It was indeed a cringeworthy moment when Pope Francis declared that deacons should be “moved away” from the altar, that they are to be “guardians of service, not first-class altar boys or second-class priests.” On the one hand, he is correct to speak of deacons as guardians of service, and to insist that they are not first-class altar boys or second-class priests. But to suggest that deacons should be “moved away” from the altar, as if the Eucharist could be treated as something unrelated to, or apart from, biblical diakonia, is at best misleading.
First, taken literally, this provocative statement would contradict all that we believe and teach about the Eucharist as “source and summit” of the church’s life, for, as Lumen gentium tells us, “all take part in this liturgical service, not indeed, all in the same way but each in that way which is proper to himself.” The Eucharist is the source of all the church’s power, including its power “to serve.” The deacon’s ecclesial identity, like the identity of priests, bishops, professed religious, and the laity, is formed and strengthened through his own participation in the Eucharist.
Second—and here I must disagree slightly with Christopher Ruddy—most of the theological literature of the past thirty years has stressed balance in understanding the meaning of diakonia in the church. I agree that in the first fifteen or twenty years of the renewed diaconate (roughly 1970 to 1990) there was, especially in the United States, an emphasis on the deacon-as-humble-servant. I remember, for example, being told during my own formation that a program of adult catechesis, which I had designed as part of a diaconal practicum, was not “diaconal” enough; the project needed to be more “hands on” in meeting people’s needs. Since at least 1984, however, the U.S. bishops have insisted on the “intrinsic unity” of the deacon’s ministries of Word, sacrament, and charity. As The National Directory for the Formation, Ministry, and Life of Permanent Deacons in the United States put it (quoting an earlier document by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops), “By ordination, the deacon, who sacramentalizes the Church’s service, is to exercise the Church’s diakonia. Therefore, ‘the diaconal ministries, distinguished above, are not to be separated; the deacon is ordained for them all, and no one should be ordained who is not prepared to undertake each in some way.’”