Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Deacon as Minister of the Word of God, Part I

I just began a series of columns for Today's Parish which are going to sketch the participation of the deacon in the three-fold ministry of Word, Sacrament and Charity.  As I ended my "10 Points to Ponder" here last week, I spoke of the need for balance in each of these three areas of ministry, but for now let's just consider the deacon's role as minister of the Word of God.

The "Word of God," of course, is Jesus, the Christ.  At the deacon's ordination, the newly-ordained deacon comes before the bishop who presents him with the Book of the Gospels and charges him with the words: "Receive the Gospel of Christ, whose herald you now are.  Believe what you read, teach what you believe, and practice what you teach."  Of all the things the bishop COULD tell the new deacon, I find it very significant that this is the deacon's major charge.

There are many dimensions to being a Herald of Christ.  We saw one this past Sunday in the person of John the Baptizer, one of the original "heralds of Christ."  Not a bad model for the deacon, either!  Of course, one of the most obvious heraldic roles for the deacon is in his proclamation of the Gospel in the midst of the Eucharistic assembly (the "Mass").  Some people seem to think that this is just some kind of liturgical function that is "permitted" to the deacon, in a way to give him something to do at Mass.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Rather, the church ties the Gospel DIRECTLY and INTENTIONALLY to the ministry of the deacon.

The deacon -- as servant to and for the People of God -- proclaims Christ in the Gospel in order to sacramentalize the servant-character of the Gospel itself.  The Gospel not only delivers "good news"; that good news is also a call to service, a call to action.  As the Church teaches, this ministry is diaconal, NOT an act of the presider.  In fact, the rules surrounding this part of the liturgy are quite illustrative.  When a deacon is present and assisting, he IS the minister of the Gospel.  Period.  This is not one of those optional things which either the priest, deacon, or another minister may do.  This one is for the deacon.  If there are 500 bishops and priests present, it is still the responsibility of the deacon.  In fact, have you ever seen the pope proclaim the Gospel at Mass?  Nope.  Here's some more: In a concelebrated Mass, if there is no deacon present and serving (and why not, I have to ask?), the priest-presiding is STILL not the first choice to proclaim the Gospel in the deacon's absence.  Rather, one of the concelebrating priests is to proclaim the Gospel if there is no deacon.  Only when there is no deacon, and no concelebrant, is the priest presiding to proclaim the Gospel; he is, literally, the last choice.

And yet, we still have some priests who will simply tell the deacon before Mass, "I'll do the Gospel today, since I'm preaching; I have some things I want to stress in the reading that tie into the homily."  I wonder: What if he were going to preach on the FIRST reading (usually from the Old Testament).  Would he go to the lay person who is assigned to read that day, and tell her, "I'll do the reading today, because I want to stress some things that tie into the homily."  I certainly hope not!  There's a reason why each of us has different roles in the liturgy, and the church is clear: each of us is to to "solely but completely" what is ours to do.

There are other dimensions of the Deacon as Minister of the Word of God, but I'll save those for the next postings. 

By the way, the picture to the right is of your humble blogger proclaiming the Gospel on board the USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) during a visit to our son who is stationed on board.  Mass is celebrated in the forecastle (the "foc's'l") between the anchor chains.  For liturgical purists, there was no dalmatic available; sorry!


  1. Only once have I had a problem with a priest insisting on being the one to read the Gospel (I was ordained in 1980). But, politely mentioning the fact that even the pope used a deacon to read the Gospel for him didn't impress him. So, since there was no lector present, I did the first readings.
    I have heard of a few deacons serving in some parishes where they rarely are allowed to read the Gospel.
    If I ran into that, I would be soon seeking to transfer to another parish.

  2. Thanks for the comment, John. I had a funny situation once. I was assigned to serve on a part-time basis at the Naval Academy. The chaplain, a great guy, told me that he was very interested in "doing the liturgy right" and that we would have to correct certain things that his predecessor had put in place.

    So, I showed up to assist at my first Mass the following Sunday, and he had asked me to preach. We're vesting, and he says that he'll read the Gospel in order to introduce me to the assembly and then turn it over to me to preach. I just started to take off my vestments without saying anything. He asked me what I was doing, and I said that if he really wanted to do that, it was OK, and I would just return NEXT weekend and we could "do the liturgy right."

    Fortunately, he saw the humor of the situation, and I suited up again.

    Ya just never know. . . .

    God bless,


  3. Bill,

    Your post reminded me of an experience I had within a year of my ordination. I was 'pressed' into service to assist the bishop at a Mass during a diocesan staff retreat. This was my first experience assisting ANY bishop, so I was a little nervous. Prior to Mass, the bishop told me that he would proclaim the Gospel...which he did. Of course, I did not question his action.

    Now that I am better informed about such matters, if this occasion should arise again, I will do what a good deacon should: let the bishop proclaim the Gospel! The bishop may not always be right, but the bishop is always the bishop!

  4. Good post. Thanks! It makes me think of a couple of things I'd like to put out there...

    1. It seems to me that the Church sees the "liturgy done right" as having priest and deacon as the norm, not the exception. In this light doesn't it seem that, in a sense, the deacon is a kind of "primary minister" of the Liturgy of the Word, while the priest is "primary minister" of the Liturgy of the Eucharist? There is a LOT of potential in this thought and I am sure a lot of controversy as well. But just a simple speculative theologico-liturgical musing.

    2. Besides proclaiming the Gospel, is or is not the deacon ordained to preach as a primary function of his Ministry of the Word? If yes, then it seems ot me that even once-a-month is too infrequent. There seems to be confusion over this issue in our neck of the woods. I know many pastors in our archdiocese who do not want the deacon to preach because they consider the formation received to be too little and too inadequate in content. But still...what's the official status on diaconal preaching?

  5. Diakonos:

    Bill can give you a better notion but very often that is a decision of the ordinary of the diocese by way of a "Pagella (sp?) of Faculties" -- a document issued for the guidance of the respective bishop's clergy.

    Frankly, I sometimes wonder if the scrutiny of diaconal preaching by priests is over-compensation or maybe even hypocritical. A fair amount of priests are far worse preachers than we are and yet very few folks ever criticize them.

    However, at its best, diaconal preaching is very different than presbyteral preaching. Deacons tend to tap into the spirituality of families and society on a regular and consistent basis -- something not regularly found in presbyteral preaching.

    My pastor and I have very different preaching styles: his tend to be very pious and filled with fairly vague non-controversial insights; more like a spiritual a pat-on-the-back. Mine are usually just the opposite. I do believe in bringing the scripture of that mass alive for the folks of my time and place. Often these homilies are very "in-your-face" and deal with very contemporary issues in social justice.

    BTW: I preach at all the week-end masses one Sunday a month as well as any other liturgies I preside at (Communion Services/ Baptisms/ Weddings/ Funerals/ Benedictions etc). That usually means 6-10 opportunities each month.

    Deacon Norb in Ohio

  6. I agree with Deacon Norb that priests and deacons tend to preach much differently from each other--to the benefit of our parishoners.
    As a retired history-current issues public high school teacher I use my skills and background to research Church history-especially saints and heros-- and current events religious stories to illustrate the Sunday readings.
    It is sad how little our people know of, for example, the heroic priests of Dachau, the faith of the Chilean miners, or the heroic martyrdom of so many Christians in the Islamic world (right now a Catholic woman is awaiting execution in Pakistan for "blasphemy" against Allah.)
    On the other hand I avoid "contemporary social justice issues" unless it is about bedrock Church teachings--such as abortion and marriage.
    Too often I have heard sermons by priests or deacons that sounded like they belonged at a Democratic Party big government rally. Didn't the 20th Century teach us about what horrors Big Government can bring our way.
    And "class warfare" I believe, has been condemned by the Church. Yet that seems to be a favorite theme of Democrats these days to justify their tax policies and their vision of "social justice."
    There is just so much from our own Catholic History and from our spiritual patrimony that needs to be preached that, I believe, politically tinged sermons should be few and rare, not constantly of the "in you face" variety.

  7. Great comments; thanks to all.

    Yes, preaching is a critical part of what the church expects of her deacons. In fact, the faculty to preach is one of the few faculties (perhaps even the ONLY one) which is NOT granted to priests and deacons by the bishop. Significantly, the faculty to preach comes from the law itself. That law reads that "priests and deacons receive the faculty to preach everywhere, always with the presumed consent of the rector of the place." This means that, once ordained, the deacon (and priest) has this faculty; the only thing the bishop can do is RESTRICT the exercise of that faculty.

    The idea of deacons "presiding" over the Liturgy of the Word, and the priest "presiding" over the liturgy of the Eucharist actually had some traction in the 1970s and into the 1980s. This is when we saw deacons, for example, presiding at the Good Friday service (since it's not a Mass) while the pastor sat with the assembly. Today, however, there is a sense that the ENTIRE EUCHARIST (which includes the liturgy of the Word and the liturgy of the Eucharist) should be presided over by the one who presides over the community (the pastor), which is a very patristic notion. This has led to other questions/problems, of course. For example, what about the celebration of other sacraments WITHIN the Mass? Can/should deacons (or even other priests) step forward and preside over a baptism or a wedding done within the Mass? One school of thought holds that the one who is presiding at the Eucharist should preside at everything else celebrated within that Mass; others maintain that the priest may preside over the whole thing, while other ministers may step forward and do things within that overall celebration. Most of us have experienced both of those approaches. It is not a resolved issue.

    The frequency of preaching by deacons relates to this. While the Church's expectation is that a deacon be present at every Mass, there is still the preference that the priest-presiding preach at that Mass, with deacons preaching "on occasion". This does NOT mean that the deacons should only preach rarely, and I agree that we need "diaconal preaching" quite often; certainly more frequently than once a month!

    What the Holy See has been concerned with, and I believe this is legitimate, is that in SOME parts of the world (not very common in the US), priests were simply turning over preaching to other people as a general rule; priests were rarely, if ever, preaching. Rome sees this as wrong, and that's the source of the current liturgical legislation.

    God bless,


  8. Bill, I had to laugh when I read your account of removing your vestments when the priest told you he wanted to proclaim the gospel during the liturgy.

    I did this myself once! I did it calmly and without anger and said, "Father, if you really want to proclaim the gospel I think you should. I really have no problem sitting in the assembly today." I smiled, left the sacristy and took a seat in a pew. I never even mentioned it to the pastor.

    That priest never did that again.