Diaconate – June 2005

Through “service of the table”, the deacon is a witness of Charity

On June 11, I ordained six married men of good repute as permanent Deacons for the service of our local Church. Deacons are ordained to be a sign and instrument of Christ who came, “not to be served but to serve”. In the words of the Second Vatican Council deacons are ordained – “not for the priesthood, but for the ministry. Strengthened by sacramental grace, they serve the People of God, in the diakonia of liturgy, word, and charity, in communion with the Bishop and his presbyterate.” Lumen Gentium, 29

Unlike priests whose identity is defined by their association with the altar, the table of sacrifice, the deacon’s identity is associated with another table. Yes, deacons assist at the altar; but, they are call primarily to that other “service of the table” referred to in the Acts of the Apostles: the care of the orphans and widows. The ministry of charity is at the origin of the institution of the diaconate. As co-workers with the Bishop and priests, deacons should be the living and working expression of the charity of the Church. The priest, because he offers the sacrifice that is the pledge and foretaste of future glory, witnesses through his sacramental ministry to hope. The deacon, on the other hand, is to be a witness to charity.

When, shortly after the Second Vatican Council, the diaconate was restored as a permanent ministry and not just only as a transition step towards the priesthood, it was hoped that “the service of the table” that characterized the ministry of the first deacons would be translated into a modern idiom. In order words, deacons are ordained to inspire, to promote and to help coordinate the service that the whole Church must undertake in imitation of Christ. While exercising a threefold diakonia, the service of the Word, service of the Eucharist, and service of the poor, the deacon’s major emphasis is to be on service to the poor.

Deacons, thus, have a special responsibility to identify to the Church those who are in need and particularly those who are without the power of voice at the margins of our society. Among such people, the deacon is to speak about Christ and to offer them the Church’s varied assistance. In the Church, the deacon is to speak about the needy, to articulate their needs and to inspire and mobilize the Catholic community’s response.

I am particularly pleased to note that this year’s class of deacons– in addition to their “parochial” assignment – has committed themselves to a “diakonia” outside their parishes.

Since the permanent diaconate is still relatively new – not even a half century since its restoration – many Catholics still do not understand what is a deacon’s role or his identity in the Church’s life. Too often, deacons are perceived as being some kind of hybrid: a “mini-priest” or just “Father’s helper”. This stepping out of the “safe” boundaries of the parish by our new deacons, I believe, will ultimately lead to a better understanding on the part of all the faithful as to the identity and role of the deacon in the Church’s life. And at the same time, in this way, the Church, through the ministry of her deacons can make herself more present to the world of need and pain that too often remains invisible to us within the “safe walls” of our normal parish life.