Saturday, December 18, 2010

Deacon as Minister of the Word of God, Part II

Another aspect of the deacon's service tot he Word of God is that of preaching, including preaching the homily during the Eucharist and at other sacramental and liturgical celebrations.  The basis for this ministry is found in the Code of Canon Law (for the Latin Church; a similar canon exists in the Code of Canons for the Eastern Catholic Churches):

Can. 764 Without prejudice to the provisions of can. 765, priests and deacons, with the at least presumed consent of the rector of a church, have the faculty to preach everywhere, unless this faculty has been restricted or removed by the competent Ordinary, or unless particular law requires express permission.
Let's take a closer look at this canon and what it means.

1) Notice that this canon extends the faculty to BOTH priests and deacons.  Unlike other canons which refer specifically to priests, and still others which apply specifically to deacons, this canon speaks to both orders.  So, the legal basis by a which a priest (other than a pastor) as well as a deacon preaches at Mass flow from the same law.

2) Notice that the faculty extends "everywhere"; whether I'm in Washington, DC, Peoria, Illinois or Monterey, California or Rome, Italy, the law says I have the faculty to preach.

3) Significant, of course, is the subordinate clause about "with the at least presumed consent of the rector of a church".  The PASTOR (not just any priest, but the priest who holds the office of pastor) may legitimately restrict the preaching of any priest or deacon within his pastoral jurisdiction.  The law also says that the Ordinary (usually the diocesan bishop) may also restrict or remove this faculty.  But notice that these restrictions must be made explicit; otherwise, the deacon (and priest not the pastor) HAVE the faculty.  For example, let's say that the document conveying diaconal faculties (this document is called a "pagella") to the deacon does NOT include the faculty to preach.  What does this absence mean?  Given c. 764, it means that the deacon HAS the faculty to preach and that it is not restricted or has not been removed by the bishop.  If the bishop does not want a particular deacon to preach, he has to put that in writing.

4) Furthermore, if the pastor of the place decides he doesn't want the deacon or another priest to preach within his jurisdiction for whatever reason, I would strongly recommend that this restriction be communicated to the bishop.  The bishop (and in this case, the law itself) extends faculties to priests and deacons with the presumption that they will be exercised for the good of the People of God.  If this is not going to be the case, then the bishop should be informed.

5) Liturgical law (contained in the General Instruction on the Roman Missal and in the other praenotanda to the various sacraments) also contains regulations regarding preaching.  With regard to the deacon preaching at Mass, the GIRM notes that the deacon preaches "on occasion".  The norm is for the priest-presiding to preach, but he may also ask the deacon to preach the homily.  This has caused no little confusion: just what does "on occasion" mean?

Some pastors have interpreted this too mean "rarely" or "only in extraordinary circumstances."  This is not correct.  What the Holy See was trying to correct were abuses in some parts of the world (not so much in the US) in which priests were never preaching, but turning over that responsibility to others (deacons or lay people).  However, given the law we've already examined, the deacon IS an "ordinary" preacher and, while we don't preach at EVERY Mass, we should certainly preach with certain regularity.

Finally, and perhaps most important of all, diaconal preaching should have its own unique character.  Deacons can bring their own experience of family and professional life to bear in their homilies.  Just as priests can offer insights from the perspective of their own experience, so too can deacons.  This goes much deeper than simply telling parishioners what he and his family did on vacation!  Rather, the deacon can offer insights about the practical challenges of living out the Word of God in school, on the job and in the family.  He can also highlight what he has experienced in his own ministries of charity, and the very real needs of the people he is serving in prisons, hospitals, on the streets and in soup kitchens.  This desire to encourage uniquely diaconal preaching is reaching new maturity.  Just over the last two years, I have assisted three graduate students completing doctorates in ministry who wrote about this very topic.  Two were written by deacons and one by a priest. 

More to come. . . .


  1. . . .the deacon can offer insights about the practical challenges of living out the Word of God in school, on the job and in the family. He can also highlight what he has experienced in his own ministries of charity, and the very real needs of the people he is serving in prisons, hospitals, on the streets and in soup kitchens.

    My impression is that we have a very long way to go on this. Mostly, the homilies I have heard deacons preach seem to mirror (too often in a distorted way) those delivered by priests in the same parish. Unfortunately, making formation programs more "academic" (as we are doing in my own diocese) is likely to make the homilies still more formal, stilted, and divorced from the everyday realities of the people in the pew--and of the deacons themselves.

  2. This is off the topic of preaching but apropos the issue of getting permits to function as a deacon.
    A few years ago a priest friend of mine asked me if I could help him out by doing a wedding ceremony. The couple he was preparing for marriage had a death in the family and had to change the date of the wedding to a time and day he was unavailable. He assured me all the paperwork had been done.
    It was a lot of paperwork since one of the couple was a Lutheran, there was also to be a Lutheran minister participating, the ceremony was to be in a Lutheran chapel in a Latvian campground in a different diocese in a different state.
    When I received the completed paperwork in the mail it must have been a foot thick. And that was only the start.
    Now I had to get all the diaconal permits from my archdiocese, the diocese where the chapel was located, the parish where the chapel was located as well as a one-day state license giving me, as an out-of-stater, authority to celebrate a wedding in that state.
    The pile of paper seemed to grow by another foot. And this comment is a very condensed version of the paperwork.
    The best part of the whole event was that the wedding was so far from our homes that everyone (including my wife)were invited to stay in our own cottages at the campground with all the food, etc. anyone could hope to consume over 3 days.
    I also learned a lot about unique Latvian marriage customs that were celebrated over the week-end. ( Incidentally, the groom was Polish Catholic from a VERY conservative family. Part of my job for the week-end was to soothe ruffled Polish feathers over an inter-religious marriage.)
    Yes! Being a deacon can be an interesting ride

  3. In regards to the Eastern Catholic Churches, the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches reads:
    Can. 610 - §1. Bishops have the right to preach the word of God everywhere, unless the eparchial bishop in a special case expressly forbids it.
    §2. Priests have the faculty to preach where they are legitimately sent or invited.
    §3. Deacons too have the same faculty, unless particular law had determined otherwise.

    The Canons of the Particular Law of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church reads:
    Can. 75 (CCEO c.610 §3) Deacons too have the same faulty to preach where they are legitimately assigned.

    This is obviously more restrictive for deacons of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church than it is for deacons of the Roman Catholic Church. It appears to limit the deacon’s munus in regards to preaching to his particular assignment.

    The particular law of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church reads: Can. 76 (CCEO c. 614 §4) The homily is reserved to a priest or also to a deacon with the approval of the bishop. The CCEO reads: Can 614 - §4 The homily is reserved to a priest or, according to norm of particular law, also to a deacon

    I understand this to mean that a deacon needs to have a faculty from the bishop to preach a homily in the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.

    Why the law in regards to preaching and the homily are more restrictive in the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church is not clear and I prefer not to speculate unnecessarily.

    (I usually give the liturgical homily once every 4 weeks, and preach once a month after the Divine Liturgy at the monthly adult catechesis.)

  4. Re: diaconate homilies.

    I remember hearing one woman at another parish complain: "I love our deacon," she said, "but if I have to hear one more homily about his grandchildren, I'll scream..."


  5. Deacon Greg tells an anecdote with a good point. The deacon's grandchildren seem to me to rank right in there with Father Murphy's canine. The problem isn't that they keep making their way into sermons. The problem is that nothing of real substance is getting in.

    But I'm not convinced that the "real substance" of the homilies the deacon delivers ought to be identical with what the priest might offer if he were preaching instead. I think Deacon Bill got it just exactly right. The deacon has a unique opportunity to offer insights about the practical challenges of living the gospel, particularly in ministries of service that ought to engage the laity as well. But I think the deacons are likely to offer such substance in their homilies only if they have been led to do so through a formation process that encourages them to reflect thoughtfully and prayerfully on their many involvements in the world outside the confines of the clerical establishment.

  6. There is one issue that I believe is important in the discussion of preaching that is never discussed, and that's talent. If you do not have the talent to be both writer and speaker, your sermons will not be that great, period. What amazes me in the formation of both priests and deacons is that in all the personality testing done, there is no emphasis on the talent of an individual for either the writing or delivering of the spoken word. I say this based on a career of over three decades in broadcasting. Give me the person with talent and proper training over the person with just the training anytime.

  7. JT

    Your insight is a two-edged sword.

    A number of dioceses here in the Midwest went through a phase where they were not awarding faculties for preaching to newly ordained deacons. Instead, those that wanted to preach had to attend a series of separate continuing education programs during their first year "out-of-the-chute." If they passed all of that, then they were awarded that faculty.

    That was changed very recently when our bishops realized Bill's point that deacons receive the faculty to preach automatically upon ordination.

    What has been happening, at least so I've been led to believe, is that the current application and screening criteria for deacon candidates emphasize more a candidate's leadership and communication skills.

    We'll have to see if that newer formation process works.

    Bottom line, yes! Some priests and deacons have no talent for preaching BUT that does not mean we remove that faculty so much as it means we send them back to school to learn the skill properly. AND that includes priests!

    Deacon Norb in Ohio

  8. I know I’ve avoided the trap Deacon Kandra mentions – but only because, never having had children, I don’t have grandchildren ;-).

    In the span of six hours, three days after I last preached, I received three significant, thoughtful compliments on my preaching. One was remunerative and another was a suggestion to “take it on the road”, i.e., offer to preach at underserved parishes, since the preaching deacons of our parish are utilized far less with our new pastor and there are many parishes with heavily burdened pastors and no deacons with a facility for preaching. I’ve traveled the diocese widely, and few parts are completely foreign to me, but I was wondering if someone else has undertaken something like this.

    And a comment for JT - talent can be developed. The first speech I ever gave I was so scared I developed a nose bleed. Four years later, I had the top morning FM show in my market.