Reflection on the Diaconate

Reflections on the Diaconate, Permanent and Transitional, in the Australian Church in the Twenty-First Century*

Most Rev Dr Anthony Fisher op

In his very recent book, Leadership in the Church (New York: Crossroad, 2003) Cardinal Kasper reflects upon the definitive teaching of the Second Vatican Council that the episcopate, presbyterate and diaconate all belong to the one sacramen­tal ordained ministry (conferred by the laying on of hands and prayer) and the pastoral decision of the same Council to re-establish the permanent diaconate. He suggests that in doing this the Council was looking past the pre-modern withering of the diaconal ministry - looking past it in two directions: on the one hand, forward to the projected ministerial needs of the Church in the century ahead; on the other hand, backward to the early Christian era which was a golden age for the diaconate. Like the renewal of the liturgy, this renewal of the diaconate was made possible by recourse to early liturgical and patristic texts:

the repristination of the diaconate as a sacramental-eccle­sial office was the fruit both of a pastoral reflection on present-day needs and of a theological reflection on the authoritative sources of the Church's faith. Only this double movement allowed the renewal of the diaconate to take a binding form in the Church. (p. 17)

It is to those authoritative sources that I will turn today as I reflect with you upon the nature and future of the diaconate in our part of world, with help of two contemporary German theologians, Walter Kasper and Gerhard Müller (Priesthood and Diaconate, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2002), and a fifteenth-century painter-theologian, Blessed Fra Angelico.* I want to suggest ten themes regarding the future of the diaconate in our part of world worthy of continuing exploration by you and the rest of the Church.


1. Diaconate is God-given
A point logically and ontologically prior to all others about the diaconate is that the diaconate is a vocation from God, not merely a human invention, inspiration or aspiration. A lot of talk about the diaconate reduces it to a human resourcing issue: a new strategy or plan or career by which certain jobs might get done. But it is about far more than human ambitions, rôles and job-sharing. In the century ahead the challenge for the reinvented diaconate will not be to find jobs for deacons to do - or even to find deacons to do the jobs. Rather, it will be to avoid reducing diaconate to function(s) and instead theologizing and spiritualizing this vocation rather more richly than has occurred to date. Kasper suggests that

Institutional and structural reforms too can be ‘useless flesh' (to use this biblical image), if they are not borne up by the life-giving Spirit. This is why the renewal of the diaconate is first of all a spiritual task. The basic spiritual attitude of the deacon must make it clear that the Christian path is not an ascent or a triumphal march in glory, but a path that looks downward, following Jesus Christ, who descended from heaven. This ‘downwardly mobile career' is described in the Christological hymn in the Letter to the Philippians (2:6-11), which prescribes the basic Christian virtue, as the spiritual tradition teaches, namely, the attitude of humility, which is a willingness to serve. This must a fortiori be the basic attitude of the deacon. (p. 37)

We need deacons who are down-to-earth (humble) men, yet up-to-heaven (spiritual) men, men with their feet on the ground yet aware that their's is a calling given by God through his Church.

2. Deacons are made by sacrament
Secondly, deacons are what they are by virtue of a special sacrament. Other ministries such as acolyte, lector, extraordinary eucharistic minister, catechist... are rôles and offices rather than sacramental orders. The Church teaches that an indelible, permanent, sacramental character is conferred at the ordination of deacons, by the sacrament Holy Orders. Deacons are, as it were, deacons forever. Kasper points out that before Vatican II Rahner, Congar and others demonstrated that diaconate is not a lay apostolate, but a special articulation of the ordained ministry in the Church. This view was far from uncontroversial, but was confirmed by the Council.

In the twenty-first century the Church will have to overcome the continuing tendency of some to think and talk about ‘lay deacons' or ‘installing deacons'. Deacons are clergy and they are ordained to their order - as truly as any priest. I think that for the same reason we should avoid the practice, common in many places, of commissioning laypersons for various ministries using rites deliberately made to look like ordination rites (cf. Kasper pp. 16f).

Furthermore, as Kasper insists, while deacons are not lay people in dress-ups but truly clergy, they are also not mini-priests. "The deacon is not a ‘mini-priest' who fills gaps left where no priests are available, nor is his ministry a mere transitional stage on the path to the priesthood. It is an autonomous min­istry, a specific articulation of the ministerial service entrusted to the Church by Jesus Christ." (p. ???) Of course, some deacons belong to that order only for a short time: but even ‘transitional deacons' are true deacons during that ‘transitional' period, neither laymen not priests but Christians with a specific vocation. Müller puts it thus:

The diaconal ministry has all the characteristics of the Sacrament of Holy Orders: originating in the salvific mission and will of Christ for the Church; sustained by his abiding efficacy as the glorified Lord in the Spirit; connected with the mission of the apostles through the imposition of hands by the bishop... conferring the Holy Spirit and grace which makes the recipient a suitable minister of Christ; ordained in a non-repeatable way (character indelibilis), with the specific ministerial responsibilities designated in the ordination prayer. (p. ???)

3. Deacons as contemplatives
A recovery of a sense of the God-given and sacrament-made nature of the diaconate should encourage reflection upon the need for deacons to be true contemplatives, both in who is chosen for the office and what they are to be thereafter. Nemo dat non quod habet: no-one can give what he does not have. If deacons are to be and do all those things that the Church asks of them and humanity needs from them, they must first make space for God and the things of God in their own lives. They must be devout meditators upon the sacred page, enthusiastic students of theology and spirituality, and thoughtful reflectors upon human experience in the light of revelation. They must be deacons before they can do diaconate - and that means constantly refilling the wellsprings from which they draw their inspiration, direction, energy in their life of service.

This presents its challenges and opportunities. In the busyness of our lives it is all too easy to put prayer and contemplation lowest on the list of priorities; to postpone them or squeeze them in only when we have little time or energy. Deacons must be countersigns to this. Somehow, somewhere, they must find the space in their busy lives of family, workplace, study and ecclesial service, to keep open the lines of communication with God and to bring to him the concerns of those very worlds which compete for their attention.

4. Deacons as pray-ers
This leads me to a related aspect of the diaconate today: deacons are ordained for the Prayer of the Church. Deacons pray the Divine Office and assist at Mass not just on their own behalf but on behalf of the whole Church. Through her professional pray-ers - the clergy and religious - as well as the non-commissioned ‘widows' constantly at prayer, the Church of God is continuously offers God praise and petition on behalf of all humankind.

Deacons know what an enormous privilege it is to help others to pray, especially outside the Eucharist. As the recent Church documents on devotions and on the rosary have reminded us, there is much more to the prayer life of ordinary Christians than going to Mass. Deacons of the twenty-first century must embrace the opportunity to be themselves models to others as men of prayer and to lead others in worship beyond the altar. That presents its own questions: how well are deacons formed in ways of prayer? How much space do they make for prayer in their own lives? What opportunities are there for deacons to accompany others in the life of prayer?

5. Deacons as servants of the altar
It is sometimes suggested jocosely that acolytes are merely glorified altarboys: well, in that case, deacons are very glorious altarboys indeed! They are of course much more than this: deacons are ordained for service at the altar. They serve the Bishop (and sometimes priests) as extra hands in the Sacred Liturgy. As early as the second century, deacons distributed the chalice and proclaimed the Gospel at Mass. In addition to this they may today, in certain circumstances, perform baptisms, marriages, benedictions, viaticum and funerals: tasks which many people in the past saw and many probably still see as specifically priestly works.

To put it visually: deacons are never more truly themselves than when they are in dalmatics - not because of the grandeur of the vestment, let alone because their identity is tied up with the dress-ups, but rather because this reveals their closeness to the Eucharistic action and yet the distinction of their contribution to that action from that of the be-chasubled bishop or priest. The liturgical rôle of the deacon is likely to be extended and better appreciated in the century ahead.

6. Deacons as hospitallers
Ite missa est. Service begins at the altar but extends beyond the doors of the church to the world beyond the dismissal at the end of Mass. Hospitality, especially towards the poor - understood both in the narrow economic sense and in the broader sense of those impoverished in any way - is a duty of all Christians. But as early as the Acts of Apostles, The Shepherd of Hermas and the writings of St Polycarp, this task was given in a very particular way to the deacons. As the very word diakonia indicates, deacons are ordained for service, especially to the poor. The deacons were the Church's first hospitallers with respect to widows and orphans, the poor and needy. They were the friends of the poor. More than anyone else, they were to be the compassionate face of Church.

Müller writes about the Christological aspect of the deacon-as-servant, especially of the needy:

If one reflects that service to one's neighbour in need makes Christ present and mediates his saving love, indeed, that in the needy persons Christ himself is served, then the ministry of the deacon in the social and charitable sphere proves to be a mission thoroughly inspired by the Holy Spirit, a mission that creates a special personal relationship with Christ, the Head of the Church, and which therefore is specifically conferred by the laying on of hands in ordination. (p. 195)

Kasper likewise notes (p. 22f) that while all Christians are called to service, to exercise the diakonia of Jesus Christ, especially vis-â-vis the poor and suffering, deacons represent in special manner the specifically diaconal dimension of all Church min­istry.

This, the Cardinal suggests, is why the Fathers of the Church thought the presence of a functioning and fruitful order of deacons is essential to the Church.

As the local Church, every community must ensure the realization of diaconia, which provides orientation for faith and preaching, for the Eucharist and the liturgy. Faith without diaconia is not Christian faith; preaching without diaconia is not Christian preaching... it is dead... The Church is [only] alive where the corporal works of mercy are performed: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, giving shelter to strangers, freeing captives, visiting the sick, and burying the dead. The Church is likewise alive where the spiritual works of mercy are performed: correcting sinners, teaching the ignorant, giving good counsel to those in doubt, bearing patiently with those who are burdensome, gladly forgiving those who insult us, and praying for the liv­ing and the dead. (pp 26-27)

That little catalogue offers quite a checklist for the contemporary deacon looking for something to do! Of course this raises all sorts of questions for deacons in twenty-first century Australia : to what extent and in what ways do modern deacons put themselves at the service of the most needy?

7. Deacons as administrators
From the earliest days of the Church deacons assisted the Bishops in their administrative responsibilities. Kasper notes that "the [Second Vatican] Council sees them as collabo­rators of the bishop, dependent on him and subordinate to him. Their ministry is to represent the bishop who needs collaborators and helpers because of the sheer volume of work that is expected of him." (p. 17) While as early as the Didascalia Apostolorum deacons were called "the bishop's ear, mouth, heart and soul", they were assumed to be rather more world-wise than those bishops of whom they were the ears and mouths. In particular their ministry to the poor required that they have ready access to the Church's charitable resources. This aspect of the diaconal ministry is yet to be much explored here in Australia , but minimally we might expect that deacons took an active part in the parish councils, parish finance committees, St Vincent de Paul groups etc. that already exist.

8. Deacons as preachers
Another insight of the Second Vatican Council was that deacons are ordained for ministry of the Word and especially to evangelisation. This was not always clear. In the Acts of the Apostles the first deacons were appointed so as to free up the Apostles for the preaching: the assumotion was that the apostles would do the preaching while the deacons would perform other important tasks. Yet Stephen was out preaching within a few verses of his ordination! Perhaps it was the way deacons preached which distinguished them from the other evolving orders of clerics. The First Letter of Timothy suggests that it is more by their care for their families and their style of life than by their words that deacons demonstrate their faith and character. Ignatius of Antioch has the deacon ‘helping' the bishop in proclamation of the Word, perhaps as a sort of senior catechist. Their works of mercy, corporal and spiritual, were undoubtedly a powerful form of evangelisation, as Christian action so often speaks louder than words.

Thus Kasper notes that in addition to those in physical need to whose service deacons are ordered, there are also

those starving intellectually and spiritually, and all too often they are left alone in their search­ing. Therefore, evangelizing too is a service to others. Teaching the ignorant has always counted as one of the spiritual works of mercy, and a widespread lack of orientation makes this all the more important today. (p. ???)

When the Dominicans hit the scene in the early thirteenth century as an Order of Preachers a misapprehension arose that they must be an order made up entirely of bishops. That was because at that time only bishops regularly preached. Priests were, as it were, ‘extraordinary ministers of the word' just as some lay people today are ‘extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist'. Priests were not sufficiently educated to do more than offer customary homilies on the big feasts. The advent of the friars preachers changed all that for the priesthood. Likewise the diaconate at the beginning of the twenty-first century must further develop its preaching rôle, not just in the liturgy but outside it, so that deacons are seen as ordinary preachers and evangelists in the Church not just ‘fill-ins when father can't be bothered'. This will require not only an enthusiasm for the ministry of the Word but ongoing theological education of one kind or another.

9. Deacons as bridge people
Another aspect of the diaconate worth exploring in the century ahead is that of deacons as bridge-people people between clergy and laity, the celibate and the married, the ecclesiastical and the everyday. Transitional deacons are very much men on the cusp between states. But permanent deacons, too, bring the world of ordinary work and family life to their ministry in a way that means that are well-placed to be bridge-builders. Once again, this presents both challenges and its opportunities. Two challenges that occur to me are that deacons may feel at times ‘neither fish nor fowl', neither lay nor clerical; and that, at other times, as they immerse themselves in ecclesial ministry, that they may be tempted to lose sight of the wider church and society from which they come.

The possibilities for such ‘bridge people', however, are enormous. Kasper suggests that deacons have a particular call to recognize the signs of times and be attentive to the joys and hopes, sorrows and fears of their fellows, sharing in these, articulating and interpreting them, and bringing them healing. He suggests that

it is the deacon's special call to be on the front line, an attentive listener and a pioneer who leads the Church's response to these challenges. As a married man and father, the deacon can often find it easier to make contact with people than a celibate priest. This is why deacons should not seek to take over as large a slice as possible of the specifically priestly ministry of leadership: their task is different, and it is important and urgent enough! For before a community can be guided and before the Eucharist can be celebrated in it and with it, it must first be gathered together and built up. The deacon's place is in these mar­ginal areas of Church and society, where breakthroughs can occur. He is not to think only of those who "still" belong to the Church and to accompany them, but also to invite those who perhaps may belong to the Church tomorrow. His communio-diaconia means that he builds up the Church in view of the future. This is an absolutely essential contribution to the "new evangelization" about which we hear so much today. (p. 36)

10. Deacons as alteri Christi
Finally, deacons must identify themselves totally with life, death and resurrection with Jesus Christ. They must be icons of Christ in all aspects of their ministry, as Stephen was even in the words and manner of his death. Paul in his Letter to the Philippians tells how God in Jesus Christ emptied himself, taking on the form of a servant or deacon, being born in likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself further, even to accepting death, death on a cross (ch. 2). The Lord of all becomes servant of all and in the process subverts all ordinary human thinking about power and authority and service.

Mark in his Gospel relates Jesus' teaching that the first among his disciples is the one who is willing to become diakonos and doulos (servant and slave) of all ( 10:43 ). John tells how at the Last Supper, to horror of his own, Jesus washed their feet and mandated them to do the same. (Kasper sees this as Christ instituting the order of deacons, just as when at that same supper he institutes priesthood with the Eucharistic charge ‘to do this in memory of me'.) They were right to call him Lord and Master, Jesus explains; but they had also to learn to call him Friend and Servant: the Proto-deacon in whose image they must learn to serve. (Jn 13:13-15)

Ignatius of Antioch in the next century wrote of deacons in grand Christological terms: "Let everyone revere the deacons as Jesus Christ, the bishop as the image of God the Father, and presbyters as God's senate and the assembly of the apostles. For without them one cannot speak of the Church." This is a very important claim. The Church is not truly herself without all three ranks of the ordained in evidence: the Trinity is not properly imaged in her ministry if Christ the Deacon is not in view. Müller, too, offers a Christological hermeneutic for the diaconate: all thinking about the diaconate must begin and end with reflection on Christ's own ministry:

In obedience to his Father, therefore, Jesus brought about the divine rule by virtue of his messianic activity and destiny, not with a display of imperial power, courtroom rhetoric, intellectual superiority, political cunning or dazzling self-promotion, but rather in the utmost submission of his life... (p. 184)

All truly apostolic ministry is thus a representation of Christ's diakonia to the Church: the ordained diaconate must in turn be a radical representation of this ministry of all Christians.

In this lecture I have touched upon ten themes which I think are worthy of continued reflection amongst you in your national convention and thereafter. I thank-you again for this invitation to join you in this time you are having together. I will conclude with a last thought from Cardinal Kasper:

spiritually motivated, well-trained dea­cons, employed in meaningful tasks, are a necessity for the Church today. They are neither substitutes for a par­ish priest nor social workers. They represent the deacon Jesus Christ in a sacramental manner, bringing into our world the love of God, which the Holy Spirit has poured out into our hearts (Rom 5:5). They are pioneers of a new "civilization of love." They are a blessing for the Church and for the people entrusted to us. This is why we must press on with renewal of diaconia and of the diaconate, translating ever more fully into the reality of ecclesial life the impetus given by the Holy Spirit through Vatican II. (p. 44)

* A longer version of this talk, which included slides of the art of Fra Angelico and reflection about these images of the diaconate during the early Renaissance, was given to the Biennial Australian National Deacons' Conference, St Joseph's Baulkham Hills (Sydney), 5 December 2003 . Because the material on Angelico requires the slides it has been removed from this version.

  • Created: 10 March 2010
  • Modified: 03 May 2010