Deacons: great and visible signs of the Holy Spirit

by Callie Nowlin

North Texas Catholic

deacon candidates at st. PatrickDeacon candidates at St. Patrick
The 24 deacon candidates making up the 2020 class of deacons for the Diocese of Fort Worth made their profession of faith and oath of fidelity to Bishop Michael Olson at St. Patrick Cathedral on June 24, 2020. (NTC/Juan Guajardo)

 

To begin to understand the diaconate, one must first understand the nature and purpose of Sacred Orders within the Body of Christ. The diaconate is one of three levels of Holy Orders in the Roman Catholic Church. In a nutshell, a man called and ordained to the diaconate is called to be a servant of God and His people.

Yes, it’s true that in Christ we are all called to serve God and our neighbor as an outpouring of Christ’s love within us. But, in a particular way, by the reception of the sacrament of Holy Orders, these individuals are dedicated to total service to the Body of Christ. 

Misunderstandings about the diaconate may arise from misuse of conventional terms and concepts within our sacred tradition. “Diakonia” is Greek for ministry. In our culture, the term “ministry” is oftentimes misused because we call people who greet at Mass and those charged with catechizing youth “ministers.” However, “ministry” in its formal sense is performed strictly by the Church’s sacred ministers, namely priests and deacons. Beyond that, we as lay people can and should assist with these duties of ministry, but it is not our ministry that we are performing. As an example, we understand that an altar server assists the priests during Mass or in the administration of sacraments, but we would never call them sacred ministers for this title is reserved for ordained priests and deacons alone.

A “cleros” is someone who has a share in this sacred ministry and does so because of the reception of Holy Orders. Whether serving at the altar during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, preaching, or serving the orphan and the widow, deacons are truly an icon of Christ, the servant of all, to whom they have been configured by the reception of the Order of Diaconate.

 

Spirituality

The spirituality of the deacon is best understood in light of Christ the Servant, who on Holy Thursday wrapped a towel around His waist and washed the feet of His twelve Apostles. The deacon is conformed to Christ, who came to serve, not to be served. The deacon is to live out the Church’s ministry of charity and justice.

With this in mind, perhaps it is unfortunate, though understandable, that deacons are sometimes placed into leadership roles out of necessity. Where there is a need in the body, they are to be at service. Thus, even with tasks that require leadership, they fulfill these tasks humbly and in keeping with a spirit of quiet service.
The spirituality of the deacon can also be seen at Mass, in their ministry of word and liturgy. Just as the best altar servers almost melt into the background, thereby embodying what they are called to resemble — saints and angels assisting in the heavenly liturgy — a deacon is similarly called to quiet service, often unseen. 

 

Permanent Diaconate

The Church in her wisdom considers it illicit to call men to orders who are preparing for baptism or have been newly baptized. Rather, she allows for formation and discernment specific to the sacrament of Holy Orders — separate from the general formation and growth due to every newly baptized Christian. In addition to being the body of Christ, the Church is diaconal in nature. The Church is fundamentally like a deacon in how she ministers to the world, continuing Christ’s mission of the salvation of the world through modest and even laborious or monotonous work.

Having some among us who are called to stably and faithfully serve the Church in this way is an essential witness to Christ. As mentioned earlier, it is true that lay and consecrated members in the Body of Christ are called by their Baptism to assist with delegated tasks when there is a need. But let us never forget there is something unique and solemnly different in the nature of the deacon, who through the sacrament of Holy Orders is conformed to Christ the Servant. May the deacons’ witness of faith and prayer be one that inspires us to greater service, working for the greater glory of God, rather than ourselves.

 

“Transitional” Diaconate

We use the term “transitional” to refer to those who we hope will one day be ordained a priest. Typically, transitional deacons are seminarians in the last year of their formation. But there is truly nothing “transitional” about the sacrament. Like Baptism and Confirmation, Holy Orders leaves an indelible mark on a soul. One beautiful result of this truth is that once men are ordained deacons, they will always retain on their souls the mark of a deacon — even if later they are also ordained priests or bishops.

deacon candidates at St. Patrick

To begin to understand the diaconate, one must first understand the nature and purpose of Sacred Orders within the Body of Christ. 

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