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The Bishop and His Deacons:
Reflections on the Directory for Deacons

by Cardinal Francis George, O.M.I., Archbishop of Chicago

The Second Vatican Council prepared a new springtime for the Gospel during the third millennium by reaching into the Church’s apostolic treasury and making visible in new ways the original gifts Christ gave to his people. One of these gifts is apostolic governance and ministry. The Council recast the episcopate, so that it is more clearly the sacrament of visible communion and ecclesial unity.

In the context of its teaching on the office of bishop, the Council clarified the identity of the ordained priest and restored the order of deacon in its own right. In the western Catholic Churches, the diaconate had become, over the centuries, a preparatory step towards the ordained priesthood. The Council not only reconstituted the diaconate, it also taught that deacons are helpers to the bishop at the altar and in the ministry of the word, while caring always for those who might otherwise be overlooked by the successors of the apostles (Acts 6:1-6). Deacons are ordained to make visible Christ, the servant of his people. Ordained to headship, the bishop is responsible for the selection of those ordained for a ministry of service as deacons. The selection, personal formation, ministerial training and assignment of deacons by their bishop will be easier because of the publication of The Directory for the Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons. The Congregation for the Clergy has provided a volume which will influence the development of the Order of Deacons for years to come and which will, therefore, directly influence how the faithful are shepherded by bishops and priests with the help of deacons. Practically, the deacon’s responsibilities are explained; the professional demands of his ministry are regulated; his juridical status and spiritual life are described. Most fundamentally, however, his identity is clarified.

In the first years after the restoration of the permanent diaconate, pragmatic considerations often seemed to shape its purpose and identity. The restored permanent diaconate, it was explained, was envisaged primarily for countries where ordained priests were in short supply. It was intended, in particular, for catechists and delegates of the Word, so that the familiar ministers and leaders of small communities would, through becoming deacons, make ordained ministry visible in their communities and throughout their diocese. In fact, relatively few dioceses in Africa, Asia and Latin America made extensive use of permanent deacons; and these are the very places which now have an increasingly abundant harvest of ordained priests. Local bishops in these lands seemed to think that the ordination of a lay catechist as a deacon would change his relationship to bishop, priests and people in a way that might complicate rather than clarify his ministry. The bishops’ pastoral intuition was accurate. The new Directory makes clear that a local Church cannot simply put the new label of deacon on the familiar reality of catechist without changing the life of the Church. The diaconate is a gift from God which changes not just the deacon but all of God’s people. In more economically developed countries, the permanent diaconate was restored enthusiastically. In the United States alone there are over eleven thousand deacons, which is over half the total number of deacons in the entire world. The diaconate was restored, however, just when the Church’s relationship to the modern world was changing. Some Catholics began to think that the Church could not be adequately related to the modern world, as Gaudium et Spes called for, without allowing the world’s ways to influence the Church’s own self-understanding. The line between openness to the world and becoming “worldly” was often not clear; and this lack of clarity influenced pastoral policy and, at times, teaching.

In the mid-sixties, teachers like Protestant Professor Harvey Cox and some of his Catholic imitators saw the secular city not just as the Church’s field of pastoral and missionary action but as a paradigm of the Kingdom of God, a place where God was revealed more clearly than in and through the Church. In this theoretical perspective, the permanent deacon, ordained but with a secular job, was sometimes hailed as the Church’s agent in the workplace and marketplace, as if this were not the vocation of every baptized Christian. Behind this seeming openness to the world lay a clericalism that assumed that only the ordained make the Church present in the world. The selection of deacon candidates was often limited to those whose secular profession was proof of their position in the world and therefore of their value as deacons. A second moment in the development of the restored diaconate brought forward candidates who were already visible in their parish communities as lay ministers and helpers in numerous church activities. Generous men who were obviously of good character and servants of the Lord and his Church sometimes were invited to become deacons as a kind of acknowledgment by their pastor that they were exemplary Catholics and helpful members of their parish. The diaconate became almost uniquely tied to parochial service. The Directory comes providentially at a new moment in the developing understanding of the diaconate and the consequent criteria for the selection of deacon candidates. Full time work in the world certainly does not disqualify a man from the diaconate nor does prior ministry or service in a parish. But the Directory explains clearly that a deacon makes Christ the servant visible through ordination for a particular Church, a diocese, and not only for a parish. The relationship to the local bishop is central to a deacon’s identity as servant to those who might otherwise be overlooked or neglected, especially the poor, as the local Church assembles around her bishop. The deacon’s sensitivity to the sick, the handicapped, the religiously illiterate, the victims of prejudice of every sort, the despised and those estranged from the community of believers will lead him to bring them to the altar of Christ. The greatest service a deacon offers is to invite others to the table where they can learn who Christ is by becoming members of his body. Having gathered the poor around the altar of Christ, the deacon proclaims the Gospel, which is always Good News for the poor (Lk. 4:18).

This existential dynamic of the deacon’s ministry is captured in the Directory’s description of his service of the word, of the altar and of charity (para. 23-42). These three dimensions of a deacon’s ministry cannot be separated. Even though one or the other may be more emphasized in the course of a deacon's ministerial life, he is always called to all three. A deacon cannot be a silent servant. Deacons are preachers by reason of their ordination, and they should therefore be trained to preach well. His service to God’s word includes not only the homily but also catechesis and any discourse which contributes to the new evangelization. The desire to speak about the Lord they love will lead some deacons to explicitly missionary work and will lead all deacons to look for occasions to tell others, in many and diverse situations, who Christ is. At the altar, the deacon serves the bishop or priest and instructs and invites the people. He is a link between altar and congregation and helps all to participate actively in the eucharistic celebration. He distributes Communion, in which personal participation in the sacrifice of the Mass comes to fulfillment. He baptizes and witnesses marriages and cares for the sick, especially by bringing them Holy Communion. He joins the bishop and priests in praying the Liturgy of the Hours for the people of God. He is an agent of the Church’s holiness. A Church made holy at the altar of Christ wants to extend Christ’s love in the exercise of charity. Again, the deacon participates in the Church’s mission by reaching out to all those whom Christ himself loves, without any discrimination. Deacons have often been responsible for temporalities in parishes and dioceses, assuring that the goods of the Church are used for the good of the poor.

The new Directory gives special attention to the ongoing or continuing formation of deacons
(para. 63-82). Formation is to be both vocational and professional; it both strengthens the deacon�s relation to Christ, the bishop and the people and also gives him added training, in the professional demands of his ministry. Constant and directed reading of Sacred Scripture and of the sources for Church doctrine will equip the deacon to preach God�s word. Opportunities for liturgical formation should be provided by the local bishop, who should also provide the means for deacon's to become specialists in the social apostolate of the Church. The. Directory leaves the particulars of formation to the local bishop but outlines various possibilities and occasions when the diocese should help a deacon close the gap between himself and his ministry, between his civil profession and his diaconal character. The bishop provides not only occasions for ongoing formation but also the formators who will personalize each deacon�s program. These formators must understand well and appreciate the deacons vocation and ministry. Formation opportunities and even particular goals will change depending on a deacon�s state of life: celibate, married or widowed.

The displacement of the ego necessary to serve faithfully and be content to be overlooked and taken for granted as a servant is arrived at only through careful attention to spiritual development (para. 43-62). Ordination as a deacon is a call to convert, to conform one�s heart and mind ever more closely to Jesus Christ, servant of his people; service as a deacon is a call to constant conversion so that a deacon�s ministry is not just a function. The spiritual life of the deacon, therefore, receives much attention in the new Directory. The source of the deacon�s spiritual life specifically as deacon is the sacramental grace given him at his ordination. Consecrated to God, �anointed by the Holy Spirit and sent by Christ� (Ad. Gentes, 16), the deacon becomes holy in his willing and obedient service to the bishop and his people. All life begins in relationship; and the deacon�s spiritual life begins in relationships that are his by reason of ordination: his relation to Christ the servant, the Word made flesh for our salvation; his relation to his bishop, whom he serves most visibly at the altar; his relation to the people of God, to whose spiritual and material well-being he gives himself generously. These relationships foster a deep love in the deacon�s heart, a love which becomes a love for the Church, whom he serves in her Lord, in the bishop and the poor (para. 48). The spirituality of deacons is an ecclesial spirituality. In the deacon, love becomes service (para. 61). The relationships established by ordination become loving as they draw the deacon into ministry; and his ministry becomes the occasion for the ever greater self-giving which characterizes genuine charity. This love is nurtured by the means for growing in holiness given to all the ordained: the Mass and the sacraments, the study of Scripture and the praying of the Liturgy of the Hours, devotion to the Blessed Sacrament and to the Blessed Virgin Mary, spiritual direction and examination of conscience. But each deacon uses these means according to the demands of his state of life, his family duties and other commitments; and each deacon uses them in the context of his particular ministry of service. The deacon�s trust in his bishop and the bishop�s desire to help the deacon develop a consistent pattern of life leading to holiness are integral to diaconal spirituality.

The Bishop and His Deacons
When the bishop appears accompanied by his deacons in liturgical services, their physical proximity in procession should be the sign of their mutual respect and love. It is the bishop who is responsible for their selection, who oversees their formation, who calls them to ordination, who assigns them to ministry and sees that they have the means to grow in holiness. The bishop must know and love his deacons, to the extent possible in each diocese, so that the deacon can be himself. The new Directory is a call to each bishop to involve himself anew in his deacons' life and ministry. As the universal Church prepares for a new springtime for the Gospel, this Directory is a sign of the Church�s desire that the diaconate be properly restored throughout the Church. The call of the Second Vatican Council has now matured, so that a universal directory for the life and ministry of deacons is both possible and needed. The vocation to the diaconate has been clarified and the demands of the vocation can be explained with confidence by each bishop for his diocese. The new evangelization needs new servants to the word, of the altar and of charity. These servants are called deacons; who help the bishop fulfill the demands of his own calling. In such help, the Church becomes a better sign of Christ, the servant of his people.

( from Sacrum Ministerium , IV ( 1/98), pp. 45-53)

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