On Friday Oct. 25, 2013, I was invited by the Conquest Boys Club to address their annual Faith of Our Fathers Men's Banquet on the question of the permanent diaconate. This event is an opportunity for men and their sons to come together to celebrate their vocations as husbands, fathers, brothers and sons, while also honouring our spiritual fathers in the priesthood and encourgaing young men to actively discern their own vocations. As such, it was the perfect place to talk about the vocation to the diaconate, a little known, but essential vocation in the life of the Church. Here is what I had to say:
I want to thank you for your invitation to talk about the important, but relatively unknown vocation of the diaconate. Some of us here may be called to this vocation, but most probably are not. Nevertheless, it is a vocation in the Church, like priesthood or marriage, and all Catholics should know something about it.
Now, I’m a theologian, and one of my areas of interest is the sacraments, so I’m going to try to frame the vocation of the diaconate for us in terms of sacramental theology. In order to do this, I’m also going to talk about priesthood and marriage as sacraments so that, hopefully, by the end of the talk, we have learned a bit, not only about the diaconate, but about our own vocations, no matter what they may be.
As early as the New Testament, we can discern what theologians call a three-fold pattern of ministry in the Church: bishop, priest, and deacon. It is interesting to note that, in our ecumenical conversations with our brothers and sisters in Christ from other communities, we highlight this pattern in order to encourage them to recover the office of bishop. We argue that the New Testament indicates that this three-fold pattern in Scripture tells us something about the constitution of the Church: a Christian community without bishops is missing something essential. If we follow through on our own logic here, we must also say that a Christian community without deacons is missing something essential. They are part of the divine constitution of the Church.
This was obvious to the early Christians, as can be seen in this quote from Ignatius of Antioch, whose feast we recently celebrated and who lived in the first century.
Correspondingly everyone must show the deacons respect. They represent Jesus Christ, just as the bishop has the role of the Father, and the presbyters [i.e., priests] are like God’s council and an apostolic band. You cannot have the Church without these.
Now, perhaps we are already familiar with the idea that the priest represents Christ. And this is certainly true. But the priest represents Christ under one aspect in particular, and it is from this that he gets the name “priest.” A priest represents sacramentally to the Church Christ our high priest who, out of his great love for us, offered himself (offering is the quintessential priestly act) for our salvation.
Notice the word “sacramentally.” Sacraments do not merely represent in a kind of pictorial way with the sole intention of jogging our memories, though that is not excluded. But, beyond a simple drawing of our attention and memory to Christ, they make the risen Christ, no longer bound by time and space, even in his human body, present to us. This is, of course, clearest in the Eucharist, in which Christ’s body and blood become present to us beyond the limitations of the flesh, but it is true of the rest of the sacraments as well. All the sacraments represent Christ to us and make him truly present to us in their own unique way.
Now this is important when we think about the diaconate. There is a temptation to think of the diaconate in purely functional terms, i.e., what can a deacon do? Then we are tempted to think of the deacon as a mini-priest, someone who can do baptisms and weddings and funerals and even proclaim and preach the gospel at Mass, but who can’t do the “real” ordained work of hearing confession and presiding at the eucharist. We might call this attitude “functionalism.”
To avoid such “functionalism” we must remember that the sacrament of orders is not merely about what one can do, as if it consists in some sort of grace-granted super power. Rather the sacrament of holy orders is about who a person is. To be a priest, or a bishop, or a deacon is about one’s identity in Christ and in the Church. The functions ordained men perform, however important, are a result of that.
Now let’s take a minute to think about our own identities Who are you?
I think if you look carefully, you will notice that your identity is first and foremost a product of your relationships. You may think of yourself as a son or a father or a brother. You may think of yourself as a husband or a priest. You may think of yourself as a leader of others, perhaps in a Conquest boys group. You may think of yourself as a follower of Jesus. All of these are relationships.
Now, ordination puts a person in a particular relationshipwith Christ and Christ’s Church; with God and with the People of God, just as marriage puts you in a particular relationship with your spouse. By the way, this is why sometimes we say that people in religious life have “married the Church” (for men) or “married Christ” (for women).
By his ordination, a deacon is someone in a particular relationship with Christ and the Church. And because ordination is a sacrament, the deacon makes Christ present to his Church in a unique way. A priest sacramentally represents to us Christ the high priest, and spouses sacramentally represent to us the relationship between Christ and his body, the Church. A deacon, on the other hand, sacramentally represents to us Christ the servant. The Greek root word for deacon, diakonia, means service.
Notice that what is made sacramentally present through our vocations as priests or spouses is part of the identity of the whole Church. The whole Church of God is a priestly people because of our identity with Christ, the one true priest, and the sacramental priesthood both grows out that context and serves as a reminder to us of our own identity as priestly people. That is why we are called to join our offering (offering is what priests do, remember) of our lives to Christ’s sacrifice with and through our priests in the celebration of the Eucharist.
Furthermore, unmarried people, including priests, are part of the relationship between Christ and his Church that is sacramentally represented by marriage. All Christians belong to the Bride of Christ.
And just as we are all the Bride of Christ and we are all a priestly people, we are all called to be servants. This is the lesson Jesus taught at the last supper when he washed the feet of the disciples and taught them that “if I, your Lord and Teacher have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.”
As Blessed Pope John Paul II (we won’t be able to say that much longer!) once said when addressing a group of deacons:
The service of the deacon is the Church’s service sacramentalized. Yours is not just one ministry among others, but it is truly meant to be, as Paul VI described it, a “driving force” for the Church’s diakonia. You are meant to be living signs of the servanthood of Christ’s Church.
To help us think about this, we can consider the ministry of the deacon. A deacon has a liturgical role at Mass. He serves by assisting the priest in various ways. His most prominent roles are the proclamation of the gospel (technically speaking, even when a priest reads the gospel he is acting as a deacon), to preach the homily and to be a minister of the cup.
But a deacon also has a ministry outside the walls of the Church, a ministry to the poor, the weak, and the marginalized. Deacons are often found in prison and hospital chaplaincies, in ministries to immigrants or to the homeless. In such work they remind the Church that of the intimate relationship between our worship and our service. As St. James writes in his letter: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” It is the sacramental role of the deacon to remind us all that true worship leads to service and true service leads back to worship.
Deacons are not mini-priests, but a full and equal order of their own right, working with the priests as both participate in the ministry of the Bishop in their unique ways. A great image that our own Archbishop finds helpful for thinking about the diaconate, and one that resonates with the Scriptural image of the Church as a body, is that the priests and the deacons are the two arms by which the Bishop can carry out his ministry. Both are necessary for the life of the Church.
Now, I am very happy to hear from anyone here who might be interested in learning more about being a deacon. We need good men with heart for service and a love for God to serve the Church and the community in this important vocation.
But whether you feel called to the diaconate or not, there is something for all men to learn about their Christian vocation from the vocation of the diaconate. All Christian men are called to follow Christ the priest in the sense of living a life of self-sacrificial love. And all Christian men are called to follow Christ the deacon, who came not to be served but to serve, by living a life of service – to their families, to the Church, and to the whole community.