Friday, March 25, 2011

Deacon: Apostolic Leader in Service

Several months ago, I began a series of reflections on the participation of the deacon in the three-fold functions of Word, Sacrament and Charity.  I had finished the first two munera but never covered the final function of "charity." Let's rectify that at long last.

First, let me point out a few things by way of introduction.  The three-fold office of Word, Sacrament and Charity is described by the Second Vatican Council as the role of the bishop, and all three functions are referred to collectively as a "diakonia," a "service" or "ministry."  It's important, I believe to highlight these points: the fullness of these functions are, in fact, the ministry of the bishop, in whose ministry the deacon (and presbyter) participates; and, second, ALL THREE functions are to be understood as "diakonia".  Quite frequently, people mistakenly assume that "diakonia" refers only to the third of the functions, that of "charity."  It does not, and "charity" does not exhaust the concept of  "diakonia," or service.

This explains why I prefer to use the word "charity" for the third function, not "service" as one often reads.  One last time: all three sets of functions are "service."

As I reflect on the various forms of ministry that "charity" can be exercised, I would like to make two observations: 1) ALL Christian disciples are called to serve as agents of God's love and concern, not "just" deacons.  It doesn't take ordination to visit the sick, care for the homeless, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and so on -- it flows from our sacramental initiation!  We are not ordained primarily to "do" charity so that other people don't have to; we shouldn't think, "OK, now I'm ordained, so now I can do prison ministry" (for example).  Doesn't work that way.  2) What is reflected in the church's teaching on the diaconate and in our theology of Order is that all ordained ministries involve the charism of LEADERSHIP.  I have written extensively about this before.  This dimension of leadership applies as much to the order of deacons as much as it does to the order of bishops and the order of presbyters.

Since ordained ministry is a participation in the apostolic ministry, I sometimes refer to deacons as "apostolic leaders in service".

Therefore, as we begin our reflection the deacon's role in "charity," I suggest that we ask how the deacon LEADS (understood as servant-leadership) in this role.  What traits associated with good leadership would apply here?  Leaders are people with vision, who can inspire others to share and be engaged in realizing that vision; a leader cares for the people who serve with him or her; a leader is a good steward on behalf of others.  I believe that this is at the heart of what Pope Paul VI had in mind when he described deacons as the "animators of the Church's service" and when Pope John Paul II taught that the deacon's ministry "is the church's service sacramentalized."


  1. Bill:

    This looks really good!

    Believe it or not, this whole area is one of the hardest for aspirants/ candidates/rookie-deacons to really understand.

    Only the very best of blessings!

    Deacon Norb in Ohio

  2. Off to a flying start! (And worth waiting for . . . )

  3. A thought provoking introduction to this subject. Many thanks; it has certainly helped me see things in a different perspective - and change the essay that I am writing!