Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Being Catholic: What Difference Does It Make, Really?

My friend and brother deacon, Greg Kandra, and others have been opining about Mike Hayes' recent blog post which asks whether we have become the Pharisees of our day.  Here's the original blog post over at Googling God, and here's Deacon Greg's post on the matter, along with considerable commentary. Not only do I think Mike's post is right on target, I think it has particular relevance for those of us who serve as the Church's deacons.  Let me offer two observations: one based on an historical look at the diaconate in the ancient and early medieval church, and another based on more recent history and theology related to the diaconate.

First we should look at the biblical and patristic roots of the Order of Deacons in the church.  Consider that whenever we read of deacons in scripture, they are always described in relationship to the bishop-overseer of the community, and the deacons are clearly responsible for much of the administration and outreach of the community.  The various patristic sources on the diaconate describe deacons as legates, ambassadors to other communities, catechists and religious educators.  Yes, of course, they have a liturgical role, and it's an important one!  However, their "day job" is all about helping people make connections: connecting their bishop with other communities when they served as his legates, connecting people with needs with the resources to meet those needs, and even helping their bishops in administering the goods and other "temporalities" of the church.  Deacons are, as I have said often, ministers of "connect-the-dots."

As the diaconate gradually became transitional to the presbyterate, some of this connective tissue was lost, and I don't believe it's coincidental that we see the emergence of a variety of religious orders (of both women and men) who take as their primary charism the service of others.  There is a direct, tangible connection between the decline of the diaconate as a permanent order of ministry and the rise of religious congregations devoted to the Church's diakonia.

Second, as I've written extensively here and elsewhere, the reasons for renewing a permanent diaconate in the 19th and 20th Centuries were also driven by a need to increase the outreach of the Christian family to those in need (charity) and also to work for institutional, structural, and systemic change so that the conditions which led to those needs could be eliminated (justice).  In short, the Church increasingly recovered her identity as a servant-Church.  This was the principle theme of Pope Paul VI as he closed the Second Vatican Council in 1965: he announced that the central theme of the entire Council had been to identify the Church as servant to the world.  The diaconate was restored, largely and most influentially, because of the horrors of the Dachau Concentration Camp and the experiences of the large numbers of German and Polish priests incarcerated there.  It would due to the efforts of several of those priest-survivors who would push for the renewal of a contemporary permanent diaconate precisely to help the Church recover her servant-identity, and this was what the world's bishops would also recover at the Council.  Pope Paul VI didn't end his reflection with that final speech, either.  In the years following the Council, as he took the necessary steps to renew the diaconate, he frequently observed that the very reason for the deacon's existence is to "sacramentalize the Church's own service."  He also reminded these new deacons that we are to be the "animators" of the Church's own service, by stirring up the conscience of the Christian community.

Here's where I think Mike's blog post really hits home.  He asks us to inquire of ourselves and our parishioners what they believe the Church's priorities are.  What has the bishop stated as his own pastoral priorities?  Here in the diocese in which I'm serving, for example, our bishop has made it clear that one of his chief pastoral priorities -- and something that he wants all of us to tackle in some way -- is that countering gang violence.  Bishops in the Midwest, where family farms are giving way to huge corporate conglomerates, often take on the plight of the family farmers and their families.  Unfortunately, Mike found that very often, many Catholics didn't even know who there bishop was, much less what his pastoral concerns were.

Many of us, myself included, find ourselves playing "insider baseball".  We often get so wrapped up in internal parochial matters (which are sometimes quite important, don't get me wrong!), that we forget that the very mission of the Church herself -- as Paul VI and John Paul II said so frequently -- is evangelization itself.  As Cardinal Mahoney once wrote, "It's not that the Church has mission, but that the mission has a Church" and that mission, is evangelization.

So, my friends, I think this is a good opportunity for us to reflect on all of this.  As a community of faith, what is your parish doing?  Get specific!  What are the top three priorities of your bishop?  Of your pastor?  Of your parish pastoral council?  Of your finance council?  Follow the money, follow the time, follow the energy expended.  What do you find?

Let me end with a true story.  I was serving on a diocesan staff in the Midwest.  The bishop asked me to come to a meeting with some parish leaders from a small rural parish who were concerned about their ability to survive as a parish.  They came to the bishop and enthusiastically told him that they had "found the solution to the priest shortage."  Their answer was to sponsor a priest from Nigeria to come to the diocese, attend a local University, and also serve in their parish, which was nearby.  And the good news, they said, was that they only needed Father to say a Mass on Sunday; the rest of the week, he would be available to do any other jobs the bishop had for him.  When the bishop asked who was going to handle the rest of the parish's functions, if they didn't see Father doing that, they said that there WERE no other parish responsibilities.  The parish existed for one reason: to have Sunday Mass.  Period.  Nothing else.  It was a stunningly depressing moment, to see these wonderful people who had no idea of what being a Catholic parish ought to mean within the larger human community.

What's going on where you live?


  1. I am going to have to return with further comments, but that last story got to my heart.

    With one quick thing - I live in a diocese with distinctly strong service ministries and work at one parish and worship at another that both mirror these values. It is one of many, many reasons I love this place.

  2. I was hoping that those rural parishioners were going to say that they would take care of the parish's non-sacramental responsibilities.

  3. Dear Naturgesetz,

    Exactly! That's precisely what the bishop and I were expecting to hear as well, and that's why it was so depressing. It was that narrow view of "church" that blew us away.

    God bless,

    Deacon Bill

  4. These two posts and the comments on them drove me to reflect a bit on whether or not you can see in me what I profess to practice, and to a rather spirited conversation this morning after Lauds with my community.

    Your last anecdote reminded me of the book "Sense of the Faithful" which takes an academic look at the life of five or six parishes. I remember being struck that the study asked people in the parishes to reflect on a Gospel passage in addition to the more usual tick off boxes survey.

    I'm off to read the book again, since my recollection is that it pulled out some of these very issues. What is a parish for? How widely do we open the gates?

  5. Deacon Bill's posts are few and far between but always worth waiting for. Here I was especially struck by his point about the rise of religious orders even as the permanent diaconate was disappearing. Our Christian ministry of service, it seems, goes on no matter what.

    Still, the diaconate is an especially suitable vehicle for that ministry because it sacramentalizes the mission, reinforcing the bond beween our witness in the world and our celebration of the Eucharist. In theory, anyway. But if we talk enough about the theory, perhaps it will become the norm in practice.

  6. Amen Deacon Bill amen, I just could not agree with you more. So many among us are looking for perfection in an already perfect Mass and forgetting about all the imperfections on the other side of the doors of the church.

  7. About seven years ago now, our new bishop (at that time) closed two parishes in our immediate area. One of those two could well have been the parish described in Bill's story.

    What has happened was rather unexpected. A small core of that original congregation has maintained a distinct corporate identity and has connected itself with the hierarchy of the schismatic Polish National Catholic Church out of Scranton Pennsylvania. Those core families enjoy status as a "Mission" - and are ministered by a priest from that group on a monthly basis.

    Evidence of that group's intent to live on surfaces in the most amazing places.

    Deacon Norb in Ohio