Friday, December 31, 2010

The Deacon as Minister of Sacrament -- Part I

Ordination brings the ordinand into a new set of responsibilities in service of the People of God.  This is usually referred to as a participation in the triple munus (function) of Word, Sacrament and Charity.  Before Christmas we looked at the role of the deacon as a minister of the Word of God.  Now I want to move into some reflection on the deacon as a minister of sacrament.

To do that, of course, we need to understand what we mean by "sacrament."  So, here's a very, very brief "Sacraments 101".

1) Theologian Joseph Martos has referred to sacraments as "doors to the sacred" and that's a pretty good phrase.  The underlying understanding of sacrament in the Catholic sense is that a sacrament "connects" the human and the divine.  Another theologian, Robert Taft, SJ, once tried to describe a "symbol."  He evoked Michelangelo's famous painting of the creation of Adam from the Sistine Chapel.  Taft points out that God's finger, stretched out toward Adam, and Adam's finger, stretched out toward God, do not touch; there is a gap.  For Taft, a "symbol" CONNECTS the two.  In many ways, this can also describe our sense of sacrament as that which connects the human and the divine.

2) Prior to the Second Vatican Council, theologians began describing a deeper sense of sacramentality than most people appreciated.  The bishops at the Council adopted much of this language in their own documents.  So, in addition to the seven sacraments of the church, we first speak of Christ himself as the most fundamental sacrament of all: Christ IS the connection between God and humanity.  The Church itself can be understood as a sacrament of our encounter with Christ, and then the seven sacraments of the church represent special encounters with Christ.  We also speak today of the "sacramental principle": that understanding that all of God's creation can serve as vehicles of God's life.  That's why we make such liberal use of ordinary things like water, wine, bread, oil, touch and so on.

3) Finally, the word "sacrament" itself comes from the Latin word sacramentum.  A sacramentum in the Roman Empire was the oath of enlistment taken by a new recruit into the army, and early Christian writers began referring to Christian initiation as a sacramentum.  For those of us who have served in the military, this analogy works very, very well!  Consider what happens when a person enlists in the military: That person swears a solemn oath, after which his or her old civilian clothing is taken away.  The person is given new clothes -- a uniform -- which communicates the person's new status.  This uniform identifies the person's relationship to others (their relative rank and specialization, for example), and without any words at all, the simple fact that the person is now in service to an authority other than himself. 

Now look at early Christian baptism: The catechumen states his or her intent to a new relationship with God.  The person's old, "civilian" clothes are taken away and the catechumen, naked, enters the baptismal pool where the "sacramentum" (oath) is taken; we call it the Creed today!  Then the neophyte is led from the pool, and given his new "uniform" of a white garment which marks the person as a new person in Christ.  No longer acting on their own authority, they are now Christ's and have been immersed into the very life of the Trinity.  Now part of God's own life, the neophyte is led fro
m the pool to the Eucharistic table to complete his or her initiation.

It is against this sense of "sacrament" that we can now turn to the role of the deacon in the sacramental life of the Church.


  1. I just finished reading a Christmas gift, "From the Diakonia of Christ to the Diakonia of the Apostles" by the International Theological Commission of the Holy See. It raises a vital question that concerns the sacramentality of the diaconate which I had never heard discussed before: what IS the sacred power for ministry bestowed upon a man by ordination to the diaconate? Theologically this is a most fundamental sacramental principle that must be answered. For example,the episcopate bestows the sacred power to ordain others. The presbyterate bestows the sacred power to anoint the sick, to reconcile sinners in confession, and to consecrate the Eucharist. Yet for the diaconate everything a deacon does can be done by a laymen with proper permission. It cannot be that the diaconate bestows the power to servive as Christ did for this is bestowed at Baptism and strengthened in Confirmation.

    At Vatican II there were many Council Fathers who questioned the very sacramentality of the diaconate, seeing it instead as more of a deputization to duty. There was debate as to if the diaocnate actually bestowed any configuration to Christ in an ontological fashion. Paul VI and subsequent magusterial documents and papal speeches seem to have dealt with these issues in seed form but so much still needs to be done.

    I am almost hesitant to promote this vcocation now after having read this theological study (note I said almost not definitive)and it has caused me to truly pause and enter into serious self reflection. I am at a serious vocational crossroad.

    I think the answer to this question will be a huge step forward and clarify much of the confusion surrounding the diaconate. Please pray for me and if anyone knows of any theological work being done on this question I woud appreciate it very much. Thank you.

  2. The problem with the question itself is that the ITC is asking a dated question. Beginning in the 12th century, ordination (especially to the priesthood)began speaking of a tranference of power to the ordinand: "Receive the power to. . . ." Notice that by this time, deacons were simply transitional, so no one paid much attention to the change then.

    Vatican II, however, changed that, and today's ordination of priests no longer speaks that way, no longer talks of "receiving the power."

    Furthermore, the danger of such an approach is that it focuses almost exclusvely on the functionality of ordination and not on its essentially relational character.

    I, and others, have written pretty extensively about these issues. In fact, in one text, I argue that it is precisely in one's powerLESSness effected by diaconal ordination that one can find the unique character of the deacon.

    So, while functions are important, the sacramental basis and meaning for those functions is no less significant. When a deacon does something, even when the same thing might be done by someone else (visiting the sick, for example) it's still sacramentally different because it flows from both baptism and ordination. The other aspect I like to point out is that because of ordination, the deacon acts "in the person of Christ and in the name of the Church" to use the language of Thomas Aquinas. The lay person, in this instance, does not (there are other times where they might, but that's a different conversation).

    I'm not sure where you heard that there were questions about the diaconate's "sacramentality" at the Council. Believe me, I've been through the record of all those discussions, and that's just not the case. In fact, Pope Pius XII had finally resolved that question back in 1947 with his document "Sacramentum ordinis" (the Sacrament of Order). So, I'm afraid you were misinformed.

    Does this help?


  3. Thank you very much for your efforts to explain and assist me in this question but I hardly agree that the ITC is asking a dated question? The study was published in 2003. That is hardly dated and the concept of “sacred power” in neither dated nor foreign to Vatican II theology.

    The ITC is composed of theologians from around the world who are renowned in their vocations, varied in their theological “camps” and selected by the Holy See. They are all faithful to the Christian Tradition and magisterium. I think it is a bit rude to take this attitude/approach towards a body of theologians in service to the universal Church. It almost seems like an “I know better than them” mentality.

    Be that as it may, I agree 100% that in the past the “sacred power” and acting “in persona Christi” was magnified to such an extent that it tended to overshadow other aspects of ordained ministry and the fact that ALL the baptized act (in some ways) in persona Christi and according to Jesus so do the poor and needy (I was hungry…I was thirsty = somehow mystically Jesus in need). This was part of the over-clericalization that took place in the Church following the Reformation.

    But let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water. Sacred power is a precise, valid and contemporary theological, canonical and liturgical concept concerning the sacraments. It fell out of favor among college and university theology departments in the fuzzy theology of the 1970s-early 80s but it has never fallen out of favor in the Church and magisterium. Is it the sum total of ministerial definition or understanding? No, of course not. But without it one becomes…well…Protestant to put it simply.

    I agree with the spirituality of “powerlessness” and humble service 100%. But sacred power does not mean “lording it over” others in a spirit of authoritative domination. It is not that kind of power. As you know it refers to the spiritual or supernatural grace to baptize, to confirm, to absolve, to anoint, to confect Eucharist, to ordain men, to form marital unions. These things cannot be done by humans but require the power of God working through us. And laity (even non Christians in emergency for baptism) are empowered to carry out some of these sacred things. So the question is valid and stands: what sacred power does a deacon receive to distinguish his level of Orders from the other two and even to distinguish his ministry from the lay apostolate? If one was to reply “the grace of the sacrament” this would simply be game playing and dancing around a very important question.

    I did not state that Vatican II as a Council declined to teach on the sacramentality of the diaconate but that many of the Council Fathers in their interventions and debates did indeed do so. And indeed while Vatican II did uphold the general sacramental principle of the diaconate it did not by any means reach unanimity in the NATURE of this sacramental character. More on this would come from post-Conciliar documents and speeches. See the ITC study, Chapter IV, Section IV where it gives the details and references to conciliar documents. (For those unfamiliar with this study a working grasp of Latin helps in order to get the most out of notes and references).

    Bottom line: I am presenting a faith seeking understanding here. I am not detracting from the diaconate but passionately wanting to contribute in some way to the necessary theology of the diaconate that must be done in the time of Church history.

  4. Diakonos, reading your comments got me started to do some "research" into the question you raised. One treatment of the subject that caught my attention was at'Neill.pdf.
    I hope that helps you in your search.

  5. Sorry, the last few letters of the link were cut off. They should read .../OTL/OTL_O'Neill.pdf.

  6. MB: Thank you but the link is apparently a "broken link" and does not lead to any document or article.

  7. MB: Ah our posts crossed in the posting. Got it, THANKS willl read as I can.

  8. In the extra-ordinary form of the Ordination Rite, the "sacred power" of the diaconate is clearly identified. When the newly ordained and newly vested deacon is given the Evangelarium, the bishop says: "Receive the power of reading the Gospel in the Church of God, as much for the living as for the dead."

    In the ordinary form under which most of us were ordained, these words have changed. But we must also admit that the fundamental meaning of this ritual has not changed. The current words, "Receive the Gospel of Christ, whose herald you now are, etc." express the same relationship -- and Bill, really, how can you say that the gift and reception of a sacred power doesn't express a relationship -- of the deacon to the Person of the Word in His proclamation.

  9. Deacon David - Thank you. Proclaiming the Gospel, as with distributing Holy Communion and other sacred actions, is an ORDINARY ministry granted the deacon by ordination. However, it can also be an EXTRAORDINARY action granted a layperson with church permission. In terms of sacramental power I am thinking as the Church does with this term: what ministry does it grant the deacon that cannot be granted or empowered except by ordination? For example the sacred power to ordain granted by espicopal ordination; the sacred power to absolve sin granted by presbyteral ordination. What IS the diaconal ministry granted by ordination that makes a sacramental difference in the ministry of the person? Or there such power granted?

  10. Diakonos, by claiming that "reading the Gospel in the Church of God" is the sacred power of the diaconate, I'm not claiming that the liturgical act of reading the Gospel at Mass is "one of" the ordinary ministries of the deacon. The gift of a sacred power can't be reduced that way. Rather, the proclaiming of the Gospel is the essence of the diaconate. Every concrete ministry of the deacon is a way of proclaiming it, or rather, of proclaiming Him who is the Gospel. A lay person performing the same action does not imitate that diaconal proclamation in the same way (though it may be a proclamation of the Gospel in another way).

    In the same way, the essence of the priesthood is the Eucharist, and every concrete ministry of the priest is fundamentally Eucharistic, in a way which the same actions performed by a non-priest does not imitate (though it may point to Christ-the-Eucharist in another way).

    It so happens that, because of the nature of the Eucharist, certain priestly actions simply cannot be done by a non-priest (confection and absolution). The theological short-hand of "in persona" has tied together the nature of the priesthood, and its sacred power, and the nature of the Eucharist on this point, and therefore we say that priests "do something" unique to their vocation. But note that, really really, both the uniqueness and the "doing" of it belong to Christ, not to the priest per se.

    From the nature of the Gospel, it might be the case that there just are no diaconal actions that simply cannot be done by a non-deacon. In fact I'm aware of only one: the reading of the Gospel *at Mass*. But note again that this uniqueness belongs to Christ, not to the deacon per se.

  11. Deacon Dave, if I am reading you correctly I will disagree that reading the gospel at Mass can only be done by a deacon. Yes, in current liturgical law that is correct. But nowhere has the church stated that it is essential that the one who proclaims the gospel must be male (as it has with the priesthood.) And historically there was a time when a solemn professed Carthusian nun would proclaim the gospel and even wore a stole!

    The issue of power has more to do with authority and responsibility. So when one is ordained a priest or bishop they receive the power (authority) to accomplish their new responsibilities (to act “in the person of Christ the head at Eucharist, to absolve sin, and in the case of a bishop to ordain men.)

    The deacon is ordained “not to the priesthood but to ministry”. At the prayer of consecration the bishop prays for the gifts of the spirit to fill him so that he can give himself fully to his ministry of service. Yes technically he only does now as an ordinary minister what can be done by others delegated as extraordinary ministers. But the extraordinary ministers are to be only temporary and as exception. The deacon is more closely united to the altar so that he can do these as a permanent minister, strengthen by the consecration and special gift of the Spirit to give his life to these ministries that assist the priest and bishop in serving and building up the body of Christ in the local church. IMHO!

    Diakonos, there are a lot of theories and opinions out there on all this….so take it all with a grain of salt (especially mine!) But I agree with you that the book you mentioned is “spot on” and should carry some weight in this discussion. The most important place to start is to read the rites of ordination, especially the consecration prayers. A good commentary on the rites and prayers of consecration is: SACRMENTAL ORDERS by Susan K. Wood (Liturgical Press).

  12. Patrick - thank you very much for the lead on the book and for your understanding. Please pray that I come to the clarity you wisely advise.

  13. To all:

    Thanksk for the great discussion here!

    To Diakonos:

    I'm sorry if I gave the impression that I did not think the ITC document was important in the discussion. In fact, I know a few of the members of that commission (which drafted that document) personally. But theologians and church authority have long ago decided that REDUCING the subject of "what ordination does" to the rather simple "tranferrence of power" is an inadequate and incomplete understanding of what ordination is about. That was the point I was trying to make.

    You can see this in the post which describes the older wording of the presentation of the Book of the Gospels to the newly-ordained deacon; as I mentioned, too, you can see it in the changes made to the ordination rite of presbyters. Before, the rite spoke of the newly-ordained priest receiving the "power" to consecrate, for example. That language has been changed.

    So, it is in this context that I remarked that the ITC, at that point was asking a "dated" question, not that the question wasn't a good one. Perhaps it would have been more accurate to say that it was a partial question, or one of several questions that should be considered.

    I would also point out that unless and until church authority (the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, for example, for whom the ITC works, or the Holy Father) issues this text, or some part of it, as part of an official text of the church, it remains simply the text of a group of theologians. It does not hold the same weight, for example, as a document issued by the CDF, or an encyclical from the pope. Now, I'm not trying to minimize the work, I'm simply trying to put it in some context and perspective.

    One other historical point that some may find of interest concerning the ITC. The ITC works on a five year term. They are given an agenda from the Prefect of the CDF of items he'd like them to study. The ITC that issued the document we're discussing here was the SECOND form of the ITC to get the subject of the diaconate. Its immediate predecessor and its members were unable to come up with a mutually agreeable text ont he diaconate at all. So, what we see in this document is the attempt of some ten years of work by TWO different sets of ITC members.

    Finally, it's interesting to note WHY the Prefect gave them this task. The question had been raised to the Holy See about whether the teaching of "Ordinatio Sacerdotalis" restricting priestly ordination to men alone was to include diaconal ordination as well. Then-Cardinal Ratzinger consistently responded that this was a separate theological issue and need to be considered separately. It was at that point, and for that reason, that he assigned the topic to the ITC (twice).

  14. As a kind of PS to my last post:

    I think that the discussion generated here is so important, and I thank Diakonos for kicking it off.

    The point is a good one: the sacramental/theological meaning of what diaconal ordination is all about is still far from clear. One of you mentioned Susan Wood's wonderful book on "Sacramental Orders." Notice her methodology: she has a chapter reflecting on the rite of ordination to the order of bishops, followed by a chapter on the theologian meaning of the episcopacy. Then there is a chapter on the ordination rite of presbyters, followed by a companion chapter on a theology of the presbeterate. But when she gets to the diaconate, she has the chapter on diaconate ordination, but no follow-own chapter on a theology of the diaconate. When I asked her about that, she stated that she would have had to try to develop something that we were all still struggling to learn.

    That's why people like Richard Gaillardetz, Owen Cummings and I have been trying to develop this topic further. Theology flows from experience, and since there hasn't been much experience with the diaconate as a "full and equal order" (to use Jim Barnett's phrase) for about 1500 years, we're still sorting things out as we go.

    And all of this is happening during a time when the theology of the presbyterate, the theology of the episcopate, and the theology of the laity is undergoing their own contemporary renewals.

    Fun times!

  15. Deacon Bill - thanks for the follow-up. It also reveals so much as to why the diaconate receives such varied acceptance, non-acceptance, ministry-variation and adaptation depending upon "who", "what", "when", "where" and "why". This also, in my opinion, makes it diificult to actively promote the vocation on the same level as promoting those to priesthood, consecrated life and Christian marriage. How can one promote a vocation that is in flux? Perhaps its better to promote the active lay apostolate rather than encourage a man to take on the responsibilities of clerical state without knowing exactly what that means and which could change significantly.

  16. Dear Diakonos,

    While that strategy is certainly an option, personally I can't agree with it. And the reason is in the conclusion of my last post: EVERY part of the church, including the presbyterate and the laity, is undergoing serious "growing pains" and there is considerable theological confusion on MANY issues. If we try to wait for some kind of theological certainty on every issue, we'll never do anything!

    I prefer (and this is, of course, a personal choice) to adopt the attitude of the majority of the bishops at Vatican II. They realized that what they were saying and doing vis-a-vis the laity, religious freedom, deacons, and religious life (and so much more) was steering the church into unknown territory. They knew that problems would crop up; they knew that they had no experience, for example, with married clergy in the Latin church (at least not for many centuries) and that problems would undoubtedly occur.

    That did not deter them from moving ahead anyway, trusting in the overall presence and action of the Holy Spirit, Christ's gift to the church. We would, as John XXIII would confide in his diary, "find our answers IN our work, AS we worked."

    Might be uncomfortable, but sure is exciting!

    God bless,


  17. Just saw this new book release on the diaconate from Liturgical Press. Maybe it is something to shed light on this discussion?

  18. Dear Diakonos,

    Could be. I've ordered it. It will be interesting to see what he has to say. It looks spiritual and pastoral, which is great. I'm not sure how much he will get into the theological issues, but that's OK. Books like this are especially needed as well.

  19. Diakonos, I am sorry we can only communicate in these short combox entries since the issue is impossible to deal with in such short statements. I encourage you, again to read ‘Sacramental Orders’, as mentioned already she does not give a “theology of the diaconate” but she does follow up with a good chapter on “questions concerning the diaconate”. One of the questions is “What is the distinction between a deacon and a layperson since both may serve the Church in similar ways?’

    One point she mentions in all this is the aspect of one’s personal vocation. The diaconate is not a profession that we pick and choose, but it is much deeper and organic. It is rooted in one’s personal following of Christ and one’s path of holiness.
    One is already doing diaconal “things” in ones life, he is already living a call of sevice in his local parish community, not to be a “deacon” but because it is rooted in his way of living his following of Christ. The call to diaconate then is a way to connect him and his service even closer to Christ and the Church, to strengthen him in this path by the laying of hands and the gifts of the Spirit and to renew him with the help of sacramental grace in his work and service. It makes public/sacramental one’s personal vocation and brings a new ecclesial dimension to his life and his service.

    The question may not just be what is so unique about the diaconate, but rather how is Christ asking you to live out your unique/personal vocation in the church here and now in your existential life situation?

  20. Patrick - Again thanks SO much, You "get" me it seems. Please keep praying for me.