A Quiz About Deacons

Author: Kristen West McGuire

A QUIZ ABOUT DEACONS by Kristen West McGuire

How much do you know about the permanent diaconate? Here's a special challenge for you: Take the following quiz about deacons and their role. The answers just might surprise you! TRUE OR FALSE: 1. Deacons are ordained clergy. 2. There have always been permanent deacons in the Roman Catholic Church. 3. A married deacon is expected to place the Church as a priority above his wife and family. 4. The wife of a deacon is called a deaconess. 5. A single or widowed deacon is expected to remain celibate the rest of his life. 6. The deacon works for the bishop of the diocese he serves, not the priest of the local parish. 7. Deacons serve the Catholic Church primarily through the liturgy of the Mass. 8. Lay ministries are not needed in parishes with a deacon. 9. Deacons do not have the same formation as priests. 10. There are more deacons in the United States than in all other countries combined. * * * Here are the answers to the quiz: 1. TRUE. There are three levels of holy orders in the Catholic Church. The diaconate is the first level; it functions as the service ministry of Christ. In other words, deacons are servants, called to embody the work of Christ in service of justice, the Word and the altar. There are as many ways of serving as there are deacons. All deacons can baptize, witness marriages, bring the viaticum to the dying, and preside at funerals. They proclaim the gospel and may serve as the homilist at mass. Like John the Baptist, they lead a prophetic life of service for the benefit of the Church. The priesthood is the second level of holy orders. A priest is ordained a deacon prior to being ordained a priest. Priests stand in the place of Christ himself as they celebrate the sacraments of Eucharist, Reconciliation, and Anointing of the Sick. They carry a spiritual responsibility for the community of faith they serve. Through the sacraments and ministries of the Church, priests manifest the presence of Christ in the world. Bishops are ordained to the fullness of holy orders. They fully convey the leadership of Christ as Prophet, Priest and King. They shepherd the churches entrusted to their care (with the help of priests and deacons), and safeguard the gospel that has been passed down to us from the Apostles themselves. They lead their dioceses in communion with the Pope and all the other bishops of the world. 2. FALSE. To be fair, this is a trick question! There have always been deacons in the Church. In Acts of the Apostles, the apostles assign the service ministries of the Church to seven deacons. Several saints in the early Church were deacons, some of whom later became bishops, like St. Athanasius. In general, up until 500-600 A.D., their duties were similar to those of today's deacons. They were especially instrumental in helping the Church spread across Europe. The permanent diaconate gradually disappeared during the Middle Ages. Monasteries and convents were providing charity originally associated with the service of deacons. The liturgical role of the deacon received greater emphasis over works of charity. Gradually, the diaconate became a transitional step to priesthood. Vatican II restored the office of the permanent diaconate. There were three main reasons for this action. The restoration would return to the Church the full complement of ordained ministries handed down from the Apostles. The new deacons would confirm and highlight the work of the Holy Spirit already present in the Church. Finally, deacons would bring sacramental service to areas where priests are scarce. 3. FALSE. A married man who is ordained a deacon in the Catholic Church is expected to honor his first commitment in the sacrament of marriage, with the Church's blessing. The Church will not ordain the man unless his wife gives her consent in writing. A married deacon often must juggle a secular job, his family responsibilities and his service as deacon. This is not a vocation for the faint of heart! The relationship between marriage and holy orders is an interesting one. In Eph 5:22-32, the marriage between a man and a woman is compared to the marriage between Christ and his Church. The passage, in effect, says that each one must serve the other in love. Christ came to serve rather than be served. The man has already been a deacon (Greek diakonia means "to serve") to his wife, and she to him. Thus, his ordination to the diaconate is an affirmation of the Christian service evidenced in his marriage. The unity of the deacon and his wife is a sign to the entire parish of the unity of Christ with his Church. Often, the deacon's wife serves the parish or local community in a concrete way herself. After ordination, the deacon and his wife may work together in various ways to build up the Kingdom of God. The beauty of the diaconate is that the question of exercising "power" is replaced with the solid emphasis upon service. Those who would see the wife of a deacon as "used" and not appreciated are missing the point. Christ humbled himself to union with us. In a very real way, the deacon and his wife both embody this divine humility. 4. FALSE. (But it was true at one time.) The wife of a deacon today is not called a deaconess. She should be referred to as "Mrs. Jones", or "Louise", if you are on familiar terms. She remains a lay member of the parish. Some deacons' wives lament that people treated them differently after their husbands were ordained. This need not be so. In the early church, the wife of a deacon was referred to as a deaconess. (Deaconesses, single or married, were responsible for preserving modesty during female baptisms.) However, married deacons (and married priests in the eastern rites) were expected to practice celibacy. Canon 13 of the Council of Tours (567 AD) states: "If a presbyter be found with his presbytera or a deacon with his deaconess, or a subdeacon with his subdeaconess, he must be considered excommunicated for a full year and deposed from every clerical office, and know that he is considered among the laity." 5. TRUE. Single men ordained to the diaconate, whether preparing for the priesthood or not, must take a vow of celibacy. They are not allowed to marry. Deacons who are widowed must also observe the norm of celibacy. However, the widow of a deacon may marry with the Church's blessings. The reason for this is simple. Those ordained to the service of Christ and His Church are called to consecrate themselves to this work with an undivided heart. The sacrament of matrimony and the sacrament of holy orders must not be in competition. A married man is ordained a deacon with his wife's consent. The wife usually participates in the formation and discernment process. This is meant to safeguard against possible friction after ordination. The virtue of chastity is expected in both married and unmarried deacons. Chastity refers to pure, self-giving love between a man and his spouse. This pure love brings forth physical and spiritual fruit. Married deacons usually have children, the physical fruit of chastity. Bishops, priests and single deacons are celibate in order to devote their fruitfulness to the Kingdom of God. Their spouse is the Church. The Catechism puts it nicely: "accepted with a joyous heart, celibacy radiantly proclaims the reign of God." (1579) 6. TRUE. Only the bishop is allowed to ordain a priest or a deacon. Thus, the deacon has a direct relationship to the bishop. It is the responsibility of the bishop to ensure that deacons are placed in parishes and ministries where their talents and special charisms will bear fruit. In the economy of sacramental order, bishops and priests were first deacons. Their knowledge of the needs of the diocese are crucial to the success of the diaconate. Placement of deacons should reflect the needs of the faith community. At the same time, deacons who are placed within a local parish will obviously want to work harmoniously with the pastor and the bishop. Priests, and bishops, do not stop being deacons when they are ordained to the next level of holy orders. They still serve. A deacon is not a mini-priest, nor a glorified altar-boy. By serving the servant, the bishops, priests and deacons will ground their relationship within the humble love of Christ. 7. FALSE. It may be that you only see the deacon serving the Church on Sunday during the Mass. Most deacons serve the Church throughout the week in a variety of challenging and wonderful ways. Many deacons are involved in the pastoral care of the ill and dying. Other deacons are spreading the good news of Jesus concretely in soup kitchens, homeless shelters and other social service agencies. Still others reach out to addicts and convicts in prisons and mental health clinics. Parish-based deacons help to encourage lay ministry within the parish, and actively promote service to the world. Indeed, a deacon is expected to help a parish encounter and address the needs of the local community. In many dioceses, priests who request a deacon to be appointed to their parish are on a waiting list. We can only expect this trend to continue, with the shortage of priests growing yearly. 8. FALSE. The main function of the deacon is to imitate Christ as a sign and sacrament of service. Parishes, and deacons, are called to be Christ's hands, feet and mouth in the world. Most people will acknowledge that often our parishes fall far short of this goal. The focus of the deacon is to serve in such a way that encourages each and every Christian to imitate Christ. Lectors, lay eucharistic ministers, acolytes, and other lay persons need not feel threatened by the presence of a deacon. The deacon is not a lay person, he is a member of the clergy. His primary focus is to highlight needs that are not being met within the life of the community. Strong lay participation in a parish may negate the need for a deacon. (And this would delight the deacon, you can be sure!) The exception to this may be parishes with no priest. There have been deacons assigned to such parishes in recent years. 9. TRUE. The formation programs are separate. Deacons undergo a formation that takes approximately three - five years; formation for a priest is generally a year or two longer. Deacons and priests learn many of the same things, such as the study of the bible, church history, interpersonal dynamics, liturgics, and theology. However, deacons and priests are preparing for distinctly different forms of service. Also, the deacon must learn to balance the demands of family, secular job and formation. The sacrament of holy orders is irrevocable. It is extremely important that the discernment of a call be confirmed prior to ordination. In most dioceses, the number of deacon candidates accepted for ordination is a small percentage of those who apply for admission to the program. 10. TRUE. There are over 11,000 deacons in the United States, and about 20,000 deacons world-wide. When the permanent diaconate was restored, it was expected to grow fastest in third world countries. However, the most notable growth has been in the United States and Germany. There are several reasons for this growth. The Church in America is blessed with excellent educational and financial resources. The enthusiastic reception of Vatican II reforms in the United States gave added impetus to the proliferation of vocations to the diaconate. The spiritual need of the Church in America has never been greater. I like to think that God has raised up deacons in America to remind us that the power of the Holy Spirit is stronger than the forces of evil in our midst. * * * How did you do? Here's the grading scale: 10 out of 10 correct: Wow! You must be a deacon or the wife of one! At least 8 correct: Very good. Your knowledge of the diaconate needs to be shared with friends and family! At least 5 correct: Not bad-- some of the questions were tricks, anyway! You might have learned a thing or two from this test. Less than 4 correct: Maybe those trick questions were too unfair! In any case, you might be interested in the following books: The Deacon in the Church, by Lynn Swanson (Alba House (800) 343-ALBA); Permanent Deacons: Who They Are and What They Do by Henry Libersat (booklet from Liguori Publications available in most Catholic bookstores); Permanent Deacons: Guidelines on their Formation and Ministry (Publication 974-2, USCC, (800) 235-8722.) Next week, the "essay portion" of this test will cover potential changes within the diaconate. Taken from the May 14, 1995 issue of "Catholic Twin Circle." For subscriptions contact: Catholic Twin Circle, P.O. Box 260380, Encino, CA 91426-0380, (800) 421-3230.