Cleansing Fire

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In Defense of the Diaconate

June 2nd, 2011, Promulgated by Diane Harris

Instead of just weighing in on the earlier discussion regarding ordination of priests and deacons, the importance of each and the contrast of their roles, it seemed reasonable to start a separate thread.  Quite frankly, I was bothered, not by a right ordering of the roles of the ordained, but because it felt dismissive of the importance of the diaconate.

The Ordained:  To begin, only priests and deacons (both male) are ordained in the Catholic Church, no matter what the priestesses may think or wish.  Make-believe priestesses and other aspirants are not and never will have the indelible mark of real ordination.    Because of that indelible mark, both priests and deacons are different from the laity and deserve an extraordinary respect for their roles.  It doesn’t mean we agree with everything each does; indeed there is even good reason to count down the days to retirement of one or two in particular.  But just as we stand up when a judge enters the courtroom, out of respect for the law and for the responsibility of the judge’s role (even if we don’t particularly like the judge), so too there should be some special respect shown for both priests and deacons, above and beyond that which is normal for any lay roles, gratitude for their service.

Respect for Roles:  I can’t bring myself not to say “Father” no matter how intensely I might disagree with a priest on an issue or revile what he has done, so it also seems that deacons deserve the respect of being called “Deacon,”  and many are not.  Unfortunately, some folks see deacons as just being a male version of the priestesses, without the powers to consecrate the Eucharist or to forgive sin.  They are too often seen for what they cannot do, rather than for what they are called to do.  And among what they are permitted to do, including preaching and benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, presiding over baptisms and weddings, are many things that the priestesses crave and cannot have.  A right ordering of the roles of good deacons may help to avoid hijacking of their prerogatives by the unordained. 

"Martyrdom of St. Stephen" by Rembrandt

Historical Context:   A deacon’s ordination is not in conflict with Church teaching.  Rather, deacons fulfilled a very early role in the Church.  See ACTS Chapters 6 and 7.  The diaconate gives needed service to the people of God.  Furthermore, God bestowed a very special blessing on the diaconate when He allowed Deacon Stephen to be the first martyr.  God Himself anointed the diaconate with blood.  Faithful service in their roles, not in the role of a priest, can further anoint them with the humility to do their jobs well.  Women striving to be priests or deacons is as unseemly as a deacon taking on the aura of pseudo-priesthood.

Of course it is true that we have no Church without priests, no Eucharist and no forgiveness of sins, but nevertheless we are enriched by the role of the diaconate.  However, there seems to be an undercurrent in DoR that questions motives, and maybe not without some reason.  If the Deacon only shows up to strut in vestments in the sanctuary or to relieve the celebrant of things he should be doing, or to run administrative  interference for the pastor rather than serving souls,  it is understandable that people wouldn’t fully comprehend the deacon’s role.  

The Problems:  Unfortunately, over the years, I’ve met some deacons like that.  One outright told me that he refused to preach against abortion because it might “hurt someone’s feelings.”  Another showed up where I was sacristan and asked “Where’s the bread station?”  I said “We don’t have one.”  We went through three rounds of this exchange, before he said “You MUST have a place here  to stand to distribute communion.  Where is it?”  I said “A bread station is at a salad bar.  Yes, we do have a place where the Body of Christ is distributed; let me show you.”  A third deacon preached an objectionable homily about how Christ’s miracle of the loaves and fish was just exceptional oratory, getting people to open their lunch baskets and share.  Another parishioner and I met with him after Mass and expressed (gently I thought) our objection to that interpretation, mentioned that all the Gospels include the miracle, how it pre-figured the Eucharist, and how Jesus’ miracles shouldn’t be explained away, and people misled.  He announced to the pastor that he would never again return to our little church; and years later, apparently still smarting under the criticism, he is reported to use public meetings to throw a barb or two at those who met with him long ago.  AND, I believe he never did return.  So these were just a few of my unfortunate early experiences with deacons, up until a few years ago. 

The Serving:  I am not going to “name names” yet, as we know that praise for a good priest or good deacon can get them in trouble.  (One priest said to me:  “Thank you for the public compliment; boy, am I going to pay for THAT!)  Anyway, in the last few years I have come to deeply appreciate what a committed and faithful Deacon is able to do quietly and persistently in the Church, for the love of God’s people.  The theme is “service,” and that is exactly the theme for the original selecting of Deacons.   I do think we should notice them when they are ordained, respect and assist the work that they do in service, and address them properly.  And if they are not faithful to what Deacons are called to do, we should say so.  In that way we might contribute to keeping alive a role that the church does really need, exemplars of true service, and superior to all these lay pastoral administrator non-roles. 

The attention garnered (grasped?) by the priestesses has not only been at the expense of the priests, but also of the deacons.  For example, did you know that while the unordained priestesses were invited to Corning to participate in Convocation with the priests, the ordained deacons are not allowed to attend?  Why not?  Shouldn’t deacons be treated with even more respect than the make-believe, priest-wannabee feminist laity?

Signs of Service:  This past weekend, with very little notice, at least  one deacon I know (I hope there were many others) mobilized the signing of petitions to the State Assembly against the consideration of abortion to the 9th month of pregnancy.  Does anybody know how many priestesses did that?  Just wondering.  God bless the deacons who come to serve.  Their service in no way undermines or replaces that of priests, but still should be highly valued.

In my opinion, with over 100 deacons in the DoR, there is no reason why any lay woman pastoral administrator should be running anything.  She should at least be reporting to a deacon to provide oversight.

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22 Responses to “In Defense of the Diaconate”

  1. avatar Anonymous says:

    I agree 100% with your last paragraph (along with the rest). It’s unfortunate our diocese lost Deacon Jim Witulski from St. Stanislaus to North Carolina; he was excellent. Deacon Paul Virgilio at St. John the Evangelist is another wonderful Deacon. God bless the diaconate.

  2. avatar Bernie says:

    This is an excellent post!
    One of the many pluses as the result of the Second Vatican Council was the revival of the permanent diaconate.

  3. avatar Anonymous says:

    Great post.

  4. avatar Monk says:

    I have heard the “miracle of sharing” from more than one deacon over the years. I asked one of them once where they got that interpretation of the gospels. I was told this is what they were taught. The biggest problem with the diaconate program in the DoR is the education they receive at St. Bernard’s Institute. The candidates must withstand a withering barrage of heresey as they obtain their masters degree. Some of them are able to keep their heads down and avoid the nonsense but some of them are clueless to the heresey that they are being taught. Hopefully, St. Bernard’s will be cleansed soon enough and our diaconate program will be strengthened greatly.

  5. avatar Giovanni says:

    Great post! I didn’t like the tone the earlier conversation was beginning to have. It was very dismisive of the deaconate… unfairly so. Obviously Deacons are very important to our church. It’s unfair to weigh the priesthood and the deaconate against one another. They take on two different, important roles.

  6. avatar annonymouse says:

    Great post, Diane. One clarification – I believe the consecration of a bishop is technically the conferral of orders, so is called an ordination.

    With respect to the miracle of the loaves and fishes, referring to that as the “miracle of sharing” calls into question all of the works Our Lord did in His public ministry. What will these doubters say next, that Lazarus was merely asleep?

  7. To Cleansing Fire Staff – I think your post regarding the Priesthood and the Diaconate is excellent. I have always shown respect to priests and deacons and have addressed them by their titles; Father and Deacon respectively. I just wanted to give another spin to some deacons just showing up in vestments to strut on the altar or to relieve the celebrant of things he should be doing, etc. I have firsthand knowledge of one situation many years ago involving a Deacon assigned to a parish. (I had a role and position in that parish). The priest who I knew very well, was against the role and position of Deacon. This priest had issues with all he gave up in life at a young age to be a priest. He resented a married man, who he deemed did not have to make the same sacrifice, being on the altar or functioning in any publc church role. (Sometimes priests who are not married think the grass is greener on the other side. This pertains to a lot of situations in life).
    The priest gave the deacon duties such as cleaning his office and filing papers and other duties which fell into the realm of secretarial and cleaning chores.But the priest restricted him from any duties on the altar, which meant he also could not wear vestments. The priest voiced his objections about the Deaconate to me and the fact that one was assigned to he parish. He said that if he wanted to serve so much he could do all of the little odd jobs that needed to be done. (I think the priest thought he would drive the Deacon away and also prevent other Deacons from coming).
    That Deacon who happened to be a physician, humbly did all the odd jobs he was assigned to do. I would bet most of the parishioners never knew a Deacon was assigned to the parish because he was not permitted to do any duties on the altar or do any direct church work with parishioners. He was not acknowledged publicly.
    This Deacon volunteered among the poor in a Soup Kitchen and intervened when a medical crisis would occur, saving lives. This Deacon, and another Deacon who was physician, wanted to start a medical outreach program for the poor in the area connected with our parish. I supported him and the other Deacon. The priest pastor was against it and scrapped the whole thing. This Deacon who was never allowed to dress in vestments and appear on the altar, or given any rspect for his position, continued to serve in his quiet, humble way donned in the unassuming vestments of a jacket and baseball cap. This Deacon who I knew, did not have an easy carefree life as the pastor assumed. The Deacon finally succumbed to his medical problems and died at a relatively young age.
    God Bless You M.L.

  8. avatar Diane Harris says:

    The above comments are wonderful. I am particularly touched by the story of humble serving recounted by Christian 1954. It is very sad that Deacon never got to wear his vestments and serve at the altar. I hope he gets to do so in Heaven. In case what I wrote was misleading at all I want to make it VERY clear that I am absolutely not opposed in any way to Deacons fully assisting at Mass and wearing their vestments, a testimony to their being ordained to serve in a particular way. It is a joyful occasion to see a man having made so much room for God in his life (and in his family’s life too.) And a good role model to other men especially.

    What I do find irritating (maybe more my problem than anyone else’s) is repeatedly and ONLY seeing Deacons show up to vest for Mass, but never (yes, for some, never) being there for other works of the parish, for everything from bible studies to helping the disadvantaged. That just isn’t consistent in my opinion with the purpose for which God established the diaconate.

  9. avatar annonymouse says:

    Diane – your last post hits the nail on the head. If a deacon is involved only at the altar or even only in preaching, then he is not doing what the deacon is called to do. The deacon is called to be a sacramental symbol of the Church’s (Christ’s) service, especially to the poor and disenfranchised. 1954’s description was beautiful – the deacon doesn’t need to vest to be a good deacon. Unfortunately, if nobody at the parish knows what the deacon’s role is (or in 1954’s case, nobody knows what the deacon is doing), the symbolism is sorta lost. In this respect, the deacon is to be a servant leader.

    One other point with respect to your original post – a deacon can’t be charged with responsibility of overseeing the pastoral care of the parish, including overseeing the female “administrator.” This role must be a priest.

  10. avatar Denita says:

    Thank you for your interesting post, Diane. I’m not up on the role of permanent Deacons, but, yes, they should be shown the respect their office deserves. One of my first Catholic friends was a permanent Deacon and his wife, they were the best people. He has since passed away from Parkinson’s, sadly. Anyway, thanks for the post.

  11. avatar Raymond Rice says:

    Anonymouse!! They are not saying Lazarus was just asleep but that he was in a deep coma like the “Sleeping Beauty” and Jesus awakening him !!! To the onlookers, Lazarus did not smell like he was just in a coma. LOL

  12. avatar true faith says:

    I appreciate all of the comments regarding the roles of deacons and priests in the church and I am especially interested in the comments of some regarding their negative view of womens’ roles in the church.Rest assured this conversation doesn’t occur in oppressed countries where Christians are persecuted or in third world countries where the needs outweigh the human resources.

    In many of these countries and remote areas,parish communities rely on the gifts of the deacon in everyday parish life. They have communion services and worship services while waiting for the priest to visit to attend Mass and participate in the sacrament of reconciliation. I remember one of my conversations with Father Albert Evans regarding his missionary work as a priest in Japan in 1940s.There were scattered Catholics through out the mainland and the islands. There was a devout man who was dying and requested to have a priest hear his last confession and to give him(then known as Extreme Unction).The man lived on one of the remote islands which could only be reached by a long boat trip.When Father Al finally arrived he was moved to tears by what he saw. The man in faith wrote each one of his sins which he was seeking forgiveness and absolution for—-on long scrolls of rice paper and strung them through the trees which could be seen at a distance by his incoming boat. The man lay dead at the foot of one of the trees.His stringing his sins through the trees–his last act. He believed that the priest would be able to see his sins if he didn’t live to tell them.
    Having done Christian medical missions work in Haiti last year,I saw much of the same faith and attitude.There was such a need for workers to care for Haitians,they enlisted all of us to fill more than one role. Besides triaging and treating patients, I wound up translating and teaching Sunday school to young children in their native language.Everyone gave each other respect for the roles they filled with a proper view and understanding of leadership.When the church demonstrates by example the love and the meekness of Jesus Christ,it is salt ad light. I saw older Haitians who had practiced voodoo all of their lives-renounce it. After having burned all of their objects in a church ceremony,they undertook a year of catechism.I was able to see a group baptized
    in front of the church and take baptismal vows.
    There is need for proper order in church leadership in the church ,but also a need for mutual respect for the various roles in which we are all called to serve Christ.While it is undisputed who says Mass and who serves on the altar,that is not the only ministry which the church is called to.When there are souls in the balance and there are the lonely,the lost and forgotten our Savior calls each one of us to roll up our sleeves and serve in humility.

  13. avatar Bruce says:

    Deacons are fine and dandy. I am discerning that myself. However, under no circumstances will I ever claim that deacons are just as valuable or as important as priests, because they are not. At the same time, priests are not as valuable as bishops either, but I don’t see anyone’s panties getting twisted over that statement. Without bishops, there is no Church. With bishops, but without priests, we are in serious trouble. With bishops and priests but no deacons, we can manage. It is that simple and it is not a slight against deacons. It is simply the truth. So, in summary, I get more excited about priestly ordinations because, frankly, we need them more at this time than deacons.

  14. avatar annonymouse says:

    FYI – I believe that canon law requires that all candidates for orders (which I presume includes the diaconate) must submit to and pass a psychological examination.

  15. avatar JLo says:

    There are so many deacons in this diocese! Some dioceses haven’t even yet embraced this concept. Does anyone have the numbers by diocese? +JMJ

  16. avatar Bruce says:

    And yet so few priests, JLo. That is what I am saying…we are settling for appetizers and missing the main course.

  17. The number of active deacons in the DoR is around 100. Soon there will be more deacons than active priests.

  18. avatar Bruce says:

    You can have thousands of deacons, but without a priest, there is no Church.

  19. avatar annonymouse says:

    Why, Bruce, do you need to make it into a competition among priests, bishops and deacons? Are you just here to pick a fight, smugly deny anyone who dares to disagree with you, and combatively approach every single subject with a completely closed mind?

    Are you aware that there was a time in our Church history when there were only bishops and deacons. The original seven deacons (Acts chapter 6, no?) were elected long before anyone ever mentioned or thought of presbyters. The first deacons (oh, and there were deaconesses, too!) were named in order to supervise the food distribution and perform table ministry so that the bishops (apostles) could devote themselves to prayer and preaching of the word.

    Since priests are nothing more than bishops’ assistants, we could (theoretically) do just “fine and dandy” without any presbyters either.

    It was specifically with you in mind that I wrote my immediately preceding post above.

  20. avatar Bruce says:

    Mouse, you didn’t read what I wrote. I said that without bishops, there is no Church. With bishops but without priests, we are in trouble (i.e. because one bishop would have to do daily Mass for an entire diocese, which could be done but would be incredibly hard). With bishops and priests we can still manage. I’m not denigrating deacons, after all I may become one myself, but under no circumstances could you possibly suggest that they are equal-to or as important as priests.

  21. avatar Diane Harris says:

    Here are some data from the Official Catholic Directory 2010 General Summary
    (includes Eastern Rite):

    Total priests: 40,788 (27,614 Diocesan; 13,174 Religious.)
    Newly ordained priests in 2010: 472
    Total Permanent Deacons: 17,165 (newly ordained not listed.
    Total Catholics: 68,503,456 (22% of the US population).

    Virtually every diocese has permanent deacons, although a few had a very low number.
    If I get some time, I’d like to run a regression analysis of number of permanent deacons vs. new priest ordinations to see if there is either positive or negative correlation. Or maybe someone else has done the work. I don’t know. Fortunately, “pastoral administrator” isn’t even a listing in the General Summary. Let’s hope it stays that way. Unfortunately, lay pastoral admins are listed in the section by Diocese. That also would be an interesting regression analysis; i.e. the correlation between lay administrators (that includes nuns/sisters; they ARE laity) and new priests ordained.

  22. avatar annonymouse says:

    Bruce, you’re the only one proposing a competition of importance among the Sacrament of Orders. Obviously the magisterium thinks all three orders are important. I agree with you – the orders are not “equal” in the terms you propose – whether the Church can get along just “fine and dandy” without this one or that one.

    But why are you looking at it that way?

    Your original post, way back on the other blog entry, and all your subsequent posts in between, flippantly dismiss the Order of Deacon as peripheral and unnecessary, and questioned why anyone would care about the diaconate ordinatin. I guess to you, having a Sacramental Symbol of Christ’s service to the Church and her people is peripheral and unnecessary. The Fathers of the Church would seem to disagree.

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