One of the more gratifying elements of my introduction to Colorado Springs was to learn of the large permanent diaconate community here as well as its formation program. I would like to share some thoughts with you about this.
The diaconate is the entry level of the three orders of hierarchy in the Catholic Church: deacon, priest, and bishop. Some deacons will eventually become priests; they are called transitional deacons.
Others, however, are permanent deacons. Typically they are men of mature years, with families. They have distinguished themselves in their work or professional lives, and they bring great personal gifts to the Church. Most of the people of this diocese have encountered them.
As an order, the diaconate began in the Acts of the Apostles (6:1-7), when the Twelve realized that they should not neglect preaching in favor of waiting at tables. Hence, the Seven were chosen and ordained.
In subsequent centuries, the office remained prominent. The first Christian martyr, Stephen, was a deacon. St. Francis of Assisi was a deacon.
As the Middle Ages wore on, though, the order faded in prominence until it was simply a stepping stone to the priesthood. In 1964, the Second Vatican Council changed this. It called for a restoration of the permanent diaconate and left the concrete decision to local bishops. Since then, both the Holy See and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops have issued governing documents.
The diaconate is based on the Greek word for service, diakonia. A deacon is a servant. He has a hands-on ministry, a service at tables, a service behind the scenes. He also has a liturgical ministry. He can proclaim the Gospel and preach; he can assist at the altar and distribute communion; he can baptize; he can witness marriages. In all this the defining element of his ministry is service.
Like all ministry in the Church, his is a loving ministry. Deacons care for people in difficult circumstances, as Jesus would. Deacons are called to care for the poor, the homebound, the special needs —people who are often shunned. Deacons care for them courageously, in a spirit of respect for their human dignity. They care for them because Christ cares for them and identifies with them.
Diaconal ministry is a call. No one takes this ministry on himself or solely on his own initiative. He is called to it by Christ and empowered by him as well. The Bible is filled with stories of such calls and a variety of responses.
In our day, such a call could be discerned with an inner interest, a being-charmed, a willingness to accept challenges, and importantly freedom. From an external point of view, it can involve suggestions from others; the application and acceptance into the formation program; advancement in the program; and finally the actual call to the order in the ordination ceremony itself.
In all of this, it is the Holy Spirit who active, gently drawing the deacon candidate to himself and to the ministry. Christ is active as well. In fact, ordination brings about a sacramental configuration to Christ the Servant. It confers a sacramental character, a special relationship with Christ. Consequently the diaconal ministry becomes an imitation of Christ, exercised with support from him and in his name.
The Second Vatican Council specifically envisioned that the permanent diaconate could be exercised by married men of mature years. Thus the deacon wife is an important element of this ministry. At a minimum, she is a support to her deacon husband. In some ways she can even be a partner in his ministries. For this reason, wives are strongly encouraged to take part, alongside their husbands, in the deacon formation program.
The great Gospel symbol of the diaconate is the incident of Jesus rising from the Last Supper, putting aside his outer garment, tying a towel around his waist, and washing his disciples’ feet (Jn 13:1-20). Here we see concretely what the Philippians hymn celebrated, namely the kenosis or emptying of the Son of God, who became a slave and even accepted a slave’s death (Phil 2:5-11).
Jesus, who was worthy of all honor, made himself our servant. In following after him can we do the same thing for others?