A ZENIT DAILY DISPATCH

What a Deacon Can Do

ROME, 2 OCT. 2007 (ZENIT)

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: In our parish we have a temporary overseas priest and a married deacon. During Benediction our married deacon consistently wears the full vestments that a priest wears for Benediction; says the Divine Praises; and elevates the monstrance while the overseas priest either sits watching in the pew or acts as an acolyte, swinging the thurible. The priest only wears an alb or even just plain clothes with no vestments, and remains kneeling. Several parishioners are much disturbed and have said so. I have asked the deacon why he wears the priest's vestments. His answer: "I'm an ordained minister." My reply was, "But you are not a priest." I asked, "Who has given you authority to do this?" He stated that the bishop has. There are other irregularities which he persists in during the Mass. He stands throughout the prayers; takes the host from the ciborium given to him by the overseas priest; mouths the doxology; and even holds the paten containing the host. R.I., state of New South Wales, Australia

A: Some distinctions should be made. Although the deacon is an ordained minister, he is of a lower grade than a priest and therefore he should not preside over the community if a priest is present.

Therefore in normal cases a deacon may not give a blessing, and even less so Benediction, if a priest is present and available.

He may do so if the priest is legitimately impeded, for example, if the priest were hearing confessions during exposition of the Blessed Sacrament and could not leave the confessional to impart Benediction.

In those cases where the deacon legitimately imparts Benediction, either because there is no priest or the priest is impeded, the deacon may wear the same vestments as the priest: the stole albeit worn in the manner of a deacon, the cope and the humeral veil. He may also recite or sing the same prayers as the priest. He does not need any special permission from the bishop to wear these vestments as the rubrics already foresee it.

The other actions that our correspondent describes are aptly termed irregularities. The deacon should usually kneel for the consecration, silently hold up the chalice (not the paten) for the doxology, and should always receive Communion from the priest and not self-communicate.

Rather than any special permission or dispensation from the bishop (who is unlikely to dispense from basic liturgical law for no reason), such errors are more probably due to bad habits and imperfect liturgical formation. The person responsible for correcting them is the pastor, the priest celebrant, or even the bishop if the local priest is unwilling.

When a deacon is ordained he promises the bishop and the Church that he is willing to carry out the diaconal service with humility and love as a cooperator of the priestly order and for the good of the Christian people. If he lives up to his promise, then he will gladly correct any errors that might have crept in.

The Web site of the U.S. bishops' conference has a useful document "The Deacon at Mass," based on the latest norms from the Holy See.

* * *

Follow-up: What a Deacon Can Do [10-16-2007]

Two readers offered friendly criticism of an expression used in my Oct. 2 column on what a deacon can and cannot do.

One wrote: "Father McNamara says that the deacon is of a 'lower grade' of order than a priest. While such a designation might be accurate in terms of reflecting the liturgical faculties associated with the diaconate, it seems to suggest that a deacon is in some way subservient to a priest, which I believe is a trivialization of the ordained ministry of service. Rather than a strict hierarchical construct in which the line might be a straight one from bishop to priest to deacon, my understanding of the diaconate, traditionally and in our contemporary context, is that the ordained deacon is directly accountable to the bishop. That is, of a class of order unique to itself."

Another added: "You state that the deacon is a lower grade than a priest. 'Lumen Gentium,' No. 29, does indeed say 'at a lower level of hierarchy are deacons,' but it does go on to say 'in communion with the Bishop and the presbyterate.' So though there is a hierarchical difference between deacon and priest, and of course bishop and priest, there is also a fundamental unity and communion. Talk of lower grades by itself does not seem to me to do justice to this understanding of Vatican II.

"I do not think priests would welcome being told they are a lower grade than bishops, full stop. That would again not do justice to a proper understanding of priesthood and their share in the high priesthood of Christ to which a bishop is ordained." The writer went on to say that a deacon is an ordained minister, who, like a priest, shares in the apostolic ministry of the Church "but with a distinct, different and differentiated but not lesser ministry than the priest."

While I appreciate both the interest and the sincere friendliness of these observations, I believe that the term is technically accurate from the point of view of the sacrament of orders. Bishop, priest and deacon are not three separate sacraments but different levels (or grades or degrees) of the one sacrament of holy orders.

Each level has its own value and its proper sphere of ministry and specific liturgical functions. Yet, they are not simply three distinct modes of orders but are indeed hierarchically structured. The deacon has many particular functions, but insofar as he is at the service of the Eucharistic mystery his ministry necessarily depends upon and is related to the priestly ministry, not as subservience but as service.

Given that the Eucharist is the center and lifeblood of the Church, all other possible diaconal ministries such as celebrating baptism and matrimony ultimately flow from the priest's Eucharistic ministry.

However, the priest's Eucharistic ministry, and hence the deacon’s relatedness to him, in turn depends on the bishop and finally upon Christ himself as the foundation of all the sacraments.

In this sense of sacramental and hierarchical communion and interdependence, it is no slight to a deacon to state the fact that his is a lower grade of the sacrament of orders, just as the priest's dignity is in no way demeaned by saying that he is at a lower grade of orders compared to the bishop. This is implied in the Latin text of the prayer of priestly ordination which asks that the candidate receive the second grade or degree of priestly ministry.

For this reason I believe that our first correspondent's affirmation regarding the deacon and priest's direct accountability to the bishop confuses two distinct spheres. One thing is that all clerics depend directly upon the bishop with regard to assignments and ministries; another is the specific liturgical functions, which depend on the nature of the sacrament itself.

As stated in the previous article, among the practical consequences of this sacramental reality is that the deacon should not ordinarily preside over the assembly whenever a priest is present and available, just as a priest should not normally preside over the assembly in the presence of a bishop.

There may be some legitimate exceptions to this general rule, but I believe that it is important to recognize that this rule is grounded in the nature of the sacrament and is not a mere question of protocol and human criteria.
 

This article has been selected from the ZENIT Daily Dispatch
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