I will soon celebrate my seventeenth anniversary of ordination as a member of the Clergy, a Catholic Deacon. Because I was ordained on the Feast of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ in 1996, I have taken that date as my anniversary- even though the actual calendar dates change. Choosing this Feast, so central to the heart of the Church, is a way in which I regularly rededicate myself to my vocation - by rooting my response to the Call of the Lord in the Heart of the Church, for the sake of the world. I know that the Diaconate in Christ is a real vocation. The root of the word vocation is the Latin word for Voice. I heard - and continue to hear - the voice of the Risen Lord calling me to follow Him in this Way.This morning, our first reading at Mass reminds us of the call and establishment of the Order of Deacons in the Church. It also invites an examination of the role of Deacons in the Catholic Church and for her missionary work in the Third Christian Millennium
Let us pray that Catholic Deacons become a resource for the Church. May every Catholic Deacon again take up his role as "Sacred Minister and Member of the Hierarchy" in heartfelt humility and sincere, persevering prayer. May Catholic Deacons go from the altar into the world, bringing the men, women and children of this world home to the Church, which is the new world, as the early Christians understood.May Catholic Deacons deepen their theological training throughout their lifetime, in order to become more fruitful in their service to the Church and the world into which she is sent.May Catholic Deacons fully embrace the prophetic work of authentic Christian unity. That means understanding the teaching of the Church and living it prophetically. May we become brothers and witnesses to our Christian friends of other communities and join with them in common work.
CHESAPEAKE, VA (Catholic Online) - On this Fifth Sunday of Easter in 2014, we follow Cycle A in the readings for the Liturgy. The first reading is excerpted from the Acts of the Apostles. This Book should become our manual for this new missionary age.
The world into which the nascent Church was sent in the first few centuries, and the world of our age, is similar on many fronts. Most importantly, the same Holy Spirit which guided the early Church is available, in full measure, in our time.
We are in a new missionary age of the Catholic Church. That is a further reason for emphasizing the vital necessity of a New Evangelization within the Catholic Church. That phrase, New Evangelization, recognizes the need for a reawakening, to a real living faith in Jesus Chris, many Catholics in the pews. That kind of real living faith cannot be presumed. Only a reawakened Church can seriously undertake the New Missionary Age which we are in.
I will soon celebrate my seventeenth anniversary of ordination as a member of the Clergy, a Catholic Deacon. Because I was ordained on the Feast of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ in 1996, I have taken that date as my anniversary- even though the actual calendar dates change.
Choosing this Feast, so central to the heart of the Church, is a way in which I regularly rededicate myself to my vocation - by rooting my response to the Call of the Lord in the Heart of the Church, for the sake of the world.
I know that the Diaconate in Christ is a real vocation. The root of the word vocation is the Latin word for Voice. I heard - and continue to hear - the voice of the Risen Lord calling me to follow Him in this Way.
This morning, our first reading at Mass reminds us of the call and establishment of the Order of Deacons in the Church. It also invites an examination of the role of Deacons in the Catholic Church and for her missionary work in the Third Christian Millennium:
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)
There it is, the institution of the Order of Deacons as a part of the Lords plan for His Church. Jesus is the Head of the Church and the Church is His Body. We are members of that Body. (1 Cor. 12:27) The Apostle Paul's admonition to the Corinthians was more than an analogy, it is a reality.
As St. Augustine put it so simply, reflecting well the understanding early Church, the Head and the Body cannot be separated. Together they form the Whole Christ.
Jesus promised the disciples that he would not leave them orphans. He continues to walk with us. (John 14:18) He promised that He would send a comforter, another advocate, who would guide them in all truth. (John 14:16)
One of the ways which the early Church understood - and the Catholic Church still understands - the fulfillment of this promise made by Jesus is through His ongoing guidance through the teaching office of the Church. This account is an early example of such guidance.
The need for resources in the ongoing work of the Church, which is the continuing redemptive mission of the Head working through the Body, led to the discernment and the decision of the Apostles. The Holy Spirit worked in and through them to reveal the plan of the Lord for an order of Deacons. These men were ordained, set aside, by the laying on of hands, as Deacons.
I find that the role of the diaconate in Christ in the Catholic Church is misunderstood by many. Though the Catholic Church restored this sacred order in the Latin Rite many years ago, it was Paul VI who decided in 1967 to restore the diaconate as a permanent rank of clergy for the Church in the West, the Church of the Latin Rite.
In October 1968, the Holy See approved its organization in America. However, the rapid growth since of this order of clergy presents an opportunity to revisit some of its early formative documents.
In 1998, the Vatican released two important documents to dispel persistent misunderstandings and confusion and to open up an understanding of deacons as "sacred ministers" and "members of the hierarchy."
Those documents were released on 22 February, 1998; the Feast of the Chair of Peter, deliberately. This feast has been an occasion to honor all the Church's clergy since the first century.
Thus, it was an appropriate occasion to issue statements regarding the formation and work of permanent deacons, since they are such an important part of the clergy; participating in its missionary and pastoral service.
The Basic Norms for the Formation of Permanent Deacons and The Directory for the Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons,were ordered and approved by Saint John Paul II. They are a part of the Church's magisterial teaching.
They can help as we seek to understand the role of Catholic Deacons in the Church, as well as her mission in this age. They should also lead to the standardization of diaconal training. Such training is desperately needed. The preparation for ordination - and the ongoing instruction of deacons - is a serious pastoral need for the Catholic Church.
Though some progress on that front has been made, there is much more which needs to be done. These documents clarify the role of deacons in the liturgical, pastoral, ministerial and missionary life of the Catholic Church in her global mission. They are a good starting place and reference point.
The diaconate has a rich history. During the Church's first five centuries, 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 soon relegated to a transitional order and given to candidates on their way to priestly ordination. Over time, in the Latin Rite, this had the result of the diaconate being seen as a kind of waiting station for young candidates for ordination to the priesthood.
Today, we distinguish between transitional and permanent deacons. However, this distinction does not create two ranks of deacons. A deacon is a deacon. It was meant to clarify the direction which the deacon is headed in his response to the voice of the Lord to serve in the heart of the Church for the sake of the world.
The transitional deacon is on his way to priestly ordination. However, he never loses the order of deacon. The fullness of Holy Orders rests in the Bishop. Article Six of the Catechism of the Catholic Church has a rich treatment of the Sacrament of Holy Orders with extensive footnotes to the Biblical basis and the teaching of the Church.
For our purposes, one line suffices. "Holy Orders is the sacrament through which the mission entrusted by Christ to his apostles continues to be exercised in the Church until the end of time: thus it is the sacrament of apostolic ministry. It includes three degrees: episcopate, presbyterate, and diaconate." (CCC#1536)
In the Eastern or Byzantine Catholic Church, the diaconate remained a part of the permanent rank of sacred orders without interruption from the time of the Apostles until now. We can learn much from our Eastern Catholic brethren as we develop in the life and ministry of deacons in the Western Church.
The Council of Trent (1545-63) called for the restoration of the permanent diaconate for the entire Catholic Church. However, 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.
Among those calling for the restoration were the survivors of a group called "The Deacons Circle," priests who suffered at the Dachau death camp during World War II. While suffering, they prayed for the renewal of the Church.
They believed the Holy Spirit was inspiring them to call for a re-institution of a permanent diaconate that could serve as an order of clergy in the midst of the world.
The priests who survived Dachau continued to meet and pray, and eventually they presented their discernment to the Holy Father and the leaders of the Vatican Council.
As someone who has been involved in the struggle to restore recognition of the fundamental human right to life at every age and stage for decades, I find this historical fact to be prophetic and profound.
On June 18, 1967, Pope Paul VI implemented the Council's decision to re-institute a permanent diaconate for the universal Church with the apostolic letter Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem. He also established revised norms for the ordination of all clergy, deacons, priests and bishops. These norms passed into the Code of Canon Law.
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."
He 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 leads Sunday celebrations in the absence of a priest.
"The deacon does not celebrate the mystery; rather, he effectively represents on the one hand, the people of God, and specifically, helps them to unite their lives to the offering of Christ; while on the other, in the name of Christ himself, he helps the church to participate in the fruits of that sacrifice," according to the declaration.
Because they receive the Sacrament of Holy Orders, deacons are sent by Christ to serve God's people. They should be called to do so out of the depths of an interior life centered in the Eucharist, and fueled by a life of prayer, which proceeds into action. Like other clerics, they recite the Divine Office and cultivate the habit of penance.
They are called to link their love for the Lord and His Church to a love for the Blessed Virgin Mary, who in her "Fiat" represents the full surrender of love to the invitation of God. Since most deacons are married and have children, they are called to demonstrate the grace of the Sacrament of Marriage and the holiness of a consecrated family life.
They are called to "give clear witness to the sanctity of marriage and family." The wives of permanent deacons are called to support the ordained ministry of their husbands. As "The Directory for the Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons" states:
"The more they [deacon and wife] grow in mutual love, the greater their dedication to their children and the more significant their example for the Christian community" The married deacon makes a unique contribution to the renewal of Christian marriage and family life.
At a time when the Church has strongly emphasized the vital role of the Christian Family in the Modern World, (the title of one of Saint John Paul's Apostolic Exhortations ) the married deacon serves as an example of married clergy. He is challenged to live a life of faith, fidelity and example in the married state.
His example of clerical service in the married state does not detract from the prophetic witness of consecrated celibacy; it is complementary. It is important to note that although what we now call the permanent 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. If a married deacon loses his wife, he pledges to remain celibate. In fact, he could then consider a further call to priesthood if the Lord so moved him. This has already been demonstrated in the lived experience of the renewed diaconate in the western Church.
The married deacon and his wife "show how the obligations of family life, work and ministry can be harmonized in the Church's mission". Deacons and their wives and children can be "a great encouragement to others who are working to promote family life," according to the Vatican documents.
In addition to this important witness, the deacon is distinct in his secular vocation. Often engaged in works of social justice or charity, he is a clergyman in the midst of the secular world. He goes from the altar to the world in a prophetic way, bringing Christ to those for whom He gave His life- and continues to reach out to -through His Body on earth, the Church.
The deacon also engages in the "New Evangelization" which Saint John Paul, Pope Emeritus Benedict and now Pope Francis have called all members of the Church into at this critical point in human history, but in a unique way. He is called into the world. He often works closely with lay leaders and the lay ecclesial movements which the modern popes have all seen as a great missionary resource.
Customs have developed which reflect the deacon's role as distinct from both priest and lay minister. For instance, proper liturgical dress for a deacon is an alb, a cincture, a diaconal stole and a dalmatic. He is authorized to wear a cope at baptisms, weddings or while presiding over the exposition of the Most Blessed Sacrament.
But since he usually pursues secular work, he is not obliged to wear clerical garb at all times. The custom pertaining to the wearing of a clerical collar differs according to local practice when the deacon is engaged in sacramental, pastoral, or liturgical service. I have worn a clerical collar for seventeen years when I am engaged in clerical service. That includes my ecumenical work, evangelization, teaching, and preaching, as well as my service at the Altar.
I am grateful to serve in a Diocese which recognizes that deacons are clergy and trusts that these men, most of whom are of "mature years" know the role of that collar as a symbol of service and will not be imprudent in its use.
Similarly, formal and popular titles help distinguish the deacon. Such titles of course, are not badges of honor, but rather "crosses" given to the one who holds any clerical office. They preserve the order of service in the Body of Christ.
Just as we call a priest Father, and should not presume to call him by his first name, a permanent deacon, like a transitional deacon, should be called Deacon. In formal writing a deacon, according to custom, uses the title "Reverend Mr." reflecting in a unique way both his clerical and "secular" role.
Because of the long lack of a real witness of a diaconate in the western or Latin Rite Catholic Church, the reaction to this ministry by other clergy and lay faithful is sometimes hesitant and confused. Yet, as time unfolds more and more members of the Church have come to understand the role of this expression of Holy Orders as a gift to both the Church and the world.
In addition, Christians of other communities have come to respect and recognize the role of ordained catholic Deacons. I do a lot of ecumenical work and have come to believe that the Catholic Deacon has a unique role in the cause of Christian unity. I will be writing moore about that in the coming year.
The role of the Catholic Deacon does not detract from the vital role of an empowered lay faithful. In fact, it should enrich it. And the deacon should not be seen as a "threat" to the irreplaceable ministry of the priest. A vibrant diaconate should enhance and expand the ministry of the priesthood.
Bishops, too, should encourage the diaconate, because it is for them that deacons are particularly ordained. Other than the deacon, only the Bishop is authorized to wear the dalmatic. This custom symbolizes the deep relationship between a Bishop and his deacons.
I have served with love, honor, and humility both as a lay leader and as a deacon. My wife, children and grandchildren have been a source of great strength to me in ministry. When I was called forth to holy orders, my Bishop told me that through my ministry as a lay leader in the Church was already engaged in "diaconal functions", because the word deacon means servant.
He asked me to prayerfully consider whether the grace of orders was a part of my ongoing call. Over the years I have come to see the wisdom of his pastoral oversight and approach to this vocation.
He referred to my work as a human rights lawyer. He affirmed my evangelistic, ecumenical, religious freedom and pro-life work as an example of what he called a kind of "anonymous diaconate."
He told me that he thought that this was precisely what the Council Fathers had in mind at Vatican II when they restored this ancient order. He thought his task was to look for such men and help them discern whether they were being called to Holy Orders.
I am grateful for his insight and his invitation. As I have lived the call for seventeen years, I believe that his approach should seriously be considered as the order of deacon matures in the Catholic Church.
I knew the grace of a call to ordained ministry as I discerned with the Bishop. My ordination was a life changing and profound experience. It did indeed create a "mark" on my soul as the theology of Holy Orders attests. I have never been the same.
My ministry as a Catholic Deacon is not somehow "better" than my ministry as a lay leader, but it is profoundly different. I serve as a member of the Catholic clergy in everything that I do: evangelization, apologetics, and ecumenism, as well as in my work in the world.
The Diaconate is not something I do on weekends when I serve at the altar or speak at various venues. It is someone I have been capacitated to become in the heart of the Church for the sake of the world. It is the way I now live my life in Jesus Christ. The change conferred by the laying on of hands was ontological. I now serve as a member of the Clergy of the Catholic Church, a Deacon.
Over the years I have come to believe that the theological training of deacons must be substantially improved and deepened. It is really deficient in some areas of the United States. My service with my brothers around the Nation who are priests has helped me to understand some of the concerns which underlie their reticence of enlisting deacons in the teaching and preaching ministry.
My personal sense of vocation compelled me to continue theological training beyond my diaconal preparation and undergraduate work. I earned my Masters Degree at the John Paul II Institute and am currently writing the PhD dissertation in Moral Theology for the Catholic University of America.
I know that this kind of theological training is not necessary for service as a Deacon. However, Church history reveals that we have had had wonderful Deacon Theologians, preachers, teachers, hymn writers, writers and scholars over the two thousand plus history of the Church.
We need such deacons in this, the Third Christian Millennium. For example, we need deacon theologians. Not only assisting in the training of future deacons and the ongoing training of ordained deacons, but in the preparation of priests for the work of the Church in the Third Millennium.
I believe that the perspective and experience of older married Deacons could also be a real asset for the preparation of our future celibate priests.
Solid, rigorous and dynamically faithful theological and pastoral training for men being prepared for ordination to the diaconate in Christ should become the norm in every Diocese. This should be set as a priority whether ordination is to the Diaconate in Christ or the Holy Priesthood.
I often say to my brothers who are priests, when they complain about the training some of the deacons of their diocese have received, "do something about it! After all, you cannot un-ordain them." I sincerely hope that Bishops and Vicars of Clergy take to heart this same admonition. It is offered in love and rooted in lived experience.
I do not believe that it was an accident that the same Church Council that called for a renewed emphasis on the role of the lay faithful also re-instituted this rank of clerical service in the Latin Rite or Western Church.
All of us, whether bishops, priests, deacons, lay faithful, or consecrated religious are a part of the mission of the Church of Jesus Christ. Each of us, though all equal in the sight of God, play vitally important, but different, roles in the Body of Jesus Christ. Let us pray for each other that we may all remain faithful to our individual vocations.
Let us pray that Catholic Deacons become a resource for the Church. May every Catholic Deacon again take up his role as "Sacred Minister and Member of the Hierarchy" in heartfelt humility and sincere, persevering prayer.
May Catholic Deacons go from the altar into the world, bringing the men, women and children of this world home to the Church, which is the new world, as the early Christians understood.
May Catholic Deacons deepen their theological training throughout their lifetime, in order to become more fruitful in their service to the Church and the world into which she is sent.
May Catholic Deacons fully embrace the prophetic work of authentic Christian unity. That means understanding the teaching of the Church and living it prophetically. May we become brothers and witnesses to our Christian friends of other communities and join with them in common work.
As an order of Clergy called into the world, may Catholic Deacons take up their vital role in the New Evangelization of the Catholic Church. May they be numbered among those volunteering on her front lines as she embarks upon this New Missionary Age.
By Deacon Keith A Fournier
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