Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: Being a Catholic Deacon in the Third Millennium
Deacons have a unique role to serve in the New Evangelization of the Church
I ask my readers to pray for Catholic Deacons. Pray that we can continue to bear a vibrant and faithful witness to the truths of the ancient but ever new Catholic faith. Pray that we can follow in the footsteps of these Deacons, Stephen, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicholas of Antioch. Pray that Deacons can stand on the shoulders of the giants who have worn this stole for over two millennia. As members of the clergy called into the world, pray that we can take our place at your side - and behind the One who leads us all, Jesus Christ the High Priest, as we all continue His work in this new missionary age of His Church.
CHESAPEAKE, VA (Catholic Online) - The first reading of Mass contained an account of an event of great significance in my life; the ordination of the first deacons of the Church:
"As the number of disciples continued to grow, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. So the Twelve called together the community of the disciples and said, "It is not right for us to neglect the word of God to serve at table. Brothers, select from among you seven reputable men, filled with the Spirit and wisdom, whom we shall appoint to this task, whereas we shall devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word."
"The proposal was acceptable to the whole community, so they chose Stephen, a man filled with faith and the Holy Spirit, also Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicholas of Antioch, a convert to Judaism. They presented these men to the Apostles who prayed and laid hands on them. The word of God continued to spread, and the number of the disciples in Jerusalem increased greatly; even a large group of priests were becoming obedient to the faith." (Acts 6:1-7)
In 1996, on the Feast of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ (Corpus Christi), I was ordained to the Order of Deacon in the Catholic Church. When I lay prostrate on the floor that day in preparation for the imposition of the hands of my Bishop and the reception of the Book of the Gospels, I knew my life would never be the same. My ordination created a mark on my soul as our theology of ordination teaches. I serve as a member of the Catholic clergy in everything I do: evangelization, apologetics, and ecumenism, as well as in my professional life.
The diaconate has a rich history. During the first five centuries of Christian history, this ministry flourished everywhere. But for various reasons, the order declined in the West as a distinct rank of clerical service, and eventually disappeared. It was relegated to a transitional order given to candidates on their way to priestly ordination. In the Eastern Church, the diaconate remained a part of the permanent rank of sacred orders without interruption from the time of the Apostles until now.
The Council of Trent (1545-63) called for the restoration of the permanent diaconate for the entire Church. But it was not until the Second Vatican Council, four centuries later, that this direction was implemented. The Council Fathers explicitly stated their purpose as threefold: to enhance the Church, to strengthen with sacred orders those men already engaged in diaconal functions, and to provide assistance to areas suffering clerical shortages.
According to "The Directory for the Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons," issued jointly by the Congregation for Catholic Education and the Congregation for the Clergy, the deacon is "a sacred minister and member of the hierarchy." A Deacon is ordained to the first rank of sacred orders, not to the priesthood or the episcopacy. He is no longer a layman, but a member of the clergy.
Like other clerics, the deacon participates in the threefold ministry of Jesus Christ; the "diaconia of the liturgy, the word, and of charity." He represents "Christ the Servant" in his vocation. The deacon teaches the Word of God, sanctifies through the sacraments, and helps lead the community in its religious life. He assists at the altar, distributes the Eucharist as an ordinary minister, blesses marriages, presides over funerals, proclaims the Gospel and preaches, administers viaticum to the sick, and, when necessary, leads Sunday celebrations in the absence of a priest.
Because Deacons receive the Sacrament of Holy Orders, we are sent by Jesus Christ, from His Body, the Church, to serve God's people and participate in His ongoing redemptive ministry. We are called into the world to preach the Gospel in word and deed. We must do so out of the depths of an interior life centered in the Eucharist, and fueled by a life of real, living and deep prayer, which proceeds into action.
That means Deacons have to work at our vocation. We have to keep alive the grace it offers through our continued response to God's invitation. Like other clerics, Deacons recite the Divine Office and are called to cultivate the habit of penance and a lifestyle of holiness.
Deacons have a unique role to serve in the New Evangelization of the Church. We are increasingly placed in positions which enable us to work with, and train, lay men and women who love the Lord, take their faith seriously and recognize their vital role in this new missionary age.
We also seem to be serving in a unique role in encouraging the new lay ecclesial movements and helping them to offer their unique contribution to the Church. Contrary to the concerns raised many years ago that ordaining more men to the order of deacon would somehow threaten the active role of lay leadership in the Church, the opposite has occurred.
Deacons are an icon of Christ the Servant called to live life in the real world - but a life that is not "of this world". (See, e.g. Romans 12:2, 1 John 2: 15 - 17) They are a witness of the presence of the Church, the "new world" - to use a term loved by the early fathers - and a seed of the kingdom to come.
They are to live as leaven in the loaf of human culture, elevating it from within. That means Deacons must actually be in that loaf. I usually refer to my vocation as living in the heart of the Church for the sake of the world. I serve as a member of the Catholic clergy in everything that I do: evangelization, apologetics, pro-life work, religious freedom efforts and ecumenism, as well as in my professional life in the world. I do not just put on my diaconate when I engage in liturgical or teaching ministry.
Deacons are the members of the hierarchy, ordained not to the priesthood but to service. We serve as an order of clergy in the world. I tell people who ask "what do deacons do?" That "we go from the ambo to the altar and into the world - in order to bring the men and women of this world into the new world of the Church."
Drawing from their lived experience, deacons can often be good homilists. Of course, that requires, as it does with priests and Bishops, that they have - and maintain - a living relationship with the Lord in prayer and study. You cannot give away what you do not have. Church history recounts some great homilies by Deacons, such as Ephrem, the "harp of the Holy Spirit" and others.
Then, there are those deacon martyrs, including Stephen and Lawrence and so many others. Their act of sacrificial love continues to inspire the whole church as a perpetual homily. We may be entering into an age when we will be asked to join their ranks.
Since most deacons are married and have children, we can demonstrate the grace of the Sacrament of Marriage - and the holiness of a consecrated family life - in an age where the truth about marriage and family is under a hostile and nefarious assault. They are called to "give clear witness to the sanctity of marriage and family."
However, it is important to note that although the diaconate has been opened to married men of mature age; it is also open to and encouraged as a permanent rank of orders for celibate men. The decision for marriage or celibacy is to be made before ordination to the order of deacon, as was the ancient custom.
Sadly, some Catholics who see themselves as traditionalist Catholics seem to have a problem with Deacons, particularly if we are married deacons. I have only one thing to say to my brothers and sisters, adjust. Either the Church made a mistake, or you have. Most of us have much more in common with you than you may realize.
We are theologically orthodox and in love with the Catholic Church, like you. Many of us are reverts or converts to the Church. We are usually older men who are passionately committed to the Magisterium of the Church. We are trying to sacrificially serve the Lord and the participate in the mission of His Church in an age which is desperately in need of hearing her message and called to respond to her invitation to salvation.
I ask my readers to pray for Catholic Deacons. Pray that we can continue to bear a vibrant and faithful witness to the truths of the ancient but ever new Catholic faith. Pray that we can follow in the footsteps of these Deacons, Stephen, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicholas of Antioch.
Pray that Deacons can stand on the shoulders of the giants who have worn this stole for over two millennia. As members of the clergy called into the world, pray that we can take our place at your side - and behind the One who leads us all, Jesus Christ the High Priest, as we all continue His work in this new missionary age of His Church.
© 2014 - Distributed by THE NEWS CONSORTIUM
Pope Francis Prayer Intentions for March 2014
Respect for Women: That all cultures may respect the rights and dignity of women.
Vocations: That many young people may accept the Lordís invitation to consecrate their lives to proclaiming the Gospel.
Keywords: Deacon Keith Fournier, Deacon, Permanent Deacon, transitional deacon, clergy, priesthood, religious life, consecrated life, Holy Orders, new Evangelization, traditionalists, ecclesial movements
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