The Permanent Deacon at the Service of the Church
“To be in the world, for the world and not of the world”. With these words Pope Paul VI, addressed the participants in the First International Congress of Secular Institutes on 26th September 1970. In it he summed up the mission of all those who desire to give themselves to forward the mission of Christ where ever they find themselves. This mission, as always, directs itself towards the wellbeing of others and their need for true fulfilment with a peace that the world simply cannot give. This mission has at its core, the charity of Christ exercised in the self-sacrificial service of others. For the permanent Deacon it is exactly this charism of service, empowered and mandated by the imposition of hands, that animates his raison d’etre and therefore, the above statement, directed towards the Consecrated of the secular institutes, can be directed and applied to the mission of the Deacon. In Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem, Pope Paul VI reminded us that through ordination, the “special nature of this order will be shown more clearly”. Pope Benedict XVI, in his Catechises of 10th January 2007 speaks of the laying on of hands as “an official conferral of an office…., but at the same time an entreaty for the grace to carry it out.” The grace needed to carry out the office conferred is, of course, freely given by Christ to those who ask for it most especially through the Eucharist. There is, therefore, a close link between the office of Deacon and the Eucharistic sacrifice. In the Second Vatican Council decree, ‘Ad Gentes’, it is stated that it is “beneficial that those who perform a truly diaconal ministry be strengthened by the imposition of hands, a tradition going back to the Apostles, and be more closely joined to the altar so that they may more effectively carry out their ministry through the sacramental grace of the diaconate.” Here the link between Eucharist and mission is established. The Deacon through the ‘mandatum novum’, is destined for the service of charity in close dependence on the Eucharist, which “is the source and the summit of the Christian life” (CCC, 1994 1324), and to the privileged service of the poor. In Mt10:8, Christ directs his twelve Apostles to go preach and heal, two missions of service that can only be carried out because they have received a free gift from God. They, in turn, with thanksgiving, must give freely to the needy in reply. The ministry to serve in the name of the Church, therefore by extension, has its source in the free gift of the Eucharist, and its summit in the free actions of service. The life of the Deacon should reveal this mystery of the Eucharist to all and should, at the same time, draw others into the same mystery through the example he gives. This will show that he is “in the world, for the world but not of the world”(Paul VI, 1970 par.13).
The notion of service to another, however, has a different emphasis in both the new and the old testaments. In looking at Hebrew bible, favoured by St. Jerome as more accurate than the Greek Septuagint, the Greek word ‘Diakonis’ does not appear at all. Throughout the Old Testament it is seen that the servant is usually a slave who belongs to another as “his money” (Ex. 21:21), a notion that placed lord over slave where one is without mercy on the other unless family or religion binds them. This restricted understanding of ‘love of neighbour’ was the focus of Jesus parable of the Good Samaritan. His answer to the Jewish lawyer’s question, set out the Christian notion of universal love, the universal love of the New Covenant that “the love of Christ compels us” to imitate (2Cor 5:14). This parable marked the pivotal moment when Christ revealed that true Samaritan charity involves putting others before oneself and extending mercy to all out of concern for the others fulfilment and without the expectation of a return act of charity.
The Disciples of Christ even unto the Last Supper still had no firm grasp on the meaning of this universal unrestricted love even though they had lived with its personified example for some years. Perhaps a good example of this is when Jesus “removed his outer garments and, taking a towel, wrapped it around his waist; he then poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet.” (Jn 13:5) There was no response from any but Peter who, when attended to by Christ, responded “You shall never wash my feet.”(Jn13:8) Perhaps this response was provoked by an understanding that what he was witnessing from Jesus was servitude and not the unrestricted and love motivated service that is the model of the paradoxical kingdom of God.
It was only after Jesus had ascended to Heaven and sent the Holy Spirit among the early Church, strengthening them in mission and reminding them of all He had taught them, that we see Christian ‘diakonia’ in action. Peter tells the crippled man “gold and silver I have none, but what I have I will give you” (Acts 3:6) As their mission grew so did the demands of the ‘office’ to the point where it was no longer possible to exercise the daily distribution without overlooking some who depended on it. Exercising their mission of charity, serving at tables, also infringed upon their duty to the word of God. When this was realized the Church gathered and agreed to choose from among the followers seven men who would take charge of the daily ministration or ‘diakonia’. Thus seven were chosen for a specific ministry to the poor; among them Stephen, “a man full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom” (Acts 6:3). It is clear to see that from the example of St Stephen, that these protodeacons exercised their mission and discharged their office to the marginalised “without fear, in holiness and in justice” (Lk 1:68) for all the days of their lives. The traits refered to in the Benedictus of Zachary, sum up how the threefold ministry of the Permanent Deacon should be lived out; service at the Altar and to the Word should be characterized by service in holiness and service to the marginalized, characterized by service in justice. In looking at the example of St Stephen, Pope Benedict XVI (2007) reminds us that “charitable social commitment must never be separated from courageous proclamation of the faith” and indeed these two traits represent, as it were the lungs of the mission of service entrusted to the Permanent Deacon which empower him to “permanently serve the mysteries of Christ and the Church” (Paul VI, Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem, 1967)
According to Richard Foster in ‘The Celebration of Discipline’(2002), “true service finds it almost impossible to distinguish the small from the large service”. It “acts from ingrained patterns of living” and “springs spontaneously to meet human need. True service builds community.” True service must be preoccupied with charity that according to St Ignatius strives “to give and not to count the cost, to fight and not to heed the wounds, to toil and not to seek for rest, to labour and not to ask for reward, save that of knowing” that we are doing the will of God. If these criteria are followed by the Deacon, and he truly strives to be of service to the faith of others, then he knows that all those “on seeing these good works” of true service, may “give glory to the Father in Heaven.” (Mt5:16) Throughout history and in our own times there have risen up amongst us true ‘icons of service’. One has only to think of, St Elizabeth of Portugal who tended to the poor against her husbands wishes, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who served the poorest of the poor and Jean Vanier the founder of L’Arche whose charism it is “to be a sign of hope in a divided world.” Charter of the Communities of L’Arche". L'Arche International (1993). Their motivations, their power to transform lives and perceptions are rooted in Christian service. Their deep desire to keep attention focused on the marginalised and away from themselves shows how they desire to reveal something else of greater significance: the transforming power of the love of Christ in action. In this sense they are truly ‘icons’ because they live out a “spiritual communion between the heavenly and earthly realms.”(Lossky with Oupensky, 1999)
The Holy Father in his first encyclical Deus Caritas Est, summed up this ideal of service when he stated in section : “With regard to the personnel who carry out the Church's charitable activity on the practical level, the essential has already been said: they must not be inspired by ideologies aimed at improving the world, but should rather be guided by the faith which works through love (cf. Gal 5:6). Consequently, more than anything, they must be persons moved by Christ's love, persons whose hearts Christ has conquered with his love, awakening within them a love of neighbour. The criterion inspiring their activity should be Saint Paul's statement in the Second Letter to the Corinthians: “the love of Christ urges us on” (5:14)
The Permanent Deacon himself is called to be a living icon “in persona Christi Servi”. (Diakonia of Christ 109). Using such a metaphor in the Latin Church perhaps sheds little light on what it entails since the veneration of religious icons is not a phenomenon associated with her faithful. Icons in the Orthodox faith represent “a bridge that connects the worldliness of the believer with the transcendent focus of the believer’s attention and action.” (Dcn Michael Ross: The Deacon – Icon of the Sign of Hope) In this way that the Deacon works to bring the laity into the missionary activity of the Church without drawing attention to his person or reputation. It is here that the Deacon realises that his strength lies “not in what he does but in who he is” (Faulk 2002) i.e. from his sacramental identity as an icon “in persona Christi Servi”. Perhaps the most tangible example of this strength is revealed in the Deacon’s presence on the Altar during Holy Mass and other liturgical functions. Cardinal Clancy, former Archbishop of Sydney, Australia once said that the Deacons “ministry in the sanctuary is an extension and a validation of his service to the world.” Not only is the Deacon to be seen as a bridge between Altar and world, between the spiritual and the secular, but a bridge linking hope with the hopeless; a window that offers a glimpse in on what St Bernard of Clairvaux called “the invisible realities” of our faith. This is exercised by working into his very fibre the Beatitudes, the theological and cardinal virtues along with the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.
Some have commented that the introduction of the Permanent Diaconate in Ireland is mistimed and has happened too late. In a time where scandal and mismanagement have covered the Irish Church in crises one would wonder at why in this time the Permanent Diaconate has appeared in our country. There is no ‘season’ that is ripe for the Diaconate and likewise no season that can do without it as we are reminded by an Alexandrian called Denis who in history “praises the clergy, including deacons and the laity, for giving their lives to Christ whilst ministering…during the most difficult of times.” Again we must look beyond the temporal and realise that, as St John reminds us, “the Spirit breaths where he will; and you hear his voice, but you do not know from where he comes, and to where he goes:” Jn 3:8 During a time when the institutional Church in Ireland appeared to be at its peak and when it was seen as the instrument of hope working to better the lives of the masses of poor and neglected, an experience far from that ideal was being lived out by some of those entrusted to Her care. We now know that, as Jean Vanier put it, “what started out as mystery has ended up as administration”, that which began with the person became impressed with the ‘big deal’ that is temporary, and placed the person into its debt. This tragic derailment ended up giving life not to hope but to subtle and destructive forms of manipulation. It is nothing less than prophetic, that the Church, as she admits her errors and in dealing with those that society had shunned and placed into care should now rise from her faithful an order of men whose lives will be directed to the service of those who were previously forgotten and ill used, and who are now bereft of a personal experience of Christ and to those who have lost sight of true communal living. The permanent Deacon, indeed the entire Christian community, the Church, must become again a community of people who are ready to serve in the same way that their teacher and Lord served, because, without this service, there is no community.
In the final part of this treatise we turn our attention to the “handmaid of the Lord” to Mary, the Mother of God. Her life was immersed in service to God and His Incarnate Word. This service of Mary can be summed up in one word: ‘Yes’! Having heard the great news of the Incarnation, she was then informed that Elizabeth was with child. Without any thought of self, she immediately made out for a hill town of Juda in order to be of service to her kinswoman. This example of selfless concern is one the Deacon must take from Mary and animate in his own life along with her service to prayer. As the Magnificat shows Mary had a deep knowledge of scripture and a radical understanding of God’s thirst for justice. Mary’s life was a continuous meditation on the birth, life, passion, death and resurrection of Christ. She maintained a unique union with God through her persistent, pondering prayer and through this union, was given the strength to accept all that God asked of her. Along with all the other norms for the order of Diaconate as laid out is “Ad Pascendum”, the Deacon likewise has a service to prayer for the Church and with the Church and should make constant recourse to the school of Mary so that he may learn how to be prayer in action. John Paul II who had a deep devotion to Mary addressed the Permanent Deacons of Detroit on September 19th 1987, reminding them that “in the example of her servanthood we see the perfect model of the our own call to the discipleship of our Lord Jesus Christ and to the service of his Church.”
Múlier, ecce fílius tuus, Totus Tuus! Fergal