Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Point to Ponder #6: Threading the Needle

I happen to have huge hands, and whenever I've had to thread a needle, it usually takes a day-and-a-half or so to accomplish.  It can be a tough thing to do, but it's an essential and prerequisite skill if that button is going to get sewn back on!

This point of reflection, as I wrote in our original list, goes like this: We should not be co-opted into someone else's ministry.  The Holy See actually says this quite strongly: we are not supposed to be substitutes for priests or anyone else, nor are we supposed to take on ministries that rightly belong to others.  Here's the actual quote from the Congregation for the Clergy's 1998 document, The Directory for the Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons:
In every case it is important, however, that deacons fully exercise their ministry, in preaching, in the liturgy and in charity to the extent that circumstances permit. They should not be relegated to marginal duties, be made merely to act as substitutes, nor discharge duties normally entrusted to non-ordained members of the faithful. Only in this way will the true identity of permanent deacons as ministers of Christ become apparent and the impression avoided that deacons are simply lay people particularly involved in the life of the Church (#40).
Sounds like threading a needle to me! 

First, "in every case" deacons are supposed to exercise their ministry fully, and the text specifies the triple functions of word, sacrament and charity: ALL of them are important, and ALL of them are to be exercised, and exercised "fully."  So far so good, although many deacons complain that, in real life, their pastors often circumscribe their duties, but for now, let's just get the theory down.

Second, we get to the actual "assignment" of the deacon.  We are told that deacons are not to be marginalized (as in, "Well, I've got a deacon at the parish, but I don't intend to use him.").  Also, deacons are not "substitutionary" for someone else.  In particular, we should look at this the way a parishioner or the pastor might.  I once had a parishioner come up to me and tell me how glad she was that the church had deacons now, "since we're running out of priests, and you guys can fill in."  Substitutes until the number of priests goes back up.  But the Congregation is being very clear here: Deacons are not substitutes for ANYONE else's ministry.  This doesn't mean we can't help out as we can, of course!  But how often are deacons "filling in" for someone else?

We continue to read that deacons should not be doing things that would normally be exercised by lay persons.  So, deacons aren't substitutes for anyone else, including the priests, on the one hand, while on the other hand, deacons are not to usurp things which are legitimately to be the responsibility of lay people.

And yet, in real life, what do most deacons hear in conversation?  "Deacon, what can't you do that the priest can?"  "Wow, deacon, you do almost everything a priest does!"  Or, alternatively, "Deacon, now that you're here, take over the responsibilities of the DRE."  "Deacon, run the liturgy committee of the pastoral council."  "Deacon, serve on the finance council."  Now I'm not saying that deacons should NOT help out in these areas, but only if there is some particular need for it.  Simply to do such things "just because he's a deacon" is not a good reason!  These are the responsibilities of the baptized faithful and they need to be encouraged and inspired to take them on, and should not be set aside when a cleric becomes available.

So this really is a lot like threading a needle.  Deacons need to find and steer a course in ministry that is neither substitutionary nor usurping.  Actually, this can be quite freeing, and it gets back to some of our earlier points, since it means that it encourages the deacon's own creativity at identifying needs that are not yet being met, and charting a course to help meet them.  It also means, with gentleness and tact, to resist attempts to have us be "merely substitutes" or to take on tasks that should be done more appropriately by others.

So, for reflection: If you're already a deacon, are you serving in ways that can and probably should be done by others?  If you're not a deacon, but perhaps a priest or a parishioner, do you find yourself trying to put the deacon into roles that ought best be done by another?