Sacramental grace enables them to serve God's people, Holy Father tells Congregation for Clergy
"What is specific to the life and minstry of deacons could be summarized in a single word: fidelity", the Holy Father said to those taking part in the plenary assembly of the Congregation for the Clergy, when he received them in audience on Thursday, 30 November . Here is a translation of his address, which was given in Italian.
Venerable Brothers in the Episcopate
and in the Priesthood,
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
1. I am pleased to meet you on the occasion of the
plenary assembly of the Congregation for the Clergy, which is examining a question of
particular importance for the Church: "The Ministry and Life of Permanent
Deacons." I affectionately greet Cardinal José Sánchez, the prefect, whom I thank for
his words. I also greet Archbishop Crescenzio Sepe, the secretary, and the members of the
congregation, together with the officials and experts who give you their valuable service.
You have organized these intense days of reflection and dialogue on the basis of an Instrumentum laboris, which has taken into account the suggestions and
contributions of every episcopal conference. In addition to your satisfaction at the work
achieved and the results so far reached, you intend to prepare a document concerning the
life and ministry of the permanent deacon similar to that for priests, which you saw to at
your last plenary session. Thus it will be possible to offer providential practical
guidance following Vatican Council II's decisions. I encourage and bless your efforts,
motivated as they are by a deep love for the Church and for our brother deacons.
Fidelity to Catholic Tradition should mark a deacon's ministry
2. Since the diaconate has been restored to the Latin Church "as a proper and
permanent rank of the hierarchy" (Lumen Gentium, 29), the directives and
guidance of the Magisterium in its regard have increased. One need only recall Pope Paul
VI's teachings and, in particular, those contained in the motu proprio Sacrum
Diaconatus Ordinem (June 18, 1967, AAS 59 , 697704) and Ad Pascendum
(Aug. 15, 1972, AAS 64 , 534-540), which remain a basic reference point. The
doctrine and discipline explained in these documents have found their juridical expression
in the new Code of Canon Law, which must inspire the development of this sacred
ministry. Several catecheses which I addressed to the faithful during the month of October
1993 were also devoted to the permanent diaconate.
Reflecting on the ministry and life of permanent deacons, and in the light of the
experience acquired so far, it is necessary to proceed with careful theological research
and prudent pastoral sense, in view of the new evangelization on the threshold of the
third millennium. The vocation of the permanent deacon is a great gift of God to the
Church and for this reason is "an important enrichment for the Church's mission,'
(Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1571).
What is specific to the life and ministry of deacons could be summarized in a single
word: fidelityfidelity to the Catholic tradition, especially as witnessed to by the
lex orandi, fidelity to the Magisterium, fidelity to the task of re-evangelization
which the Holy Spirit has brought about in the Church. This commitment to fidelity is,
first of all, an invitation carefully to promote throughout the Church a sincere
respect for the theological, liturgical and canonical identity proper to the sacrament
conferred on deacons, as well as for the demands required by the ministerial functions
which, in virtue of receiving Holy Orders, are assigned to them in the particular
3. In fact, the sacrament of orders has its own nature and effects, whatever the degree
in which it is received (episcopate, presbyterate or diaconate). "Catholic doctrine,
expressed in the liturgy, the Magisterium and the constant practice of the Church,
recognizes that there are two degrees of ministerial participation in the priesthood of
Christ: the episcopacy and the presbyterate. The diaconate is intended to help and serve
them.... Yet Catholic doctrine teaches that the degrees of priestly participation
(episcopate and presbyterate) and the degree of service (diaconate) are all three
conferred by a sacramental act called 'ordination,' that is, by the sacrament of Holy
Orders" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1554).
By the imposition of the bishop's hands and the specific prayer of consecration, the
deacon receives a particular configuration to Christ, the Head and Shepherd of the
Church, who for love of the Father made himself the least and the servant of all (cf. Mk.
10 43-45; Mt. 20:28; 1 Pt. 5:3).
Sacramental grace gives deacons the necessary strength to serve the people of God in
the diakonia of the liturgy, of the word and of charity, in communion with the
bishop and his presbyterate (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1588). By
virtue of the sacrament received, an indelible spiritual character is impressed
upon him, which marks the deacon permanently and precisely as a minister of Christ.
Consequently he is no longer a layman nor can he return to the lay state in the strict
sense (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1583). These essential
characteristics of his ecclesial vocation must pervade his readiness to give himself to
the Church and must be reflected in his outward behavior. The Church expects of the
permanent deacon a faithful witness to his ministerial state.
Magisterium has clearly described deacon's tasks
In particular he must show a strong sense of unity with the successor of Peter,
with the bishop and with the presbyterate of the Church for whose service he was ordained
and incardinated. It is of great importance for the formation of the faithful that the
deacon, in exercising the duties assigned to him, should promote an authentic and
effective ecclesial communion. His relations with his own bishop, with the priests, with
other deacons and with all the faithful should be marked by a diligent respect for the
various charisma and duties. Only when one keeps to one's own tasks does communion
become effective, and each can fulfill his own mission.
4. Deacons are ordained to exercise a ministry of their own, which is not that
of a priest, because they "receive the imposition of hands 'not unto the priesthood
but unto the ministry"' (Lumen Gentium, 29). Therefore they have specific
tasks whose content has been clearly described by the Magisterium: "To assist the
bishop and priests in the celebration of the divine mysteries, above all the Eucharist, in
the distribution of Holy Communion, in assisting at and blessing marriagesif they
are delegated by the ordinary or the parish priest (cf. Canon 1108.1)in the
proclamation of the Gospel and preaching, in presiding over funerals and in dedicating
themselves to the various ministries of charity" (cf. Catechism of the Catholic
Church, No. 1570; cf. Lumen Gentium, 29; Sacrosanctum Concilium, 35; Ad Gentes, 16).
The exercise of the diaconal ministrylike that of other ministries in the
Churchrequires per se of all deacons, celibate or married, a spiritual
attitude of total dedication. Although in certain cases it is necessary to make the
ministry of the diaconate compatible with other obligations, to think of oneself and to
act in practice as a "part-time deacon" would make no sense (cf. Directory
for the Ministry and Life of Priests, 44). The deacon is not a part-time employee or
ecclesiastical official, but a minister of the Church. His is not a profession, but a
mission! It is the circumstances of his lifeprudently evaluated by the candidate himself
and by the bishop, before ordinationwhich should, if necessary, be adapted to the
exercise of his ministry by facilitating it in every way.
The many problems which are still to be resolved and are of concern to pastors should
be examined in this light. The deacon is called to be a person open to all, ready to serve
people, generous in promoting just social causes, avoiding attitudes or positions which
could make him appear to show favoritism. In fact, a minister of Jesus Christ, even as a
citizen, must always promote unity and avoid, as far as possible, being a source of
disunity or conflict. May the attentive study which you have undertaken in these days
provide useful guidelines in this area.
5. With the restoration of the permanent diaconate, the possibility was recognized of
conferring this order on men of a mature age who are already married, but once ordained
they cannot remarry should they be widowed (cf. Sacrum diaconatus ordinem, 16, AAS
59 , 701).
"It should be noted, however, that the council maintained the ideal of a diaconate
open to younger men who would devote themselves totally to the Lord, with the commitment
of celibacy as well. It is a life of 'evangelical perfection,' which can be understood,
chosen and loved by generous men who want to serve the kingdom of God in the world,
without entering the priesthood to which they do not feel called, but nevertheless
receiving a consecration that guarantees and institutionalizes their special service to
the Church through the conferral of sacramental grace. These men are not lacking
today" (Catechesis at the general audience, Oct. 6, 1993, 7;
L'Osservatore Romano, English edition, Oct. 13, 1993, p. 11).
Spiritual Life Must Be Sustained by Personal Prayer
6. The spirituality of the diaconate "has its source in what Vatican Council II
calls 'the sacramental grace of the diaconate' (Ad Gentes, 16)."
(Catechesis at the general audience, Oct. 20, 1993, 1; L'Osservatore
Romano, English edition, Oct. 27, 1993, p. 11). By virtue of ordination this is
defined by the spirit of service. "This service should first of all take the
form of helping the bishop and the priest, both in liturgical worship and the
apostolate.... However, the deacon's service is also directed to his own Christian
community and to the whole Church, to which he must foster a deep attachment because of
her mission and divine institution" (ibid., n. 2).
To fulfill his mission, the deacon therefore needs a deep interior life,
sustained by the exercises of piety recommended by the Church (cf. Sacrum Diaconatus
Ordinem, 26-27: AAS 59, 1967, 702-703). Carrying out ministerial and apostolic
activities, fulfilling possible family and social responsibilities and, lastly, practicing
an intense personal life of prayer require of the deacon, whether celibate or married,
that unity of life which can only be attained, as Vatican Council II taught,
through deep union with Christ (cf. Presbyterorum Ordinis, 14).
Dear brothers and sisters, as I thank you for your active involvement in this plenary
assembly, I would also like to put into the hands of her who is the ancilla Domini
the fruit of the work to which you have applied yourselves. I ask the immaculate Virgin to
accompany the Church's effort in this important field of pastoral activity in view of the
With these sentiments, I willingly impart my blessing to all.