To be a deacon

Richard Norman offers some thoughts on the distinctive ministry of the diaconate and addresses some common misunderstandings

There was a lot wrong with my theological college, but something which seemed to me singularly egregious was the declaration on the college’s website that ‘[their] primary mission [was] to prepare women and men for ministry as priests...’ In this case, the significant error was not in respect of women’s ordination, but rather in the idea that the ministry for which one was at seminary being formed, and the vocation in answer to which one was endeavouring to respond, was that of priesthood.

For the ordination which follows that period of formation and study is not to the priesthood but to the diaconate. This misemphasis is a common one, and is unhappy testament to the Western Church’s lack of esteem for, and indeed understanding of, its deacons. Thus I would in this article like to offer a few thoughts on the subject of the distinctive ministry and spirituality of the diaconate.

Assistant

Diakonia, we are informed, means service: but, as the erstwhile Priest-in- Charge of St Thomas the Martyr, Oxford has made clear, the origins of the ministerial diaconate lie not (primarily) in works of charity, but in assisting the performance of the Christian cult, i.e. they lie at the altar.

This is service in the sense of waiting upon someone – for the deacon, waiting upon the bishop. A deacon is an assistant to his bishop, in contrast to the priest who, in celebrating the Eucharist, is a substitute for him. Thus at a diaconal ordination it is (at least meant to be) the bishop alone who lays hands upon the ordinand, whereas a priestly ordination is, in effect, concelebrated by those priests present with the bishop, who all lay hands on the candidate.

Similarly, when the bishop celebrates Mass, his concelebrants retire to a distance from the altar whilst the deacon remains at his side.

The deacon prepares the altar, and assists the celebrant: this liturgy of the altar is complemented by his role in the liturgy of the word, in which the proclamation of the Gospel is the deacon’s distinctive task.

The Gospel

Hence why, when any AngloCatholic priest worth his salt has to announce the Gospel during Mass, his hands stay firmly together as he greets the people with ‘The Lord be with you’ (rather than extending

them as he might do as he prepares to pray the Eucharistic Prayer). He is exercising his diaconate rather than his priesthood.

The Holy Father recalls Pope Paul VI who, during the Second Vatican Council, ‘once told the masters of ceremonies that he himself would like to be the one who enthroned the Gospel. [The M.C. replied,] ‘No, this is a task for deacons and not for the Pope, the Supreme Pontiff, or the Bishops’. [Paul VI] noted in his diary: But I am also a deacon, I am still a deacon, and I too would like to exercise my diaconal ministry by enthroning the Word of God.’

Spirituality and fidelity

Diakonia, service, is likewise the dominant theme in a diaconal spirituality, a spirituality to be practised by all members of the Church, whether (in the case of the clergy) because they retain the imprint of diaconal character regardless of the order to which they are subsequently ordained, or simply because Christ at the Last Supper enjoined service upon the disciples as an example for all Christians to follow.

The sacramental ordination of some to the diaconate serves in one respect as a visible sign to the entire Church of this universal vocation to service.

John Paul II identified fidelity as a second characteristic of diaconal spirituality: ‘fidelity to the Catholic tradition, especially as witnessed to by the lex orandi, fidelity to the Magisterium, fidelity to the task of re-evangelization which the Holy Spirit has brought about in the Church.’ In the course of my year as a transitional deacon I have felt something of this in the extent to which the deacon is dependent upon the ministry of others, particularly the bishop and priests, for the performance of his own work. Administering Holy Communion in the absence of a priest to celebrate Mass is a great privilege, but is also a situation of incompleteness: the deacon’s ministry here ought to spur the faithful above all to pray for priests!

Proper context

It is no real misunderstanding to think of diakonia as charitable service, merely a partial one. John Paul II commended those deacons who ‘rightly strive to live without separating [their] liturgical service from that of charity in its concrete forms. This shows that the sign of Gospel love cannot be reduced to categories of mere solidarity but follows as a logical consequence of the Eucharistic mystery.’

The diaconate places charitable service into its proper Christian context, premised upon Christ’s self-sacrificial service upon the Cross. It ought to raise for all Christians the necessity of connecting apostolic works to the Holy Sacrifice. ND

This article is based on notes
for a talk given to Forward in Faith
Southwark in February 2012

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