Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn, N.Y., lays hands on Alfredo Rendon during his ordination to the diaconate at St. Joseph Co-Cathedral in Brooklyn May 25, 2019. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

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.’” 

The deacon is not a parish employee, and anything that perpetuates such a misunderstanding must be corrected.

It was during this time, when the understanding of diaconal ministry was expanding, that Professor John Collins’s landmark work Diakonia: Re-Interpreting the Ancient Sources (1990) first appeared. His invaluable contributions have influenced most of the major theological work on the diaconate for the past thirty years. So I would also disagree with Ruddy when he writes that “much English-language writing on the diaconate…remains wedded to the ‘humble service’ view.” That was certainly true earlier in the renewal, but not recently. Nor is the change evident only in the work of most of us writing on the diaconate. In 2000, during the Jubilee for Deacons, St. John Paul II addressed the deacons as “Apostles of the New Evangelization.” In the United States, an early draft of the USCCB’s 2005 National Directory on the diaconate ordered the three munera(offices) of the deacon’s ministry as charity/justice, Word, and sacrament. The bishops quickly amended this to specify that the Word leads to sacrament, which results in charity. It is precisely in this balanced and integrated approach to the roles of the deacon that we find the diaconate’s sacramental significance. As Ruddy correctly notes, the church does not ordain social workers.

The problem, then, lies not in the theology of the diaconate; it lies in the way the diaconate itself is being received “on the ground” in pastoral ministry. Some years ago I wrote about the confluence of three realities: that the renewal of the diaconate was taking place at the same time there was a nearly explosive growth in lay ecclesial ministry and a sharp decline in the number of priests. As Thomas Baker suggests, this has led to significant confusion over the nature and roles of all three groups of ministers. In the absence of priests, for example, it is not unusual for the deacon to be expected to “fill in for father” to the extent his ordination and faculties permit. The Holy See has repeatedly cautioned that the diaconate is not to be seen as “substitutionary” for other ministers, but simply saying that does not change the pastoral reality that deacons are often the only ordained ministers available when there’s no priest.

So where do we go from here? Let me briefly suggest three interrelated ideas.

First, the unique relationship between the bishop and the deacon must be strengthened and highlighted. We must focus on the ancient apostolic tradition that speaks of deacons being ordained not to the priesthood, but to the service of the bishop. On the ground, however, deacons are most often seen as providing service to the parish pastor, and certainly if the deacon is assigned to a parish, this is understandable. But just as priests are understood to have a unique bond with their bishop, so too must the deacons’ unique relationship with their bishop be recognized and affirmed.

Second, we must continue to expand the role of the deacon beyond the parish. The deacon is not a parish employee, and anything that perpetuates such a misunderstanding must be corrected. When deacons are assigned to a parish by their bishop, they are too often hired by the pastor to fill an employment position in the parish or parish school. This helps perpetuate the idea that the deacon is little more than a parish employee. And should the pastor/employer need to terminate the employment of the deacon/employee, while that deacon remains assigned by the bishop to the parish, a nightmare ensues.

Third, and finally, we must keep the insights of Collins in balance. Yes, as all of us agree, the deacon’s role as an “apostle of the New Evangelization” (John Paul II) begins with his ordination charge to be Herald of Christ. His serving at the sacred mysteries flows from this heraldic function. But we must not forget that all of this should lead deacons to serve as leaders in caring for others, including those acts of humble service that should characterize all Christians.  

Published in the June 2020 issue: View Contents

William T. Ditewig is a deacon of the Archdiocese of Washington, professor of theology at several institutions, and former executive director of the USCCB’s Secretariat for the Diaconate.

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