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.

BAPTISM

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.

ORDERING THE PEOPLE OF GOD FOR DIAKONIA

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.

THE EYES AND EARS OF THE BISHOP

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.”

https://billditewig.wordpress.com/2016/07/17/terrorism-dachau-and-diaconate-perspectives-and-pbs/

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.)

ICON OF CHRIST THE SERVANT

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?

SERVING IN THE MARGINS

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. 

EVANGELIZATION, CHARITY AND THE ALTAR

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. 

FINAL THOUGHT

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.

3 responses to “Reconfiguring the image of the permanent deacon

  1. Todd, your response is what I need to work through a new look at the diaconate.
    The “being absent from the world” was one of the reasons the priests in Dachau looked for the restoration of the diaconate, seeing that the church largely missed the horror of Nazism.
    I like the characterization of the deacon in terms of liminality and door-keeping. Or maybe we need to think of deacons as those who can make apparent the “thin places” – in daily life.
    If you can help me find examples of saintly deacons, have them contact me so that we can have a dialogue.
    As for having a book to write, I have at least two. One is looking at my journey to the diaconate. The other is looking at the celibate deacon; there are so few of us and almost nothing is written for us or about us.

  2. This is your office more than mine, but just a few things on your final thought. The intentional Christian is always a pilgrim in the world. Sometimes other clergy are mostly absent from the world. Many deacons I know exemplify that liminality. Perhaps the deacon is more a doorkeeper, urging two-way traffic. Guiding, if not chiding shepherds to a more direct interaction–being those eyes and ears for the pilgrims who have tired or wandered. Guiding lay people to a more detached journey through the world. There are so many examples of saintly diaconate, I wonder if a reflection on their variety would yield some fruit. It sounds like you have a book to write. Hope you are well, John.

  3. +
    I believe that the diaconate has a leadership role to play in answering God’s call to personal holiness: “You shall be holy; for I the Lord am holy (Lev 19:2).
    First and foremost, the deacon, being a sacred minister, must guard against a reduction of his services to that of performance merely of a task or function. The diaconal order identifies a particular “state of life”, an “identity”. A deacon is configured to “Christ the Servant” – and that image must project, authentically, from him.
    A deacon is not a ‘mini-priest”. The ministerial priesthood is configured differently. Most deacons are not called to, nor have promised “celibacy”, but deacons, like all Christians, are called to the three evangelical counsels, or counsels of perfection: “chastity” (according to one’s station in life), “poverty” (or perfect charity), and “obedience”. All activities of a Catholic Christian, especially activities of a deacon – who acts is a significant way in both the Church and the secular society – “must be preceded by an intense life of prayer, contemplation, seeking and listening to God’s will”(Cardinal Sarah).
    The Christian clerical ministries relate to the preceding ministries regulated by Mosaic Law. There is terminological equivalence between episkopos and the High Priest, presbyteros and the priest, and diakonos and the Levite. And, in the Church, the word “clergy” means those who have renounced “a self-centered life and accepted God alone as the support and guarantee of ones’ own life.”
    Special ministrations fell to the Levites. The example of Saint Stephen, however, shows how the diaconal ministry was comprised “not only purely practical work of a charitable nature, but also the Spirit and faith and therefore, the ability to serve the Word.” Therefore, by the continuous radical conversion of your lives, by your example in living out both the Sacrament of Holy Orders and the Sacrament of Matrimony, enlightened by your own struggles, may you continuously draw people to the Church and enliven, strengthen, and encourage those already within it. Pope Francis points out that the basis for the crisis in the Church today, and therefore in the world, is “a lack of faith and of apostolic fervor”. And, as Cardinal Sarah says: “evidence show that wherever there is serious, authentic, and continual evangelization activity, there is no lack of vocation. It seems to me that there is much ground for deacons to plow here.
    In my opinion, we can never love either the Eucharist or the priesthood enough! There is much you and I can do to make the Eucharist attractive and available to people. And there is much that we can do to encourage and support our priests. The authors of the book “From the Depths of our Hearts,” conclude with a chapter that begins with: “The priesthood is going through a dark time. Wounded by the revelation of so many scandals, disconcerted by the constant questioning of their consecrated celibacy, many priests are tempted by the thought of giving up and abandoning everything. Christ asks us: ‘Will you also go away?’ (Jn 6:67).”
    What should you and I do as deacons? We should take to heart the charge of Saint Paul: “I charge you in the presence of God and if Christ Jesus who is to judge the living and the dead …: preach the word, be urgent in season and out of season, convince, rebuke, and exhort, be unfailing in patience and in teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths. (2 Tim 4:1-4)”
    God bless you and yours, and all you say and do!
    Your brother in Christ Jesus,
    Dcn. Joseph B. Gorini <

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