are in total contradition to the works of mercy:

“Instead of feeding the hungry, we destroy the fields that produce the food; instead of clothing the naked, we bomb factories that produce clothing; instead of giving drink to the thirsty, we bomb reservoirs. In war, the enemy is dehumanized and is no longer seen as a child of God. As Christians, we must penetrate the disguise and see Jesus in the enemy. Then, we would not kill and destroy.”

She seems to be the first US Catholic to use the term “The Seamless Garment of Life,” which was later made famous by Cardinal Joseph Bernadin. In a 1981 publication of Pax Christi USA, she wrote:

“We view the protection of all life, from its conception to its end, as a seamless garment…. Such protection, credible in its consistency, extends to opposition to the taking of life by the state in capital punishment and to opposition to the taking of life by euthanasia and warfare.”

She took her peacemaking seriously – based in a life of prayer, fasting, and serv ice with the poor.

In particular, she took seriously the US bishops’ invitation to fast on Fridays in their 1983 pastoral The Challenge of Peace, ¶ 298:

As a tangible sign of our need and desire to do penance we, for the cause of peace, commit ourselves to fast and abstinence on each Friday of the year. We call upon our people voluntarily to do penance on Friday by eating less food and by abstaining from meat. This return to a traditional practice of penance, once well observed in the U.S. Church, should be accompanied by works of charity and service toward our neighbors. Every Friday should be a day significantly devoted to prayer, penance, and almsgiving for peace.

A friend who worked with the Diocese of Davenport, Iowa, recalled that when she came to receive the diocese’ Pacem in Terris award, she did not eat meat on the Friday. She took fasting and prayer seriously.

I saw her a few times at peace meetings. She was as, noted by Jean Kelly, “The peace activist often cropped out.”  Her simple but effective presence was one of the ways that many women have shown us the works of mercy and the works of peace.

In his latest encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, ¶ 225, Pope Francis noted the need for peacemakers:

In many parts of the world, there is a need for paths of peace to heal open wounds. There is also a need for peacemakers, men and women prepared to work boldly and creatively to initiate processes of healing and renewed encounter.

Eileen Egan is one of those who forged the path of peace and the works of justice. She is a great example for us as we try to live out our calling to be instruments of God’s peace in a strife-torn and unjust world where many suffer.

For more photos of Dorothy Day (some with Eileen Egan, Mother Teresa, and Cesar Chavez), see the web page of Bill Barrett.