The Nature and Role of Deacons, or The Fullness of Priesthood

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Over on Fr Zuhlsdorf’s blog, there is a question about deacons and the role of deacons’ wives, that brought blood to my tear-ducts when I read it. I think it was only my new varifocals that deflected the worst effects of the offending words, leaving me free to write some thoughts in response.

After spending a number of paragraphs dispelling untold notions regarding the diaconate, presumably communicated by his readers, Fr Zuhlsdorf concludes with these words:

A permanent deacon is ordained. A permanent deacon is a cleric. They are not hobby priests. A permanent deacon is a deacon and they are to do what deacons do.

To which I should only add ‘amen’, save for the fact that what Fr Z is responding to represents a more significant corruption of our understanding of the priesthood than a pithy word from me can contend with. In other words, the problem inherent in the question Fr Z initially sets out to answer is a grave one, and deserves a more substantial treatment than it is often given.

In the Acts of the Apostles, we get an initial picture of how the Church would come to delegate her ministries among various orders, when seven men are called upon to have hands laid on them by the Apostles for the sake of serving widows. After that, the Church would further diversify to include presbyters, and later again, depending on period and location, any combination of porters, acolytes, cantors, lectors, exorcists, and subdeacons. Gravediggers even made it into the list on occasion. Importantly, all of these orders had a practical, liturgical or quasi-liturgical function, but were also seen as a representation of some aspect of the work of Christ.

Insofar as the orders of the Church were images of the work of Christ, they were all a manifestation in some way of the priesthood. Of course, the ‘higher up’ the orders you got, the more fully this manifestation was presented, but, as we see in early works on the ordines Christi (Orders of Christ), even the lowly porter was an icon in some way of the Saviour.

The Church has rationalised her orders since, but I myself, as a Greek Catholic, was ordained to the minor orders of acolyte, cantor, lector and subdeacon before being ordained to the major orders of deacon and priest. Latin Catholics use the term ‘ministries’ in place of minor orders, but the Roman Catholic Church retains the idea and the reality of a multiple-faceted, as opposed to monolithic, priesthood to this day. In the Christian East and West alike, the bishop possesses the fullness of the priestly ministry, while those he ordains priest act vicariously on his behalf – analogous to being his hands at the Altar – and the deacons something more like his feet, as they go into the highways and byways in search of the poor and those in need.

This is of paramount importance to our understanding of the Church because, first of all, it should be understood that the diaconate is inseparable from the priesthood. The Byzantine Liturgies of the Greek Church make this obvious, but it is no less the case for the diaconate in the Latin Church. The deacon is the ‘feet’ to the priest’s ‘hands’ and so a vital aspect the whole image of Christ in the Church. As a result, he should be accorded the dignity of his office, but equally must himself remember it.

Secondly, understanding diaconate will minimise our temptation for creating a ‘presbytero-centric’ Church. Indeed, recognising that the ministry of Christ extends beyond ‘Father’ to ‘Father Deacon’ can encourage every member of the Church to reflect on his or her own vocation. Now, there will be those who worry (quite reasonably) that this could potentially undermine the particular nature of the priesthood, and cause confusion in the minds of some – particularly in the Latin Church – between priesthood and the service undertaken, for example, by extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist, but I would argue that this needs to be overcome by good catechesis, and not, as some might be inclined to do, by limiting our acknowledgment of priestly ministry to priests alone.

Ultimately, the role of deacon within the Church is a priestly role. He may not be able to do the same things as a priest proper (notice I did not say ‘proper priest’), but traditionally, he has a pivotal part both in the Liturgy and in the community that is particular to his order. His dignity is that of a sacramentally-ordained minister of Christ and no less, and both he and those among whom he serves need to recognise this. With reference to the original question on Fr Z’s blog, there should be no question, then, as to whether or not his wife (if he has one) is somehow a deacon too!

Finally, to understand the diaconate is to understand the full nature of the priesthood, and to understand the Liturgy. And as we see from the dawn the Church’s witness, to understand both is to understand Christ himself.

Further reading:

If questions about the diaconate interest you, this blog by Protodeacon David Kennedy, entitled Diaconate in Christ, is indispensable.

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2 responses to “The Nature and Role of Deacons, or The Fullness of Priesthood

  1. (“Now, there will
    be those who worry (quite reasonably) that this
    could potentially undermine the particular nature
    of the priesthood, and cause confusion in the
    minds of some – particularly in the Latin Church
    – between priesthood and the service undertaken,
    for example, by extraordinary ministers of the
    Eucharist, but I would argue that this needs to be
    overcome by good catechesis”)

    To remedy this potential confusion and diminution of the role of the bishop, priest and deacon as ordinary ministers of the Eucharist in some minds the Latin Church has recently attempted to distinguish further by employing the phrase extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion.

    Greater catechesis is clearly required. Much of the confusion arises from a lack of belief in the Real Presence and a loss of the sense of the Mass as a Holy Sacrifice.

  2. Father said: “The deacon is the ‘feet’ to the priest’s ‘hands’ and so a vital aspect the whole image of Christ in the Church. As a result, he should be accorded the dignity of his office, but equally must himself remember it.”

    One might not realize just how critical the above statement is and how often it could be repeated to good and necessary effect!!….Even in my own puny observations from the sidelines I have watched deacons agonize, as I have never seen priests agonize. They need to be affirmed by all of us. Thank you, Father for this wonderful post! I will pray for your vision ….a prayer of thanksgiving!

    M.

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