Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
October 11, 1999
Deacons and new evangelization
Archbishop Thomas Collins has asked us to reflect on whether the permanent diaconate should be established in the Edmonton Archdiocese. Discernment is really what is needed here. The Western Church can and seemingly has functioned quite well without permanent deacons for 1,000 years.
There are no functions exclusive to the deacon. There is no ministry which can be performed by a deacon, but by no one else. Without the priesthood of the baptized, there would be no Church. Without the ordained ministry of bishops and presbyters, there would be no Eucharist. A Church missing either priests or laity would limp severely if it existed at all. But a Church with ample priests and laity would seem to function smoothly without deacons.
Further, there are dangers associated with establishing the permanent diaconate. It excludes women, it might become a new caste which would displace laity from roles or ministries they currently exercise and it might be seen by some as a response to the shortage of priests.
If those perils are taken seriously, it would seem to dictate a strictly limited role for the diaconate in our archdiocese. Lay ministries are well established in most places and having laity replaced by deacons could prove discouraging to many. Deacons, further, can never take the place of a priest in his most sacred and essential role - the celebration of the Eucharist. We need many more priests than we have and the establishment of the permanent diaconate is not even a stopgap measure.
So why bother with the diaconate? This is not an easy question to answer. But we need to ask whether we are being called by the Holy Spirit to have deacons for reasons we do not yet fully understand.
The diaconate was established in the apostolic church as a ministry of service. It has, from the earliest times, been seen as an essential part of the three-fold sacrament of Holy Orders - deacon, presbyter, bishop. Can we really have the fullness of the Church when we have tapped into only two-thirds of one of its sacraments?
It is noteworthy that the permanent diaconate was restored by the Second Vatican Council - a council called by Pope John XXIII to respond to "a crisis underway in society." We should ask the obvious question of whether the permanent diaconate is the Holy Spirit's way of responding to this crisis and, if so, how it is a response. We may not be able to give a definitive answer, but we need to ask the question.
We also need to consider the Church's latest teaching on the diaconate - The Directory for the Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons released last year by the Vatican's Congregation for the Clergy - which links the diaconate with the "new evangelization." This new evangelization seeks not only to transform individual hearts but also whole societies which were once Christian but which have lost their way. Is the diaconate a key part of the Church's evangelizing response to the crisis detected 40 years ago by Pope John?
The 1998 document sees the diaconate in some ways as a bridge between the laity and the priesthood. It is a ministry uniquely linked to the bishop; it also has its feet in the secular world. Deacons are not required to wear clerical garb and they are charged with proclaiming the Gospel in the secular world in much the same way that the laity are.
In a 1993 audience talk, Pope John Paul noted that "Among the duties of the deacon there is that of promoting and sustaining the apostolic activities of the laity." If we need a permanent diaconate, its focus may lie in strengthening the activity of the laity in the new evangelization, in transforming the culture with the spirit of the Gospel.
This is a crucial part of the Church's mission, an area laid out by Vatican II which we still have not pursued with full fervour. The permanent diaconate may well turn out to be an important part of the Church's response to the crisis underway in society.
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