The Faith Mystery of the Permanent Deacon

Author: Basil Cole, O.P.

The Faith Mystery of the Permanent Deacon

by Basil Cole, O.P.

It is very easy these days to look down upon the permanent deacon, as has been done by some articles-one in particular even appearing in this magazine a couple of years ago. Moreover, over the years, several bishops have told me that shortly after the Second Vatican Council, when the American episcopal conference met to decide whether or not to establish the permanent diaconate in the United States, it was originally turned down. Only at the insistence of Pope Paul VI did the bishops reverse themselves.

Many of the permanent deacons are married with very important jobs, or have retired and are now in their sometime "golden years."

Each and all, often enough, look and sound very ordinary, yet most of them (and us as well) forget that they, too, represent in their rank of service Jesus Christ, the Head and Bridegroom of the Church. However, they are important in the life of the Church not just because of their ministry but also because of what they are by the Sacrament of Holy Orders. Even though they possess the lowest degree of holy orders, their degree is essentially different from the priesthood of the laity (, no. 22b).

The gives us a witness to the dogmatic basis for the existence of the deacon, permanent or transitional, based upon papal and conciliar teachings of the present and past centuries. The Code of Canon Law outlines the deacon's responsibilities in the Latin Church.

From both sources, we can appreciate the deacon's special place in the life of the Church and why he will always need to be tended to by his bishop, who is the principal of the diocese with the help of priests, among others. Nevertheless, sometimes the may appear either obscure or seemingly negligent in bringing about a profound understanding of this aspect of holy orders.

Part of the problem is the ambiguous English word "priest." There are five different words and phrases in the French: and just , and and . The deacon is none of these. But paradoxically he becomes configured to Christ who is a priest, even though as deacon he is not, but is connected with "sanctifying" the people in a lower degree than a ministerial priest.

Beyond a doubt, when he receives the Sacrament of Holy Orders, the deacon receives a special configuration:

The grace of the Holy Spirit proper to this sacrament is configuration to Christ as Priest [], Teacher and Pastor, of whom the ordained is made a minister [no. 1585].

Here, however, being configured to Christ the "Priest" does not necessarily mean sharing in all the powers of a "sacerdos." All three degrees of orders are conformed to Christ who is a priest, but one rank does not become a . The Catechism also states this:

This sacrament configures the recipient to Christ by a special grace of the Holy Spirit, so that he may serve as Christ's instrument for His Church. By ordination one is enabled to act as a representative of Christ, Head of the Church, in His triple office of priest [], prophet and king [no. 1581].

Again, and we will see further, the deacon is not configured to Christ as a , or , nor does he ever become a "pastor," strictly speaking (cf. Canon 521.1), even though he shares in Christ's pastoral office as stated in the (no. 1585) and can participate in many functions of governance too numerous to cite from the present Code of Canon Law. The specific office of pastor is reserved to the bishop and presbyter, who exclusively possess the ministerial (or in the French, ).

The first teaches us that the Sacrament of Holy Orders, like matrimony, is a sacrament directed to the salvation of others (no. 1534). These sacraments also contribute to the personal salvation of the minister or married person because the work they do is again a contribution to others (no. 1534).

Both confer a "particular mission in the Church" to "build up the People of God" (no. 1534). Both sacraments bring a special consecration, though in the case of orders it is permanent and in the case of marriage "until death," which explains why the phrase "as it were" is used just before the word "consecrate" for those who receive the Sacrament of Matrimony (no. 1535). Truly, the many persons who crafted this portion of the did splendid work putting the two sacraments in conjunction to each other.

The Sacrament of Holy Orders continues the mission of the apostles until the end of time by three distinct degrees (no. 1566). However, it is not three sacraments, nor is it one sacrament with three parts, but rather degrees, grades or levels (depending on how one translates the Latin term , from the Council of Trent): episcopate, presbyterate and diaconate.

What is the meaning of the word "degree" in this context? The suggests the following on this point for priests and bishops:

Through the ordained ministry, especially that of bishops and priests, the presence of Christ as head of the Church is made visible in the midst of the community of believers [no. 1549].

Whereas, the says this regarding the deacon:

Deacons are ministers ordained for tasks of the Church; they do not receive the ministerial priesthood, but ordination confers on them important functions in the ministry of the Word, divine worship, pastoral governance and the service of charity, tasks which they must carry out under the pastoral activity of their bishop [no. 1596].

If we look to the section concerning the dogma that the Church is apostolic (nos. 874-96), deacons are part of the hierarchical Church, since the principal references are to the bishops as the heads of particular churches with the assistance of priests (nos. 877, 886 and 893) and deacons (nos. 886 and 894). What this implies is that under the bishops, and priests, deacons have some share in the teaching, sanctifying and governing of the Christian faithful.

However, in case of any doubt, back in (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church), the following is clearly taught:

Thus the divinely instituted ecclesiastical ministry is exercised in different degrees by those who even from ancient times have been called bishops, priests and deacons [no. 28].

At a lower level of the hierarchy are to be found deacons, who receive the imposition of hands "not unto priesthood but unto ministry." For, strengthened by sacramental grace they are dedicated to the People of God, in conjunction with the bishop and his body of priests, in the service of the liturgy, of the Gospel and of works of charity. It pertains to the office of deacon . . . [no. 29].

In the , therefore, what is stated in numbers 874-79 is the Church's answer why the ecclesial ministry as such applies to all three degrees of holy orders. In 875, it is clear that the preacher needs to speak with authority and grace by an empowerment of Christ whereby the minister acts . In 876, all sacred ministers have a service whereby they must "become slaves of all." In 877, bishops exercise their ministry in a college; the priests in a presbyterium.

The deacon as such does not belong to either, and we shall see why shortly. Yet, in 878 and 879, the sacramental nature of the diaconal acts (administrative, teaching and the imparting of sacraments and sacramentals) is a service that has a collegial and personal character "exercised in the name of Christ." The rest of the numbers on this subject have to do mostly with the bishop, since he possesses the highest degree of orders and is, in some way, the model for the other two.

Finally, in 939, we see how the hierarchical levels of the Church relate to one another and to the rest of the faithful:

Helped by the priests, their co-workers, and by the deacons, the bishops have the duty of authentically teaching the faith, celebrating divine worship, above all the Eucharist, and guiding their Churches as true pastors. Their responsibility also includes concern for all the Churches, with and under the Pope.

It should be noted that deacons are purposely not called "co-workers" since they do not share in the ministerial priesthood as such. Hence they are "at a lower level of the hierarchy" (, no. 29). Also, they do not form a separate collegium as do the bishops and the priests since they do not pertain to the rank of , with all its associated sacred powers, but are meant to "help and serve" those who pertain to the - namely, the episcopate and the presbyterate.

Yet they still are incorporated into a separate (no. 1537). And finally, even though they do not participate in Christ's sacerdotal ministry, we need to keep in mind that while the whole community celebrates the liturgy (no. 1140) by its common priesthood from baptism (no. 1141), yet "the members do not all have the same function." Certain members are called by God, in and through the Church, to a special service of the community. These servants are chosen and consecrated by the Sacrament of Holy Orders, by which the Holy Spirit enables them to act in the person of Christ the Head, for the service of all the members of the Church. The ordained minister is, as it were, an "icon" of Christ the Priest [] [no. 11421.

Returning now to the question of orders, numbers 1537 and 1538 neatly summarize the Church's traditional teaching that it is both an order-or an established body of persons given by a sacramental act, called in this case an ordination-and a consecration, since it is a "setting apart and an investiture by Christ himself for His Church." This act confers a gift of the Holy Spirit on bishops, priests and deacons, which can "only come from Christ through His Church." This gift of the Holy Spirit brings with it "sacred power."1

The next numbers, 1539-43, try to show how the Sacrament of Holy Orders is related to the "priesthood of the Old Covenant," as indicated in the priesthood of Aaron, service of the Levites and the institution of the 70 elders of the Old Testament (Nm 11:24-25). The deacon is related to the "sons of Levi," according to the consecratory prayer for the deacon as cited in 1543.

With the coming of Jesus Christ, there is in Him one unique priesthood fulfilling everything found in the Old Covenant (no. 1544). But there are only two, not three or more, participations in this unique priesthood. One share is found in the whole community of believers (no. 1546). The other essentially distinct part is the "ministerial or hierarchical priesthood of bishops and priests" (no. 1547).

It is clear in the teaching of the Church that the deacon as such is not mentioned for no other reason than to indicate that the two degrees of priesthood and bishop are closer to each other than to the deacon, based upon the fact that priests and bishops possess differing powers (e.g., to confect the Eucharist, confer the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, forgive sins), which the deacon does not possess by the will of Christ.

At the same time, however, the Church cannot say that there is a substantial difference within holy orders between the deacon and bishop/priest, otherwise one would falsely conclude that there is an eighth sacrament called the diaconate. On the other hand- and here is where part of the conceptual difficulty lies-the deacon does not participate in the ministerial priesthood of Christ, while at the same time he does participate in the diaconate or service of Christ (who is priest, prophet and king), so that he functions in certain way to a lesser degree.

Since we are dealing with a mystery of faith-holy orders-we must then refer to the deacon as sharing in that mystery. It is a sacred reality not evident to the senses or reason-that is, this invisible reality called "orders," with its three grades or degrees. In the Catechism, we find a good summary of the mystery of the three degrees of orders:

"The divinely instituted ecclesiastical ministry is exercised in different degrees by those who even from ancient times have been called bishops, priests and deacons." 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. For this reason the term in current usage denotes bishops and priests but not deacons. 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 [no. 1554].

Similarly, in speaking about the sacraments that produce a sacramental character (baptism, confirmation and holy orders), the says this:

This configuration to Christ and to the Church, brought about by the Spirit, is indelible; it remains for ever in the Christian as a positive disposition for grace, a promise and guarantee of divine protection, and a vocation to divine worship and to the service of the Church. Therefore these sacraments can never be repeated [no. 1121].

From numbers 1555 through 1561, there is a developed section on the bishop, and from numbers 1562 through 1568, the priesthood. Numbers 1569 and 1570 put the mystery of the deacon in human terms. That only the bishop lays his hands on him (no. 1569) tells us how he receives the order and also implies his intimate connection with the bishop singly.

This is the reason why neither the priests nor the deacons present at the ordination place their hands on the deacon, as is done at the ordination of priests. In the ordination of the presbyter, on the other hand, all priests impose their hands on the newly ordained priest because he is joining their college (no. 1568).

In number 1570, we also learn who the deacon is from the perspective of faith-namely, someone who is configured to Christ by the character or imprint that cannot be removed (even by retirement, one could add). If he is not immediately configured to Christ the , prophet and king, then what is he configured to in Christ by this degree? His poverty, chastity or obedience?

Rather, this configuration is to Christ under the formality as the "servant of all." Then the same entry indicates "some" of the functions deacons perform in helping the priest and bishop: ". . . in the distribution of Holy Communion, in assisting at and blessing marriages, in the proclamation of the Gospel and preaching, in presiding over funerals, and in dedicating themselves to the various ministries of charity."

However, some would say that any layman or laywoman could in fact do all these functions with the authorization of the bishops or even the Holy See, so it is neither all that important nor significant. But it is one thing to do these deeds mentioned in the previous paragraph by delegation and another to do them as sacred events flowing from the Sacrament of Holy Orders, as in solemnly administering baptism or preaching the homily at Mass.

What is delegated is something extraordinary in the life of the Church and what flows from orders is ordinary and settled and graced by that order. In the , we find the following note that summarizes the Church's teaching on the diaconate:

Deacons are ministers ordained for tasks of service of the Church; they do not receive the ministerial priesthood, but ordination confers on them important functions in the ministry of the Word, divine worship, pastoral governance and the service of charity, tasks which they must carry out under the pastoral authority of their bishop [no. 1596].

In other words, by the Sacrament of Holy Orders, deacons receive a special sacramental grace to do the various work that they are called upon to do by the laws of the Church, grace which is not given to the non-ordained. In the case of preaching the homily at Mass and other sacraments, for example, they speak . According to the , there is a grace given that is proper to the Sacrament of Holy Orders, no matter what the degree:

The grace of the Holy Spirit proper to this sacrament is configuration to Christ as Priest, Teacher and Pastor, of whom the ordained is made a minister [no. 1585].

No layperson-even if the bishops were ever able to be authorized to grant the faculty of preaching the homily, which seems unlikely-could preach with the authority of Christ as the deacon can and does, not being configured to Christ, the Head of the Church, which only comes with holy orders.

Receiving holy orders does not mean that all deacons (or priests and bishops, for that matter) can preach well or deliver stimulating homilies. Such is a matter of personal charism, love of wisdom and even personal holiness. Likewise, from another point of view, only the Pope can govern the whole Church with immediate jurisdiction-and would do so even if he were incompetent or, worse, a scoundrel.

Perhaps the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches (, or CCEO) puts forth a small nuance that complements the teaching regarding orders and enables us to understand the deacon better:

Through sacramental ordination celebrated by a bishop in virtue of the working of the Holy Spirit, sacred ministers are constituted, who are endowed with the function and power the Lord granted to His apostles, and in varying degrees share in the proclamation of the Gospel, shepherding and sanctifying the People of God [CCEO, no. 743].

In other words, the deacon has a degree of sharing in preaching, governing and sanctifying the People of God. It may appear to be minimal, hidden and little, ordinary and humdrum, but backed by the grace of the Holy Spirit, such a person's work flows from his new person in Jesus Christ. He will have special graces given to him by reason of an office in the Church that the delegated person will not have. And if he lives a lifestyle, married or not, of chastity, frugality and obedience, he will be even more conformed to Christ in his affections and choices.

It should be noted that in the Eastern code, the deacon's ministries are less. He cannot baptize, nor witness marriages, nor do the funeral rites. Regardless, whether married or not, he has the same obligations spiritually in his rank as the priest has (CCEO, nos. 367-93), and especially to the divine praises (CCEO, no. 377). Unlike his Western counterpart, the Eastern-rite deacon is forbidden to assume public offices that require the use of civil power (CCEO, no. 383), and he needs more permission to perform certain specific worldly occupations than the Latin-rite deacon (who is, for example, dispensed).

The deacon,2 at the lowest degree of ho deacon,2 at the lowest degree holy orders, renders in many concrete ways within a diocese the actual work of Christ, the Head, and gives witness to the fact that Christ has not separated himself from His Church. In his identity with Christ the Servant, the deacon must be conscious that his life is a mystery totally grafted onto the mystery of Christ and of the Church in a new and specific way and that this engages him in pastoral activity.

Acting , the deacon becomes a minister of some essential salvific actions of Christ and His Church-that is, he transmits the truths necessary for salvation and cares for the people of Cod proportionate to his rank, leading and governing them toward sanctity. If the service of the Word is the foundational element of the diaconal ministry, then the heart and vital center of it is constituted without a doubt in the Eucharist, which is, above all, the real presence in time of the unique and eternal sacrifice of Christ.

It was, after all, the Holy Spirit who by ordination conferred on the deacon the prophetic task of announcing and explaining, with authority, the Word of God, either at Mass, baptism or in catechetical instructions. Through the sacramental character and the identification of his intention with that of the Church, the deacon is always in communion with the Holy Spirit in the celebration of the liturgy, especially in the Holy Eucharist and the Sacrament of Baptism of which he is a minister in the Latin Church.

Through the mystery of Christ, the deacon lives his multiple ministries at the altar, the classroom or doing other works of governance for the Church in service, being inserted also into the mystery of the particular church. In this sense, while the deacon is in the Church, he is also set near the front of it, but always after the priest and his bishop by reason of his rank. By this communion with Christ the Spouse, the diaconate is also founded-as Christ, with Christ and in Christ-in that mystery of transcendent supernatural love of which the marriage among Christians is an image and a participation.

Called to the act of supernatural love, absolutely gratuitous, the deacon should love the Church as Christ loved her and consecrate to her all his energies while giving himself with pastoral charity in a continuous act of generosity proportionate to his state.

At the same time, the deacon should be conscious that each person he serves is, in diverse ways, looking for a love that is capable of bringing him or her beyond the anguishes concomitant with human weakness and egoism, and above all with death itself. Hence, the deacon must, like the priest and bishop, proclaim that Jesus Christ is the answer to all these anxieties.

Strengthened by the special bond with the Lord, the deacon will know how to confront those moments in which he could feel alone among men, effectively renewing his being with Christ who, in the Eucharist. is his rest and best repose.

Finally, the Blessed Trinity communicates to the deacon the necessary power for giving life to a multitude of the "sons of God," united in the one ecclesial body and oriented toward the kingdom of the Father. The identity, the ministry and the existence of the deacon are essentially related to the three divine Persons. The grace and the indelible character conferred with the sacramental unction of the Holy Spirit place the deacon in personal relation with the Trinity since It is the foundation of the diaconal being and work. Therefore, the deacon must live this relationship in an intimate and personal manner, in a dialogue of adoration and of love with the three divine Persons, conscious that he has received this gift of diaconal ministry from Them for the service of all.

It should be clear at this juncture that if the faithful or priests develop an anti-diaconal attitude of mind and heart-much like the older anti-clericalism of previous decades and centuries-then the supernatural sense of the Christian life gets lost. If we do not see, by faith, Jesus hidden in the deacon, then we may not find Him in the bishop, the priest or the layperson as well. As the Catechism quotes St. Ignatius of Antioch:

Let everyone revere the deacons as Jesus Christ, the bishop as the image of the Father, and the presbyters as the senate of God and the assembly of the apostles. For without them one cannot speak of the Church [emphasis added, no. 1554].


1 There seems to be a slight confusion in the text of the because the footnote there refers to the ministerial priesthood, not to orders as such.

2 The concluding sections of this study are based upon the insights found for priests in the Directory on the Life and Ministry of Priests, by the Congregation for the Clergy, issued on March 31, 1994 at the Vatican.

FATHER COLE is a professor of moral and spiritual theology at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome (The Angelicum). He is also a member of the Western Dominican Preaching Band in California, giving parish missions and retreats.

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