Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Deacon as Minister of the Word of God, Part III

There is a well-known saying, often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: "Preach the Gospel; use words if necessary."  This wonderful insight reminds us that the Good News of Christ is to be proclaimed to every creature in our words and in our actions.  To return to the "Deacon's Charge" from the ordination ceremony: "Receive the Gospel of Christ, who Herald you now are.  Believe what you read, teach what you believe, and practice what you teach."  This is the charge given to Heralds of Christ in the world today.

We have reflected upon the deacon and his role of proclaiming the Gospel and on his responsibilities as a preacher at Mass.  Now we turn our attention to other dimensions of the deacon's service as a minister of the Word; specifically, in this posting, the deacon's role as an official teacher of the church.  The deacon's catechetical role flows from the same charge given to him by the bishop.  While some deacons do not consider themselves teachers, and a few might even argue loudly that they are not!  However, that doesn't change the fact that the church sees all ordained ministers as teachers, and as with most things the deacon does, his responsibilities as teacher flow from his relationship to the bishop, who is the prime teacher of the faith in the diocese.

We can always learn so much from looking at the days of the early church.  In this case, we can gain some interesting insights from the great bishop Augustine of Hippo and his relationship with deacons; in two particular instances, they were not even deacons of his own diocese!  The first example is that of Augustine and a deacon from Carthage named "Deogratias".  The deacon had written to Bishop Augustine to ask his advice.  His own bishop had asked him to take charge of the catechetical formation of new converts in the Church at Carthage, and the deacon turned to the famous teacher and bishop for advice.  "What should I teach these catechumens?"  In response, St. Augustine composed a document which comes to us as perhaps the earliest catechetical document in the history of the church, "De Catechizandis Rudibus" ("On the Catechesis of the Unlearned").  For our purposes, it is significant to see that the deacon is clearly associated with taking the leadership in catechesis on behalf of his bishop.

Our second example is similar.  In this case, still another deacon from Carthage, this one named "Quodvultdeus" writes to Bishop Augustine informing him that the bishop of Carthage has asked the deacon to preach the Lenten homilies, and the deacon asked for Augustine's advice (I like to think that Quodvultdeus heard from his buddy Deogratias about how helpful Augustine had been to him!).  In this case, however, we don't have a document from Augustine in answer to the deacon's question; but we do have the deacon's homilies!  So it is possible to study them and discern Augustinian influence.  But again, for our purposes here, it's illuminating to see that the deacon is again taking on preaching/teaching responsibility on behalf of his bishop -- and that this is seen as a normal activity of the deacon.

So, for our reflection today, those of us who are deacons can ask ourselves how well we handle our catechetical responsibilities.  First, do we embrace them eagerly and passionately as a constitutive component of our ministries?  Second, do we continue to seek opportunities for ongoing formation, just as our predecessors turned to a master teacher for advice?  Third, how well do we teach, helping others find the practical applications of the Gospel in every day life.  Such ministry is part and parcel of the charge given to us at ordination.


  1. While not strictly "catechetical" I think a good example for us is St. Ephraim, Deacon and Doctor of the Church. As St. Lawrence seems to be a powerful example of diaconaal ministry of charity, I find St. Ephraim a remarkable model for our ministry of the Word. Certainly theology, preaching and catechetics are all of a piece and it's a shame that the deacon's role as official teacher is so ignored at worst or minimalized at best in the little I have read or heard about it. I was skimming through an article on catechetics recently and it dealt with the bishop as Chief Catechist of the diocese, the pastor/priest as Master Catechist par excellance in the parish...no word whatsoever about a deacon's role.

    Among other things, I direct catechesis in the parish along with a laywoman as coordinator and I train catechists. I also teach the teens and lead retreats (also a diaconal ministry) for youth. I couldn't imagine not having the privilege of this ministry.

  2. Ephrem of Edessa (or Nisibis) is a fantastic model for deacons, and I'm so glad you mentioned him, Diakonos! He's one of my favorites. For one thing, his theology is expressed largely in his music; he ran a school for formation, and so on. Great model. And I think he is very much a "catechetical" model.

    God bless


  3. And, of course, blogs and other social media are providing deacons with more ways of fulfilling our callings as ministers of the Word of God. I'm glad you have started this one!

    Deacon David Backes