Palm Sunday 2020: Servants in a Servant Church for a Suffering World

Today we celebrate Palm Sunday in ways no one could have ever imagined, although there have been times in the life of the church when our ancestors had similar experiences. Pope Francis has given a wonderful Palm Sunday homily [here] to a world weary of illness, isolation and violence. His words remind us all of some very important truths, and for those of us who serve in the particular order of deacons: our service can only truly be understood against the more fundamental reality that the church herself is a servant. Indeed, peeling the layers back even more, we remember this Holy Week that we are a servant church precisely because our God — who is love — is Servant. As Pope France put it succinctly, “God saved us by serving us.”

Jesus — Second Person of the Trinity — “who came to serve, not to be served.”

All of us who are baptized disciples of Christ, are immersed into the life of God and are called to “the imitation of Christ,” who came to serve and not to be served. The Holy Father recounts how often, especially during the liturgical celebrations of Holy Week, Christ — the Second Person of the Trinity — is referred to as a Servant. Created in the image and likeness of God, we are to live as Christ did: pouring out his life for the health and salvation of others. In a moving passage, Pope Francis reminds us:

Dear brothers and sisters, what can we do in comparison with God, who served us even to the point of being betrayed and abandoned? We can refuse to betray him for whom we were created, and not abandon what really matters in our lives. We were put in this world to love him and our neighbors. Everything else passes away, only this remains. The tragedy we are experiencing at this time summons us to take seriously the things that are serious, and not to be caught up in those that matter less; to rediscover that life is of no use if not used to serve others. For life is measured by love. So, in these holy days, in our homes, let us stand before the Crucified One – look upon the Crucified One! – the fullest measure of God’s love for us, and before the God who serves us to the point of giving his life, and, – fixing our gaze on the Crucified One – let us ask for the grace to live in order to serve. May we reach out to those who are suffering and those most in need. May we not be concerned about what we lack, but what good we can do for others.

All of this applies to each and every one of us. What, then, can it mean to those of us who are deacons? It is a potent reminder to us that we are ordained, not simply to do what all of us are supposed to do as a result of our sacramental initiation (discipleship), but as a result of our ordination at the hands our bishop, to renew our commitment to be true leaders in service (apostleship). We are not ordained to serve so that others do not have to! We serve first as a result of new life in Baptism; we serve further as animators (to use St. Paul VI’s word) of that service by others. We share in the bishop’s own diakonia, a diakonia first lived through Paschal Mystery of Christ which we celebrate this week.

I encourage everyone, but especially deacons, to pray over Pope Francis’ wonderful homily today. May this Holy Week during a time of global pandemic be for all a time of renewal, of overcoming death, of new life in the Christ.

Deacons at Mass During the Time of COVID-19

Over the last several weeks, deacons and others have been wrestling with the notion of deacons assisting at the various live-streamed Masses going on around the country. Two major questions have emerged:

  1. Should deacons be assisting at all at these Masses?
  2. If deacons are present at Mass, should they abstain from receiving Holy Communion?

First, should deacons (or, really, ANY other ministers besides the priest) be assisting at a live-streamed Mass?

I would begin with a caveat. It depends! There may be logistical or other factors which would make the assistance by a deacon problematic. For example, if a sanctuary is so small (such as a private chapel in the rectory) that the deacon cannot remain some feet away from the priest, then perhaps he should forego assisting.

However, in general, it seems to me that whenever possible, the deacon should be present and assist at Mass. The liturgical witness of the deacon’s ministry at the Eucharist is important and a vital sign of the diaconal identity of the Church. As one of the bishops said at the Second Vatican Council, “The Church has a right to all of the graces given to her by God, and the diaconate is one of those graces.”

On a practical level, of course, the priest and deacon should be sure to discuss in advance the specifics of their liturgical “choreography.” As most of us realize, our normal positions vis-a-vis the presider can easily be adapted keeping “social distancing” in mind. Sure, we will temporarily be a bit closer when we hand the gifts to Father, but we can immediately return to a safer distance. On a personal level, I assisted and preached at last Sunday’s live streamed Mass from our parish, and Father and I were able to maintain a safe distance from each other while still carrying out our respective ministries. Given the layout of our sanctuary, it took very little adaptation to make it work.

Second, if deacons are present, what about Holy Communion? Should deacons abstain from receiving Holy Communion; in fact, CAN the deacon abstain?

Looking at these questions from a technical perspective, it is possible for the deacon to abstain from receiving Holy Communion. The only minister who MUST receive Communion is the priest-presider, since it is he who is offering the sacrifice in persona Christi — and the sacrifice must be consumed. This, however, is a minimalist approach to the Eucharist. For many years, many people did not receive Communion at every Mass for a variety of reasons. It was Pope Pius X who encouraged a greater reception of Communion by the people; this effort continued and was emphasized at the Second Vatican Council, so that now nearly everyone receives Communion at every Mass they attend.

But what about the Deacon, especially in today’s situation? I think we would all agree that it is best if the assisting deacon were to receive Holy Communion. This is true on many levels, including the sign value of seeing the deacon receive. Now, how might that be done safely today? It seems to me that one legitimate option would be for both priest and deacon to receive by means of intinction, with the deacon then consuming the remaining Precious Blood and purifying the sacred vessels. I realize that other deacons and priests are using the more traditional (at least in the Latin Church) approach, but intinction seems to offer the safest method, in my opinion.

I used the expression “sign value” above, and I think that’s an important consideration. Our sacraments are public; they are, as the Baltimore Catechism used to have it: “outward signs instituted by Christ to give grace.” Part of the outward sign of the Eucharist is the ministry of the ordained, which should be exercised in as complete and fulsome way as possible.

So, if at all possible, “it is good for us to be here” at the side of our priest-brother for the Eucharist, even while we remember to stay at a safe distance. And, if we’re there, we should receive Holy Communion, using the safest means available.

Just one deacon’s opinion.

Thirty Years a Deacon: “How Can This Be?”

Fr. Tom Henseler, Deacon Harry Clyde, Fr. Jack Smith, myself, Cardinal Hickey

A couple of days ago, on 25 March, I celebrated 30 years as a Deacon of the Catholic Church, ordained on 25 March 1990 by the late Cardinal James Hickey, the Archbishop of Washington, DC. It was the Fourth Sunday of Lent as well as the traditional date for the Annunciation. Mary’s words, “How can this be?” resonate for anyone called to ordained ministry: each of us knows only to well our weaknesses, our sinfulness, our unworthiness.

The past 30 years have been filled with grace and blessing. In ways I never could have imagined thirty years ago, God has brought me into contact with God’s People in so many different places and situations. We have laughed and cried together (fortunately, I think the laughter has far outweighed the tears!), as together we try to walk the various paths we have been given, but paths that ultimately lead back to God.

With deep gratitude for these first thirty years, I thank God, my family, and the People of God, and I renew those promises made at ordination so many years ago, pledging to serve to the best of my abilities as long as God gives me strength to do so.

Holy Mary, Mother of Deacons, pray for us!

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On the Eve of Holy Week: A Personal Thanksgiving

ORDINA_1001This Sunday, 25 March 2018, is Palm Sunday.  But 28 years ago, it was the Fourth Sunday of Lent (Laetare Sunday) — and on that date I was ordained a deacon of the Catholic Church in the Archdiocese of Washington, DC by our Cardinal-Archbishop, James A. Hickey.

 

 

XO HanzaAt that time I was a Commander in the United States Navy, under orders to report to the US Naval Security Group Activity, Hanza, Okinawa, Japan as Executive Officer.  For the previous three years, while assigned to the National Security Agency, I had participated in the deacon formation program of the Archdiocese of Washington, DC.  When my orders to Okinawa arrived, I contacted Deacon Tom Knestout, our deacon director, and then-Father Bill Lori, priest-secretary to Cardinal James Hickey (and now the Archbishop of Baltimore).  Father Lori, God bless him, jumped to the meat of the issue, “Shall we ask the Cardinal to ordain you early, before you leave?”  Within 10 minutes, the Cardinal had approved the request and the date was set.

It seems unbelievable that this time in ordained ministry has passed so quickly, and with countless blessings.  To have been so privileged to serve in so many ways, in so many places, and to walk with people in their joys and sorrows — and the baptisms!  (I have to mention the baptisms.  Gaudete Sunday Baptism 2 editTo see families, large and small, approaching the font, is an inexpressible joy.)  Twenty-eight years ago, I could not have imagined the journey to come; I suppose we can all say that about our lives!

As we enter into this holiest of seasons I simply want to thank God for the great grace of serving as a deacon of the church.  And of course, no family man can serve in this way without the deepest love and gratitude for his family and for the many challenges (along with the blessings) they have faced on this journey.

If past is prologue, the next 28 years should be very interesting! Deo gratias!

Incensation at Ordination

Going Golden: Fifty Years of Renewed Diaconate

PopePaulVIIt was just fifty years ago today that the Order of Deacons was renewed as a ministry to be exercised permanently in the Catholic Church.  Fifty years ago today, 18 June 1967, Blessed Pope Paul VI acted on the 1964 recommendation of the world’s bishops at the Second Vatican Council.  He promulgated motu proprio Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem, which you can read in full here.

Following the conclusions of the Second Vatican Council (cf. Lumen gentium, #29), the Holy Father directed the appropriate changes to canon law which would permit the diaconate to be renewed as a “particular and permanent” order, and opened the diaconate to be conferred on married as well as celibate men.  The introductory paragraphs offer significant insights into the vision behind the renewal:

Beginning already in the early days of the Apostles, the Catholic Church has held in great veneration the sacred order of the diaconate, as the Apostle of the Gentiles himself bears witness. He expressly sends his greeting to the deacons together with the bishops and instructs Timothy which virtues and qualities are to be sought in them in order that they may be regarded as worthy of their ministry.

Furthermore, the Second Ecumenical Vatican Council, following this very ancient tradition, made honorable mention of the diaconate in the Constitution which begins with the words “Lumen Gentium,” where, after concerning itself with the bishops and the priests, it praised also the third rank of sacred orders, explaining its dignity and enumerating its functions.

Indeed while clearly recognizing on the one hand that “these functions very necessary to the life of the Church could in the present discipline of the Latin Church be carried out in many regions with difficulty,” and while on the other hand wishing to make more suitable provision in a matter of such importance wisely decreed that the “diaconate in the future could be restored as a particular and permanent rank of the hierarchy.”

Although some functions of the deacons, especially in missionary countries, are in fact accustomed to be entrusted to lay men it is nevertheless “beneficial that those who perform a truly diaconal ministry be strengthened by the imposition of hands, a tradition going back to the Apostles, and be more closely joined to the altar so that they may more effectively carry out their ministry through the sacramental grace of the diaconate.” Certainly in this way the special nature of this order will be shown most clearly. It is not to be considered as a mere step towards the priesthood, but it is so adorned with its own indelible character and its own special grace so that those who are called to it “can permanently serve the mysteries of Christ and the Church.”

deaconsFrom the beginning, then, the renewal of the diaconate as a “particular and permanent” order of ministry has been about sacramental grace.  The diaconate must never be reduced simply to the sum of its various “functions” which might easily be performed by others without ordination.  However, the Council and the Pope recognized that those performing those functions in the person of Christ and in the name of the Church should be strengthened by the sacramental grace of ordination.

This is a very special day for the Church and her deacons.  We remember with great respect and humility the giants of the renewal of the order of deacons: the bishops, theologians, and most especially those pioneering early deacons who set out into the unknown, charting a course for the rest of us to follow.

Deacons of the Church: Happy Golden Anniversary!

50th-Anniversary

Deacons: Bringing it Home

Pope Francis poses with cardinal advisers during meeting at Vatican

In news from the Holy See today, it was announced that the nine special Cardinal-advisers to Pope Francis (known colloquially as the C9) have wrapped up their latest three-day meeting in Rome.  You can read Vatican Radio’s account of the meeting here.  The overall topic is the reform and restructuring of the Vatican bureaucracy itself.  Amid the several major areas discussed, ranging from finances to communications to decentralization, several interesting bits were mentioned which directly concern deacons.

In the news conference reporting on the meeting, Director of the Holy See Press Office, American Greg Burke included:

Among other proposals, the possibility of transferring some functions from the Roman Dicasteries to the local bishops or episcopal councils, in a spirit of healthy decentralization.

For example, the transfer of the Dicastery for the Clergy to the Episcopal Conference for examination and authorization for: the priestly ordination of an unmarried permanent deacon; the passage to new marriage for a widowed permanent deacon; the request for priestly ordination by a widowed permanent deacon.

married deaconMany people might be unaware of the history behind these three items, so let me cover each briefly.  Before doing that, however, we should keep one traditional factor in mind.  Throughout the Catholic tradition, East and West, it has been a well-established principle that “married men may be ordained but ordained men may not marry.”  Following ordination, then, the longstanding norm (until the 1984 Code of Canon Law) was that, once ordained, a man could not marry — or marry again, in the case of a married cleric whose wife has died.  In other words, the very reception of Holy Orders constitutes an impediment to entering a marriage.  The 1984 Code (c. 1078), however, permits a request for a dispensation from the “impediment of order” which would then permit the widowed deacon to re-marry.  More about this below.

USCCBThe three issues mentioned today are all questions that up until now have required a petition from the cleric involved to the Holy See for resolution.  None of them were things that could be decided by the local diocesan bishop or the regional episcopal conference (such as the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops).  So let’s take a closer look at these three situations.

  1. “Unmarried permanent deacons”: There are some people who wrongly assume that all so-called “permanent” deacons are married men.  This is inaccurate, and international statistics suggest that somewhere between 4-10% of all permanent deacons are, in fact, unmarried.  When an unmarried candidate for the diaconate approaches ordination, he makes the same promise of celibacy made by seminarian candidates for the (improperly called) “transitional” diaconate.  The situation addressed by the C9 concerns these celibate permanent deacons should they later discern a vocation to the presbyterate.  Many Catholics are surprised to learn this, but the Church rightly teaches that each Order is its own vocation: that a call (vocation) to serve as Deacon does not mean that Deacon necessarily has a vocation to the Presbyterate or Episcopate.  Deacon formation programs are not helping men discern a general vocation to the ordained ministry; rather, the focus is on the particular vocation of the diaconate.  So, if a deacon later discerns a possible vocation to the presbyterate, he must enter into a formation process for the priesthood to test this vocation.  In the US, the need for this careful discernment and formation is detailed in the USCCB’s 2005 National Directory for the Formation, Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons in the United States.  Up until now, the diocesan bishop (or religious superior) had to petition the Holy See to permit the subsequent ordination of that celibate permanent deacon to the presbyterate.  What the C9 is rightly suggesting (in my opinion) is that such decisions might be made at the more appropriate level of the episcopal conference, and not the Holy See. (I would think that should this idea go forward, the decision will ultimately be referred back to each diocesan bishop as the authority best positioned to know the situation and the people involved the best.)  NOTA BENE: This particular situation involves permanent deacons who have never been married before; the situation of a widowed permanent deacon will be covered in the third item below.
  2. US Bishops“The passage to new marriage for a widowed permanent deacon”:  This is a situation which has been faced by many of our deacons over the past decades.  Obviously a married man cannot and does not make the promise of celibacy prior to ordination as a Deacon: we do not promise a hypothetical: “I promise to embrace the celibate life IF my wife predeceases me” is not part of our liturgical and sacramental lexicon.  However, once ordained of course, that married deacon is impeded from entering another marriage.  First, of course, because he is already  married!  But if his wife dies, he is still not free to marry again because he has assumed that “impediment of order” I mentioned above.  St. John Paul II developed three conditions under which a widowed permanent deacon might petition for a dispensation from the impediment of order (notice, by the way, that this is not a “dispensation from celibacy” since the married deacon has never made such a promise from which to be dispensed in the first place).  These three reasons, which need not concern us at the moment, have taken various forms over the years, including some revisions by Cardinal Arinze which made the likelihood of obtaining such a dispensation most highly unlikely.  The petition for this dispensation right now begins with a petition from the widowed deacon to the Holy See, via his diocesan bishop (or religious superior).  What the C9 is suggesting is that in the future, this petition would go from the Deacon to the Episcopal Conference (or, if the Conference develops such procedures) to the diocesan Bishop.
  3. The last reference is to “the request for priestly ordination by a widowed permanent deacon.”  Here we find the widowed deacon discerning a different path.  Rather than discerning a new marriage, he is discerning the possibility of a vocation to the presbyterate.  In a sense, then, he is in the same position as the deacon above who was never married.  In the past, such petitions were handled by the Holy See; if the suggestion of the C9 is accepted and implemented, such decisions would be made at the local (Conference or diocesan) level.

Finally, notice that the C9 specifically mentions the Episcopal Conference as the possible new decision-maker, while I have suggested the possibility of the diocesan bishop in some cases.  What I am envisioning is that the Conference might well develop procedures and policies which might further delegate such matters, under certain circumstances, to the diocesan bishop.  For example, in 1968, it was the Episcopal Conference which received authorization to ordain (permanent) deacons.  The Conference then extended that authorization to each Bishop for his decision on the question.

The question of “healthy decentralization” is a wonderful one, and it is intriguing that the diaconate is part of that conversation!

gaudiumconfweb-171x200

 

 

Deacons: Myths and Misperceptions

reeseHeadshotWebJesuit Father Thomas Reese has published an interesting piece over at NCRonline entitled “Women Deacons? Yes.  Deacons?  Maybe.”  I have a lot of respect for Fr. Tom, and I thank him for taking the time to highlight the diaconate at this most interesting time.  As the apostolic Commission prepares to assemble to discuss the question of the history of women in diaconal ministry, it is good for all to remember that none of this is happening in a vacuum.  IF women are eventually ordained as deacons in the contemporary Church, then they will be joining an Order of ministry that has developed much over the last fifty years.  Consider one simple fact: In January 1967 there were zero (0) “permanent” deacons in the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church (the last two lived and died in the 19th Century).  Today there are well over 40,000 deacons serving worldwide.  By any numerical measure, this has to be seen as one of the great success stories of the Second Vatican Council.  Over the last fifty years, then, the Church has learned much about the nature of this renewed order, its exercise, formation, assignment and utilization.  The current question, therefore, rests upon a foundation of considerable depth, while admitting that much more needs to be done.

However, Father Reese’s column rests on some commonly-held misperceptions and errors of fact regarding the renewal of the diaconate.  Since these errors are often repeated without challenge or correction, I think we need to make sure this foundation is solid lest we build a building that is doomed to fall down.  So, I will address some of these fault lines in the order presented:

  1.  The“Disappearance” of Male Deacons  

exsultet1Father states that “[Women deacons] disappeared in the West around the same time as male deacons.”  On the contrary, male deacons remained a distinct order of ministry (and one not automatically destined for the presbyterate) until at least the 9th Century in the West.  This is attested to by a variety of sources.  Certainly, throughout these centuries, many deacons — the prime assistants to bishops — were elected to succeed their bishops.  Later in this period, as the Roman cursus honorum took hold more definitively, deacons were often ordained to the presbyterate, leading to what is incorrectly referred to as the “transitional” diaconate.  However, both in a “permanent” sense and a “transitional” sense, male deacons never disappeared.

  1.  The Renewal of Diaconate as Third World Proposal

1115_p12b500Father Tom writes that his hesitancy concerning the diaconate itself “is not with women deacons, but with the whole idea of deacons as currently practiced in the United States.” (I would suggest that this narrow focus misses the richness of the diaconate worldwide.)  He then turns to the Council to provide a foundation for what follows.  He writes, “The renewal of the diaconate was proposed at the Second Vatican Council as a solution to the shortage of native priests in missionary territories. In fact, the bishops of Africa said, no thank you. They preferred to use lay catechists rather than deacons.”  This statement simply is not true and does not reflect the history leading up to the Council or the discussions that took place during the Council on the question of the diaconate.

LocalsRebuildDresdenAs I and others have written extensively, the origins of the contemporary diaconate lie in the early 19th Century, especially in Germany and France.  In fact there is considerable linkage between the early liturgical movement (such as the Benedictine liturgical reforms at Solesmes) and the early discussions about a renewed diaconate: both stemmed from a desire to increase participation of the faithful in the life of the Church, both at liturgy and in life.  In Germany, frequent allusion was made to the gulf that existed between priests and bishops and their people.  Deacons were discussed as early as 1840 as a possible way to reconnect people with their pastoral leadership.  This discussion continued throughout the 19th Century and into the 20th.  It became a common topic of the Deutschercaritasberband (the German Caritas organization) before and during the early years of the Nazi regime, and it would recur in the conversations held by priest-prisoners in Dachau.  Following the war, these survivors wrote articles and books on the need for a renewed diaconate — NOT because of a priest shortage, but because of a desire to present a more complete image of Christ to the world: not only Christ the High Priest, but the kenotic Christ the Servant as well.  As Father Joseph Komonchak famously quipped, “Vatican II did not restore the diaconate because of a shortage of priests but because of a shortage of deacons.”

Vatican IICertainly, there was some modest interest in this question by missionary bishops before the Council.  But it remained largely a European proposal.  Consider some statistics.  During the antepreparatory stage leading up to the Council (1960-1961), during which time close to 9,000 proposals were presented from the world’s bishops, deans of schools of theology, and heads of men’s religious congregations, 101 proposals concerned the possible renewal of the diaconate.  Eleven of these proposals were against the idea of having the diaconate (either as a transitional or as a permanent order), while 90 were in favor of a renewed, stable (“permanent”) diaconate.  Nearly 500 bishops from around the world supported some form of these 90 proposals, with only about 100 of them from Latin America and Africa.  Nearly 400 bishops, almost entirely from both Western and Eastern Europe, were the principal proponents of a renewed diaconate (by the way, the bishops of the United States, who had not had the benefit of the century-long conversation about the diaconate, were largely silent on the matter, and the handful who spoke were generally against the idea).  Notice how these statistics relate to Father Tom’s observation.  First, the renewed diaconate was largely a European proposal, not surprising given the history I’ve outlined above.  Second, notice that despite this fact, it is also wrong to say that “the African bishops said no thank you” to the idea.  Large numbers of them wanted a renewed diaconate, and even today, the diaconate has been renewed in a growing number of African dioceses.

One other observation on this point needs to be made.  No bishop whose diocese is suffering from a shortage of priests would suggest that deacons would be a suitable strategy.  After all, as we all know, deacons do not celebrate Mass, hear confessions or anoint the sick.  If a diocese needed more priests, they would not have turned to the diaconate.  Yes, there was some discussion at the Council that deacons could be of assistance to priests, but the presumption was that there were already priests to hand.

In short, the myth that “the diaconate was a third world initiative due to a shortage of priests” simply has never held up, despite its longstanding popularity.

  1.  Deacons as Part-Time Ministers

Father cites national statistics that point out that deacons are largely unpaid, “most of whom make a living doing secular work.”  “Why,” he asks, “are we ordaining part-time ministers and not full-time ministers?”

shutterstock_137696915-660x350Let’s break this down.  First, there never has been, nor will there ever be, a “part-time deacon.”  We’re all full-time ministers.  Here’s the problem: Because the Catholic Church did not have the advantage of the extensive conversation on diaconate that was held in other parts of the world, we have not fully accepted the notion that ministry extends BEYOND the boundaries of the institutional church itself.  Some of the rationale behind the renewal of the diaconate in the 19th Century and forward has been to place the Church’s sacred ministers in places where the clergy had previously not been able to go!  Consider the “worker-priest” movement in France.  This was based on a similar desire to extend the reach of the Church’s official ministry outside of the parish and outside of the sanctuary.  However, if we can only envision “ministry” as something that takes place within the sanctuary or within the parish, then we miss a huge point of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council and, I would suggest, the papal magisterium of Pope Francis.  The point of the diaconate is to extend the reach of the bishop into places the bishop can’t normally be present.  That means that no matter what the deacon is doing, no matter where the deacon is working or serving, the deacon is ministering to those around him.

We seem to understand this when we speak about priests, but not about deacons.  When a priest is serving in some specialized work such as president of a university, or teaching history or social studies or science at a high school, we would never suggest that he is a “part-time” minister.  Rather, we would correctly say that it is ALL ministry.  Deacons take that even further, ministering in our various workplaces and professions.  It was exactly this kind of societal and cultural leavening that the Council desired with regard to the laity and to the ordained ministry of the deacon.  The bottom line is that we have to expand our view of what we mean by the term “ministry”!

  1.  “Laypersons can do everything a deacon can do

Father writes, “But the truth is that a layperson can do everything that a deacon can do.”  He then offers some examples.  Not so fast.

ANSA-John23Hospital-255x318Not unlike the previous point, this is a common misperception.  However, it is only made if one reduces “being a deacon” to the functions one performs.  Let’s ponder that a moment.  We live in a sacramental Church.  This means that there’s more to things than outward appearances.  Consider the sacrament of matrimony.  Those of us who are married know that there is much, much more to “being married” than simply the sum of the functions associated with marriage.  Those who are priests or bishops know that there is more to who they are as priests and bishops than simply the sum of what they do.  So, why can’t they see that about deacons?  There is more to “being deacon” than simply the sum of what we do.  And, frankly, do we want priests to stop visiting the sick in hospitals or the incarcerated in prisons simply because a lay person can (and should!) be doing that?  Shall we have Father stop being a college professor because now we have lay people who can do that?  Shall we simply reduce Father to the sacraments over which he presides?  What a sacramentally arid Church we would become!

The fact is, there IS a difference when a person does something as an ordained person.  Thomas Aquinas observed that an ordained person acts in persona Christi et in nomine Ecclesiae — in the person of Christ and in the name of the Church.  There is a public and permanent dimension to all ordained ministry that provides the sacramental foundation for all that we try to do in the name of the Church.  We are more than the sum of our parts, we are more than the sum of our functions.

  1.  “We have deacons. . . because they get more respect”

francis-washing-feetWith all respect to a man I deeply admire, I expect that most deacons who read this part of the column are still chuckling.  Yes, I have been treated with great respect by most of the people with whom I’ve served, including laity, religious, priests and bishops.  On the other hand, the experience of most deacons does not sustain Father’s observation.  The fact is, most people, especially if they’re not used to the ministry of deacons, don’t associate deacons with ordination.  I can’t tell the number of times that I’ve been asked by someone, “When will you be ordained?” — meaning ordination to the priesthood.  They know I am a deacon, but, as some people will say, “but that one really doesn’t count, does it?”  I had another priest once tell me, “Being a deacon isn’t a real vocation like the priesthood.”  If it’s respect a person is after “beyond their competence” (to quote Father Reese), then it’s best to avoid the diaconate.

No, the truth is that we have deacons because the Church herself is called to be deacon to the world (cf. Paul VI).  Just as we are a priestly people who nonetheless have ministerial priests to help us actualize our priestly identity, so too we have ministerial deacons to help us actualize our ecclesial identity as servants to and in the world.  To suggest that we have deacons simply because of issues of “respect” simply misses the point of 150 years of theological and pastoral reflection on the nature of the Church and on the diaconate.

In all sincerity, I thank Father Reese for his column on the diaconate, and I look forward to the ongoing conversation about this exciting renewed order of ministry of our Church.