Icons of Christ the Servant
Permanent deacons have filled a vital role in the Church
During the Second Vatican Council the diaconate as “a proper and permanent rank of the hierarchy” was re-established, as outlined in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, No. 29. The sacred order of deacons is one and is exercised both by those who are to be ordained priests and by those who live and exercise it permanently. This enlargement of the diaconal office has been a great gift to the Church and remains an important legacy of Vatican II. The entire Church is a ministry, a service, a diakonia, and deacons epitomize this in their very persons. They are to be personalized “icons” of Jesus Christ the Servant.
The Church is a “Sacrament of Communion” and is missionary. In fact she is mission to the core. This mandate stretches the Church in all her hierarchy and in all her members to reach, serve and accompany all persons, from the center of the Church to the peripheries, in their joys and struggles, their doubts and their hopes, their injuries and accomplishments. How good it is that we have individuals who name this accompaniment in their lives and titles.
Called to Serve
Fifty years ago Pope Blessed Paul VI gave a positive reply to a request of the bishops of the United States to restore a permanent office of deacon in our country. One of the many reasons the bishops presented to the pope then was to enrich and strengthen the many and various diaconal ministries already at work in the United States with the sacramental grace of the diaconate.
Perhaps no one then fully envisioned how vast and ever-expanding the diaconal office would be in succeeding years. With the growth of the numbers of men who entered this ancient but now renewed apostolic office, there also came a growing deepening of the formation necessary to prepare for diaconal ordination and ongoing training and formation after ordination. This desire and need for formation resulted in a National Directory for the Formation, Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons in the United States originally approved by the bishops’ conference of the United States in 2003 and confirmed by Rome in 2004 for a five-year term. It subsequently was reaffirmed by Rome and is now being reworked and renewed.
It should be noted that a permanent deacon is a member of the clergy because he is an ordained minister, but he is ordained not for priesthood but for service! He certainly is bound in love to priesthood and priests and especially to the office of bishop, but he is a distinctive member of the diaconate, and this is how he lives out the Sacrament of Holy Orders.
Making Their Mark
After 50 years, the presence of deacons in our parishes, Church institutions, educational works and justice and peace ministries is no longer a novelty. In an archdiocese like my own, in fact, that presence is an expectation.
Because their work and activity is so varied, and because that work rests on a distinctive “deacon” identity, those who are deacons need a human, pastoral, academic and spiritual formation. They need a confidence born from a deep relationship with the Lord Jesus, disciplined by theology and knowledge of the faith of the Church in Jesus Christ, training in preaching and practical skills, and a human face that reflects well and wisely the face of Jesus. The human face of the deacon is a bridge, not an obstacle, to his servant leadership.
I can speak from experience in my own local Church of the excellent work of our permanent deacons, more than 400 in number. They certainly are represented in our parishes, where they are involved in liturgical life and preaching, in their care for the bereaved and their presence at wake services, their catechetical endeavors in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, and in some cases their full-time work as parish administrators and finance initiatives, and in their dedicated work (frequently with their wives) in the preparation of couples for the Sacrament of Matrimony.
They particularly have been involved in hospital visitation and chaplaincy at medical facilities. I am especially proud of their work in prisons and in ministries for those just released from incarceration. They are involved in a number of social-justice programs, pro-life groups and ecumenical collaborations. In our archdiocese, the tagline for deacons is their “availability.” They also work in teams to prepare candidates for the diaconate and act as mentors for those in formation. The deacons collaborate with the bishop and the priests in exercising a wisdom service — in liturgy, in word and in charity — to build up the Body of Christ in the Holy Spirit. The diaconate indeed has become a beautiful manifestation of the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church in this country.
I want to express my gratitude to all those priests, deacons and laypeople who have shown great dedication in teaching and forming our diaconate community, to all the families, especially the wives, who have sacrificed greatly and collaborated with their husbands and fathers in supporting this ordained ministry, and to the members of the faithful who have received this ministry well and support it in their parishes. The role of the bishop and of priests, especially pastors, is what gives definition and harmony and support to those who have accepted the office of the diaconate as a permanent identity of their spiritual journey.
Like what you’re reading? Subscribe now.
One of the traditional places of the deacon in the liturgy is the role of proclaiming the Gospel and distributing the chalice containing the Precious Blood of Our Lord. The early Church saw this as a sign of what the deacon’s life must always be, in the liturgy at church and in the liturgy of their lives and pastoral service. May this beautiful sign continue to resonate in the Church.
The deacon’s life witnesses and proclaims the Gospel. The deacon pours out his life, like Christ the Servant, as a living chalice of charity, emptied out for others and filled with the Lord Jesus.
CARDINAL DANIEL N. DINARDO is archbishop of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston and president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.