As I write this, reports are coming in from Baton Rouge about yet another attack with multiple casualties. The world is reeling from the endless chain of violence and death of recent months. On Friday, the PBS series Religion and Ethics Newsweekly ran a program on the Order of Deacons in the Catholic Church. Given the state of the world, one might think this an odd or even irrelevant topic. Upon reflection, however, I believe that there are some important dots to connect. It is precisely because of the current state of violent death, destruction and havoc that the diaconate — properly understood — might offer a glimmer of hope. After all, it was precisely because of the “abyss of violence, destruction and death unlike anything previously known” (John Paul II, referring to World Word II) that the Order of Deacons was renewed in the first place; we’re here to help do something about it. So we shall review the PBS story against that critical backdrop.
THE PBS PROGRAM: Religion & Ethics Newsweekly
First, watch the program or read the transcript for yourself; you may find both of them here. The diaconate is not often covered in the media, so this could have been a wonderful opportunity to spread the word about a remarkable ministry. Unfortunately, despite very obvious good intentions, the program was full of errors ranging from simple errors of fact to more serious, even egregious, errors of history and theology. Furthermore, a wonderful opportunity was missed to connect the “concrete consequences” which the diaconate might offer a hurting world.
Why focus on some of the errors made in the program? First, simply to get them identified and out of the way. Second and more important, it is crucial to dispel such errors because they can distort the meaning of the diaconate and distract the audience from its proper potential.
- “He’s a married layman.” This simple error of fact is made twice at the very beginning of the report. Of course this is simply not true. Deacons are clergy and not laymen. For those of us who live and teach about the diaconate, this is usually the first red flag that the rest of the discussion is not going to go well. Why is this distinction important? Back to that in a moment.
- “Celebrating Mass is a function reserved only for priests who are considered heirs to the original apostles.” In Catholic theology, of course, the “heirs” or “successors” of the apostles are bishops, not priests.
- “[The deacon] did have to step in recently to speak the words of consecration at communion – for Catholics the most sacred part of the Mass. That’s because his pastor is on leave, and the priest filling in doesn’t speak English.” This is terribly wrong on several levels. First, the deacon can be seen and heard praying part of the Eucharistic Prayer, which is absolutely reserved to priests alone. The priest in question should have just said the prayer in his native language, whatever it is. For years, Catholics of the Latin Rite celebrated Mass in Latin: no one stood next to the priest to translate the Latin for us. Not only did the deacon not “have to step in” to do such a thing, church law expressly forbids it. Canon 907 states: “In the eucharistic celebration deacons and lay persons are not permitted to offer prayers, especially the eucharistic prayer, or to perform actions which are proper to the celebrating priest.” My guess is that every deacon who saw that part of the segment is still cringing! (The other cringe-worthy tidbit was seeing the deacon improperly vested, wearing his stole on the outside of his dalmatic. How cringe-worthy ? Think wearing underclothing over your pants).
- “In the Middle Ages the role of deacons began to fade as the power of priests and bishops grew. In the 1960s, the Second Vatican Council restored the role of deacons – but only for men.” The evolving role of deacons throughout history is far more complicated than that, and overlooks the fact that the diaconate never completely disappeared, but became primarily a stepping stone to the priesthood. I fully acknowledge that the history of the diaconate in all of its complexity goes far beyond what can be covered in such a brief program, but still: the broad brush strokes of the history could have been recognized and acknowledged. This is also when the program shifts to the question of the possibility of ordaining women as deacons. I will deal with that question below.
- “Until recently, the wives of deacons were required to take the same classes over four years as their husbands did to prepare for the diaconate.” Here the reporter falls victim to a common danger when discussing the diaconate: extrapolation. There are nearly 200 Catholic dioceses in the United States, and the procedures and processes of formation vary greatly from place to place. National standards established by the US Bishops do not mandate such a requirement, although wives are definitely encouraged to participate to the extent possible so that the couple grows together throughout the formation process. Even the “until recently” is confusing: perhaps in that particular diocese something has changed, but not in all. Not every wife of every deacon candidate is required to write papers or attend classes. Like many things in the renewed diaconate, it varies by location and bishop. But even more important — and completely left out of the piece — is the question of vocation. Preparing for ordination is far more than taking classes, writing papers, and giving practice homilies. At the heart of formation is the crucible of discerning God’s will: is God calling a person to ordained ministry? Becoming a deacon is not simply “signing up”, taking a few courses, and putting on the vestments. This is a life-altering process which at the moment is only engaged in by men. Whether that changes in the future remains to be seen. And, if it does, and women enter formation, they too will then go through that crucible of formation — as well as the papers, the courses and the homilies.
- “After increasing for several decades, the number of men entering the permanent diaconate has begun to decline, despite a growing need.” It is worth noting that the diaconate is the only vocation that is growing in the United States—outpacing the priesthood, sisters and religious life. In my own research on the diaconate, I would question again the extrapolation going on: perhaps in some areas or in some dioceses, the number of deacons is going down, but that is simply not the case throughout the country and the rest of the world. The diaconate has been growing steadily for decades and continues to do so. The diaconate worldwide has the potential to be one of the great success stories of the Second Vatican Council.
Now, on the PLUS side:
One exceptionally brief section of the program was a bright spot, and captured the characteristic identity of the deacon. Several deacons were shown installing a laundry room in a home for women emerging from crisis. The reporter describes this group as “a ministry that responds to crises. . . .” One of the deacons involved points out that “besides doing liturgical functions, we’re also called to serve the poor and serve the people of God.” There it is: the role of the deacon is to respond to crises, to serve those most in need. The identity of the deacon is expressed in many ways, but most characteristic is this focus on the needs of others: while we are called to exercise our ministries of Word, Sacrament, and Charity in a balanced way, all of it finds its most significant expression in the servant-leadership of the community in service. If the program had focused on these dimensions — on the very heart of the diaconate itself — it might have avoided the problematic areas which they got largely wrong.
Diaconate and Diakonia: An Essential Element of the Church
The entire Church is called to be a servant-church, a diaconal church. Pope Paul VI repeatedly taught that deacons are to be “the animators of the Church’s service,” and St. John Paul II carried it a step further when he referred to the diaconate as “the Church’s service sacramentalized.” These popes were echoing the teaching and the decisions of the the bishops of the Second Vatican Council when they determined that the Church’s diakonia should be a permanent part of the sacramental life of the Church. Being a deacon is not simply some activity which a person takes on themselves, at their own initiative; rather, it is believed to be a call from God as discerned through the help of the broader Church.
Pope Benedict wrote in Deus Caritas Est, citing St. Luke:
20. “All who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:44-5). . . . As the Church grew, this radical form of material communion could not in fact be preserved. But its essential core remained: within the community of believers there can never be room for a poverty that denies anyone what is needed for a dignified life.
21. A decisive step in the difficult search for ways of putting this fundamental ecclesial principle into practice is illustrated in the choice of the seven, which marked the origin of the diaconal office (cf. Acts 6:5-6). . . . Nor was this group to carry out a purely mechanical work of distribution: they were to be men “full of the Spirit and of wisdom” (cf. Acts 6:1-6). In other words, the social service which they were meant to provide was absolutely concrete, yet at the same time it was also a spiritual service; theirs was a truly spiritual office which carried out an essential responsibility of the Church, namely a well-ordered love of neighbor. With the formation of this group of seven, “diaconia”—the ministry of charity exercised in a communitarian, orderly way—became part of the fundamental structure of the Church.
It is time now to bring all of this together: in the light of Baton Rouge, Nice, Dallas, “Black Lives Matter,” terrorist acts and wounded communities all around the world: why should we care about an order of ministry within the Church?
THE DIACONATE IN CONTEMPORARY CONTEXT: WHY?
So, what is the connection? How can the diaconate be understood against that much larger and violent backdrop? The most important question of all is perhaps, why do we have deacons in the first place?
- We have deacons because the church and the world needed ministers to link the needs of people with the providence, mercy and love of God. This is why deacons have always been described as being associated with the ministry of the bishop and with having the skills to administer “the goods of the Church” for the good of people.
- Deacons have historically not been exclusively associated with parish ministry. For the bulk of church history, deacons served as the principle assistants to their bishops, often representing them in councils and as legates, in catechesis (consider Deacon Deogratias of Carthage), in homiletics (Deacon Quodvultdeus, also of Carthage) and by extending the reach of their bishops, such as Deacon Lawrence of Rome. Over time, deacons became subordinate to presbyters as well as bishops, and increasingly involved in what we would recognize as parish ministry. To this very day, deacons are ordained solely by their bishop, for service to him and under his authority: where the bishop is, so should be his deacon.
- In our time, as I’ve written about extensively, the Second Vatican Council decided overwhelmingly that the diaconate should be renewed as a permanent ministry in the church once again, even to the extent of opening ordination to married as well as celibate men. The bishops in Council did this largely because of the insights gleaned from the priest-survivors of Dachau Concentration Camp. 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.
In short, the diaconate was renewed in order to deal more effectively with the horrors of the contemporary world, not simply to function as parish ministers.
As I frequently challenge myself and other deacons: is the energy I’m expending as a deacon helping to create the conditions in the world in which another “Dachau” could not exist? Or am I involving myself in things that are superficial, contingent, and relatively inconsequential?
- The diaconate today, fifty years after the Council, has matured greatly. Those who would talk intelligently about the diaconate need to keep that in mind. Over the past fifty years, formation standards have evolved to better equip deacons for our myriad responsibilities, for example. The diaconate has, at least in those dioceses which have had deacons for several generations, become part of the ecclesial imagination. In some dioceses we have brothers who are deacons, fathers-in-law and sons-in-law who are deacons, fathers and sons who are deacons. In one archdiocese, an auxiliary bishop is the son of that archdiocese’s long-time director of the diaconate. As I mentioned above, the diaconate looks and feels different from one diocese to another and while it is tempting to generalize whenever possible, it is particularly dangerous.
- Let me briefly address the question of women and the diaconate. This is a question demanding serious conversation, just as the Holy Father has indicated. He is not alone, nor is he the first pope to think so. Pope Paul VI, St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict (both before his ascension to the papacy and after), and now Pope Francis have all been interested in the question. The 2002 study document of the International Theological Commission (ITC), convened by the authority of then-Cardinal Ratzinger, concluded that it remained for the Church’s “ministry of discernment” to work toward a resolution of the question. But the main thing at this point is to have the conversation. And that conversation will need to take place within the broader context of the lived diaconate, the diaconate whose pastoral praxis and theological reflection has deepened over the past fifty years. Many who opine about women and the diaconate do so from a dated or inadequate understanding of the order. If this conversation is going to be done, it must be done well. In short, to understand the possibilities of women in diakonia, one must first understand the diaconate itself.
Here is my point: If we deacons were restored in response to Dachau and similar world shattering violence, translate “Dachau” to Baton Rouge. “Dachau” to Nice. “Dachau” to “Black Lives Matter”. “Dachau” to 9/11. “Dachau” to every act of senseless terror and random violence. What are we doing to confront these tragedies? What are we doing to work toward a world in which THEY can no longer exist? This is so much more than who gets to exercise “governance” (a technical canonical term) in the Church, or who gets to proclaim the Gospel in the midst of the community of disciples. Like the bishops of the Second Vatican Council, we must ask ourselves how we must evolve and adapt to the new violent conditions of our own age. How can they best be addressed in the interest of the millions of suffering people — here at home and abroad — whose needs we are called to serve? We deacons must, like our “founders” at Vatican II, look beyond the normal categories of parish and issues of “insider baseball.”
I hope that there will be more media programs on the diaconate. I hope that not only will they be done accurately, but that they will also be done with a sense of the vision and potential of the diaconate.
As Pope Paul VI said of us, we are to be “the animators” of the Church’s service: May we give our lives to change the world.