Monday, January 2, 2012

"Only a deacon": A New Year's Reflection on the Role of the Deacon

In a couple of months I will celebrate 22 years of service as a deacon.  The photo at left was taken during the Mass of ordination, with Cardinal James Hickey of the Archdiocese of Washington, DC as principal celebrant, Fr. Jack Smith who was my pastor at the time and Fr. Tom Henseler, a friend of mine for many years, as concelebrants (Fr. Tom Kalita was also a concelebrant, but he's not visible in the photo).  Even though this photo is from the Concluding Doxology of that Mass, with me elevating the chalice next to Cardinal Hickey, it brings back so many wonderful memories of that day and of the entire ordination ceremony.

One of the parts of that ceremony includes the bishop asking  a series of questions of the candidate, so that he is assured that the candidate is free, ready and willing to assume the responsibilities of the order to which he is to be ordained.  In conjunction with that, I've been thinking about the number of times over those years that I've heard the expression "only a deacon."

-- "Since you're only a deacon, what can't you do that Father does?"
-- "Oh, he can't do that -- he's only a deacon."
-- [sometimes even deacons get it wrong]: "Oh, I'm not a leader; I'm only a deacon"!

Some years ago a friend pointed me to a wonderful homily preached at the ordination of deacons.  This ordination was within the Episcopalian Church, and the bishop-homilist was Bishop John W. Howe of Central Florida.   Just as within the Catholic Church, the bishop was about to ask his ordinands a series of questions.  Here's what the bishop had to say:

“In a few minutes I’m going to ask the ordinands this question: “Do you believe you are truly called by God and his Church to the life and work of a deacon?”
This isn't one of the questions we get asked in the Catholic Church, but it's a good one!  The bishop went on in his homily to describe the work of those first two men traditionally associated with being deacons: St. Stephen (the protomartyr) and St. Philip, who's stories are found in Acts 6-8.  St. Stephen, of course, is described as a powerful preacher and witness of Jesus Christ, who ultimately is martyred for his strong preaching.  St. Philip is described as being filled with the Holy Spirit (like Stephen) and being led by the Spirit to various place to catechize.  In particular we find Philip with the Ethiopian eunuch, explaining the scriptures to him and, at the official's request, baptizing him before being led by the Spirit someplace else.  The bishop continues:
So: in the stories of these two men, Stephen and Philip, I suggest we have the beginning, at least, of the job description of a deacon.  A deacon is to be: a person of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and of wisdom, full of grace and power, with a servant’s heart, available to God for menial tasks, or to confront the authorities, speaking truth to power.  A deacon is to be a channel for signs, wonders, healings and even exorcisms; an evangelist, a student of scripture, obedient to the promptings of the Spirit, willing to minister to the one or the many; blind to color, race, or station, courageous in witness, and faithful unto death.
 If your answer to my question is “Yes,” I don’t ever want to hear any of you say 'I’m only a deacon.'

So, having just celebrated the feast of St. Stephen last week, all of us -- and in particular, deacons -- can take a good lesson from the bishop's homily.  And don't let me ever hear any of you say, "I'm only a deacon"!

Merry Christmas!


  1. "Available to God for menial tasks..." looks like a good description not only of a deacon, but of a saint!

  2. Beautiful! Ad multos annos for you, truly someone who occupies his vocation so fully and richly!

  3. Wow! I'm a lay missionary working with a Christian (Non Catholic) organization and I'm 24 years old. I loved the way you described what it means to be a deacon. I have a burning wish in my heart of one day being able to serve the Lord through the permanent diaconate and I currently don't have anyone but the internet to inform me of what it means to be a permanent deacon. After all the readings that I've done so far, I think your description and the homily of the bishop in your ordination are utterly brilliant and it really makes sense to me. It makes my desire be kept for at least 11 more years, when I'll be able to me a married permanent deacon God willing. Thank you

  4. Thank you so much for this wonderful post.

  5. Thanks for sharing this... I know I will pass your (and Bishop Howe's) words on to the deacons of our diocese.

  6. Best description of what a deacon is I have ever read or heard! Now to live up to it!