Friday, September 10, 2010

Deacons: Ordained to. . . WHAT?

The deacon's ordination has been the subject of ecclesiastical reflection nearly from the beginning.  One of the classic texts is that attributed to Hippolytus of Rome around 215 AD: "When the deacon is ordained, this is the reason why the bishop alone shall lay his hands upon him: he is not ordained to the priesthood but to serve the bishop (Latin: "non ad sacerdotium sed in ministerio episcopi").  About 250 years later, the "Statuta Ecclesiae Antiquae" changed this to read: "the deacon is not ordained to the priesthood but to service: (Latin: “non ad sacerdotium sed ad ministerium”).  The problem is, just what is meant by this "service"?

Service is a tough word to pin down.  We get "service" in restaurants or from mechanics or at a retail store.  We have religious "services" and many of us have had military "service".  What constitutes diaconal "service"?  The word "deacon" itself means servant, but that doesn't help much, either.

When I was going through formation for ordination, our director of formation asked us all to identify some areas of ministry which we had never performed before.  His only stipulation was that it had to be "diaconal" ministry.  Well, I thought, deacons are ordained to share in the triple office of Word, Sacrament and Charity, so I suggested the development of a parish adult formation program.  The director informed me that this was not "service" in the diaconal sense and that I should find something else.  I did.  However, it got me thinking.  Just what is "diaconal service"?

Others also questioned this almost exclusive association of the deacon with what Anthony Gooley has referred to as "the servant myth."  Basing his work on that of John Collins' monumental word study of the diakon- words in the New Testament, Gooley agrees with Collins that "service" means considerably more than menial service.  I could not agree more!  On the other hand, I believe firmly that diaconal service INCLUDES menial service; it's just not restricted to it.  Serving those most in need -- whatever that need happens to be -- is an ancient function of the church and of her ministers.

Vatican II, in describing the ministry of the bishop, refers to the triple function of teaching, sanctifying and governing as diakonia.  The whole thing is diakonia.  Teaching is diakonia, sanctifying is diakonia, servant-leadership is diakonia.  In the early days of the renewal of the diaconate, it was not unusual to hear the triple function of the deacon described as "word, sacrament and service", but I contend that this only adds to the confusion.  Much better, in mind opinion, is "word, sacrament and charity," with "service" applying to all three.

To lose sight of this balanced, integrated approach can cause real distortion and confusion.  For example, in one diocese, the liturgical and sacramental role of the deacon was so minimized that married candidates for ordination were told that the normal place for them during Mass was in the pews with their families.  If the pastor asked a deacon to preach, then he could assist at that Mass; but liturgical assistance was seen as an almost extraordinary function!  However, given our Eucharistic theology, such a position is truly stunning.

Here in the United States, ever since the first guidelines on the diaconate were issued by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops in 1971, the bishops have always held that there is an "intrinsic unity" within the triple office in which the deacon participates.  In fact, the bishops write that no one is to be ordained who is not willing to undertake all three in some way.  I like to think of deacons as "ministers of connect-the-dots" in which we sacramentalize the balanced approach to discipleship -- a discipleship of Word, Worship and Charity -- to which we are all called through sacramental initiation.

This post is certainly no attempt at a full-blown scholarly analysis of all of this; this is, after all, "just a blog"!  But it does, I hope, highlight some of the concerns which surround the issue.


  1. Thanks for a very thoughtful commentary on this important issue. One thing that bothers me about Collins and some of those who cite his work is their rather dismissive attitude toward the very activities on which we are all supposedly judged, at least if we don't also de-"mythologize" Matthew 25 to mean something quite different than it actually says (another project some seem sadly eager to undertake).

    I know from experience that we have men in formation who would not mind seeing "service" defined in such a way that they are never challenged to step outside their comfort zone. I think the call to the diaconate should be a reminder that every one of us is already called to go much farther than that.

  2. Wow there is so much to reflect upon and chat about in this post, Deacon Ditewig. Thank you.

    First, ordained to “service” and “ministry of charity” are quite general terms since the Christian life is a life of service and of charity. Can't we say quite accurately that we are “baptized for service and charity”. “confirmed for service and charity”, receive the Eucharist to grow in “service and charity”? So what IS the unique ordination of the deacon about? Perhaps it is an ordination to provide public witness to service and charity that all Christian are called to embrace, just as religious profession (though not a sacrament) is a public witness of the striving for the perfection of love that all are called to seek? So maybe its not WHAT we do that is the unique-ordained aspect but that we do it as offical public signs of witness? But I even dislike “charity” as a description of the work. Perhaps “justice”? When one thinks of the ministries typically equated with this category don't they tend to fall into this description of seeking to give each person their due as human beings? But I guess I can even see amibguity in that term as well.

    Odd that you were told that your adult formation program was not diaconal ministry, but then that was long ago and since the US Bishops have clearly stated that such a work, as well as all catechesis and retreat work as diaconal. A decent study of deacons in Church history will surely show that theology, catechesis, and evanglization have quintessential diaconal works (Sts Stephen, Philip and Ephraim surely show this). And Acts of the Apostles devotes a good deal to the preaching, teaching, baptizing and evangelizing done by Stephen and Philip.

    The issues of liturgy that you mention are interesting, too. I sometimes see some of the older deacons sitting in the pew at daily Mass and wonder “why?” The GIRM seems to imply that the Church sees the Mass with a deacon as the NORM. I would pray that the day arrives when every deacon, even if on vacation, feel quite proper to approach the presider and politely offer his assistance at Mass. It is so difficult for me who has come of age in a post Vatican II Church WITH permament deacons to have become “one of the gang” and learn in the process that we are not always that welcome. But I must say that I find the younger priests much much more open and even desirous of deacons in their parish and at their Masses than are those who were ordained in the 1960s-70s. So I guess its about perspective as well as experience.

    I have often wondered if much of the confusion over the minitries and roles of the deacon are due to the fact that in the West ALL ministry became part of the priestly vocation. It seems to me that a healthy fraternal parnetship can be worked out among the clergy. Priests and deacons can share in the ministries of Word and Liturgy each according to the gift received and not in competition or turf-protection. Then while the priests must needs be seeing to the sacramental life of Eucharist, confession, anointing...the deacons can eb busy with the works of justice. Ah perhaps I am taking a daydream side-trip into utopialand. LOL. I think one sign of this level of partnership will be when the pastor sees the deacon in clerical shirt and instead of remarking, “Why in the world as you wearing THAT?” he would opine, “Ah Deacon, you must be heading out to a ministry. Drive safely and God bless!”

  3. I think the sooner we expand our imaginations beyond a deacon being a "parish helper" the sooner we will move beyond the older notions of "service." The deacon is called and sent by the bishop not by the pastor. Deacons need to ask one question: In looking around my diocese where is the
    gospel not penetrating the culture? After identifying where that omission exists then he may go and serve there after consultation with and being sent by the Bishop.

    Of course all deacons will have a "home parish" just like any catholic man but their ministry may not automatically encompass any of the pastoral needs there. He may assist there at Mass but then he will go out to that ministry which allows him to respond to a previously unmet spiritual or corporeal need.

    Thank you Bill,

    Jim Keating