Why Restore the Permanent Diaconate?
Why Restore the Diaconate?
As I move throughout Australia, I am so often asked the question as to why the Order of Deacon should be restored, as a permanent order, in the church. After all, doesn’t it take away from lay ecclesial ministry?
The answer to those questions, surely, is that the diaconate is a vocation, it is a God given calling to ordained ministry, and it is for life. It is important for the diaconate to be understood, not as just another ministry because ministries, such as acolyte, lector, extra -ordinary minister of Communion, and catechist come and go to meet a particular need, in a particular place, for a particular time.
And, like all of the baptised, the deacon shares the call to holiness and service, but as an ordained minister of the Church, along with priests and bishops, he also receives the grace of Holy Orders.
In his address to the National Conference of Australian Deacons, in December 2003, Bishop Anthony Fisher op had this to say on the restoration of the permanent diaconate. “A point - logically and ontologically -prior to all others - about the diaconate is that it is a vocation from God, it is not merely a human invention, inspiration or aspiration”.
And so, the diaconate is not a lay apostolate; it is a special articulation of the ordained ministry in the Church, and its restoration, therefore, as a permanent Order, makes available to the local Church the full expression of the threefold Sacrament of Holy Orders.
Furthermore, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church teaches us that, strengthened by sacramental grace; deacons are dedicated to the people of God in communion with their bishop, and his presbyterate, in the service of the Liturgy, the Word, and Charity. As such, the basic spiritual attitude to the diaconate, and of the deacon himself, must make it clear that the Christian path is not an ascent, or a triumphal march in glory, but a path that looks downward, following Jesus Christ, who descended from heaven.
Unfortunately, however, a lot of talk about the diaconate misses these points,and so often reduces it to functionality; and, more often than not, is reduced to a human resource function to cover a shortfall in priestly vocations. But of course the diaconate is not that.
Pope John Paul II once said of the diaconate that the service of the deacon is the Church’s service sacramentalised. He went on to say: “This is at the very heart of the diaconate – the deacon is to be a servant of the mysteries of Christ and - at the same time – be a servant to his brothers and sisters”.
The Person of the Deacon
Deacons, priests and bishops are all called to do diaconal ministry, because we are all ordained deacons. But the deacon, in particular the permanent deacon, is called to full time diaconal ministry to assist the bishop, and work in collaboration with priests in their ministry. In other words, deacons are ordained to be at the service of all.
Deacons are, first and foremost, to be living reminders of what it means to be disciples of Christ and members of the Church. The diaconate, however, is not about what a deacon can do, it’s about who the deacon is, it’s about the person of the deacon and who he is, is what he does. But, whatever they do, deacons make visible Christ who serves.
Patrick McCaslin and Michael Lawler in “Sacrament and Service: A Vision of the Permanent Diaconate Today” (Paulist Press 1986) observe: “that any parish without the sacramental presence of a deacon, to symbolize the call of the local church to diakonia, is sacramentally incomplete”. They later go on to say: “any church with a pastor, but no deacon, is declaring, in symbol, the absence of diakonia from its mission”. In other words, a Church without its full range of ministries is an incomplete Church. It isn’t only missing an important ministry of Christ-like service, but lacks something integral to its very nature.
And to quote Bishop Anthony Fisher op, “we need deacons who are down-to-earth (humble) men, yet up-to-heaven (spiritual) men, men with their feet on the ground, yet aware that theirs is a calling given by God through his Church”.
Rev Deacon Paul Simmons
17 May 2010
National Coordinator -Permanent Diaconate