Priest to Deacon: “Being a deacon is not a REAL vocation.”

laying on of handsFrom the inbox comes a note from a very concerned brother deacon.  A priest recently told him that there was no real sacramental significance to being a deacon, unlike the ordinations of presbyters or bishops, which change a person at the very core of their being.  As another deacon once remarked to me after a Conference, a priest once told him that “being a deacon is not a REAL vocation, like being a priest or a religious.”  I have heard both of these observations before, and want to reassure my brother deacons that, contrary to the mistaken opinions of some of the priests involved (and others, of course): being a deacon IS a real vocation, and our ordination is just as “sacramentally effective and significant” as any other ordination to the other orders that make up the Sacrament of Holy Orders!

What’s going on here?  Why is there such confusion about this?  Let me suggest a few answers.  Perhaps this could be part of a conversation and ongoing formation offered to our seminarians and priests (and it wouldn’t hurt for deacons and lay folks to remember it, too!).

1) A “theology of the diaconate” is only just now being developed.  This may seem surprising, but when you think about it, it makes sense.  For about a millennium or so, “being ordained” was usually summed up in (reduced to?)  reflections on “being a priest.”  That was the order that mattered the most, since this was the order (of presbyters) who “confected the Eucharist”, and all other orders were preliminary to, and led to, the presbyterate.  For quite a while, even being a bishop was understood primarily through the lens of the priesthood, with the responsibilities of being a bishop understood primarily as a matter of jurisdiction, not sacramental significance.  This point of view was overturned at the Second Vatican Council, which restored a more ancient understanding of Orders, first by reclaiming the more ancient theological understandings of the episcopate (see Lumen gentium, ##18-27), returning the diaconate to an order to be exercised permanently, and by authorizing the restructuring of the entire Sacrament of Holy Orders; Pope Paul VI implemented those decisions between 1967 (when he adjusted canon law to permit the ordination of “permanent” deacons) and 1972 (when he suppressed, in the Latin Church, first tonsure, the minor orders of porter, lector, exorcist and acolyte, and the subdiaconate; he concurrently authorized LAY ministries of lector and acolyte, no longer to be ordinations, but lay institutions).  This means, vis-a-vis the diaconate, that for the first time in more than a millennium, a person could be ordained to a major and permanent order of the ministry (the diaconate) without eventually seeking ordination to the presbyterate.  Therefore, given the large scale absence of “permanent” deacons for so long, there was no proper theology of the diaconate-qua-diaconate.

The Holy See recognized this in a 1998 document from the Congregation for Catholic Education (#3):Ratio et Directorium

The almost total disappearance of the permanent diaconate from the Church of the West for more than a millennium has certainly made it more difficult to understand the profound reality of this ministry. However, it cannot be said for that reason that the theology of the diaconate has no authoritative points of reference, completely at the mercy of different theological opinions. There are points of reference, and they are very clear, even if they need to be developed and deepened.

So, what are these “points of reference” offered by the Holy See?

A.  First of all we must consider the diaconate, like every other Christian identity, from within the Church which is understood as a mystery of Trinitarian communion in missionary tension. This is a necessary, even if not the first, reference in the definition of the identity of every ordained minister insofar as its full truth consists in being a specific participation in and representation of the ministry of Christ. This is why the deacon receives the laying on of hands and is sustained by a specific sacramental grace which inserts him into the sacrament of Orders.

B. The diaconate is conferred through a special outpouring of the Spirit (ordination), which brings about in the one who receives it a specific conformation to Christ, Lord and servant of all. Quoting a text of the Constitutiones Ecclesiae Aegypticae, Lumen gentium (n. 29) defines the laying on of hands on the deacon as being not “ad sacerdotium sed ad ministerium”,(6) that is, not for the celebration of the eucharist, but for service. This indication, together with the admonition of Saint Polycarp, also taken up again by Lumen gentium, n. 29,(7) outlines the specific theological identity of the deacon: as a participation in the one ecclesiastical ministry, he is a specific sacramental sign, in the Church, of Christ the servant. His role is to “express the needs and desires of the Christian communities” and to be “a driving force for service, or diakonia”, which is an essential part of the mission of the Church.

C.  The matter of diaconal ordination is the laying on of the hands of the Bishop; the form is constituted by the words of the prayer of ordination, which is expressed in the three moments of anamnesis, epiclesis and intercession. . . .  [NOTE: The matter and form of the diaconate, presbyterate and episcopate were clarified and promulgated by Pope Pius XII in his 1947 Sacramentum Ordinis.   One would hope that by now this document would have found its way into seminary curricula! ]

holyorders2D. Insofar as it is a grade of holy orders, the diaconate imprints a character and communicates a specific sacramental grace. The diaconal character is the configurative and distinguishing sign indelibly impressed in the soul, which configures the one ordained to Christ, who made himself the deacon or servant of all. It brings with it a specific sacramental grace, which is strength, vigor specialis, a gift for living the new reality wrought by the sacrament. “With regard to deacons, ‘strengthened by sacramental grace they are dedicated to the People of God, in conjunction with the bishop and his body of priests, in the service (diakonia) of the liturgy, of the Gospel and of works of charity’”.  Just as in all sacraments which imprint character, grace has a permanent virtuality [The Latin original has: Sicut in omnibus sacramentis characterem imprimentibus, gratia permanentem virtualem vim continet]. It flowers again and again in the same measure in which it is received and accepted again and again in faith.

E. In the exercise of their power, deacons, since they share in a lower grade of ecclesiastical ministry, necessarily depend on the Bishops, who have the fullness of the sacrament of orders. In addition, they are placed in a special relationship with the priests, in communion with whom they are called to serve the People of God.

F. From the point of view of discipline, with diaconal ordination, the deacon is incardinated into a particular Church or personal prelature to whose service he has been admitted, or else, as a cleric, into a religious institute of consecrated life or a clerical society of apostolic life.(13) Incardination does not represent something which is more or less accidental, but is characteristically a constant bond of service to a concrete portion of the People of God. This entails ecclesial membership at the juridical, affective and spiritual level and the obligation of ministerial service.

jpii2.  If this were not enough to demonstrate the proper character of a vocation to the diaconate, consider the words of soon-to-be Saint John Paul II, who offered a series of catecheses on the diaconate in 1993.  He observed with great clarity a theme he would make several times during his papacy:

The exercise of the diaconal ministry—like that of other ministries in the Church—requires per se of all deacons, celibate or married, a spiritual attitude of total dedication.  Although in certain cases it is necessary to make the ministry of the diaconate compatible with other obligations, to think of oneself and to act in practice as a ‘part-time deacon’ would make no sense. The deacon is not a part-time employee or ecclesiastical official, but a minister of the Church. His is not a profession, but a mission!  

So, why does any confusion persist on this matter?  Let me offer a couple of suggestions.

3.  The sacramental question of HOW the deacon participates in the one Sacrament of Holy Orders has developed since the release of the documents on the diaconate in 1998.  Following some initial changes to the Latin editio typica of the Catechism of the Catholic Church back in 1994, Pope Benedict in 2009 issued motu proprio Omnium et Mentem.  In this document, canon law (specifically cc. 1008 and 1009) was changed to reflect that only presbyters and bishops act in persona Christi Capitis (“in the person of Christ, the Head of the Church”), while deacons serve in a ministry of word, sacrament and charity.  This distinction, however, does not — and should not — be taken to suggest that deacons are no less ORDAINED into sacred ministry (which is the point of the canons on this point!) or that our ordination is no less sacramentally significant.  The canons simply reflect a theological position that there are two modalities of participation in the ONE Sacrament of Holy Orders. [Here’s an interesting side note: the change to canon law only affected the Code of Canon Law for the Latin Church; the Code of Canons for the Eastern Catholic Churches does not use the language of in persona Christi Capitis, so the distinction did not need to be made there.]

4.  I think that, since the Council, there has been legitimate concern on the part of many presbyters that the specific nature of the presbyterate has been under assault.  One bishop who participated in all four sessions of the Council as a young bishop, once remarked to me that he considered it a great shortcoming of the Council that they did not spend more time on the nature of the priesthood itself.  “After all,” this bishop said, “We spent considerable time talking about the sacramental nature of the episcopate, and we developed wonderful texts on the nature and role of the laity.  We even renewed the diaconate!  But we did not take into proper account the profound impact all of that would have on the presbyterate itself.”  As a result, many of the functions which had become part of the presbyterate prior to the Council now began to be disbursed to other ministers, both lay and, now, deacons.  This means that there is a certain concern that the presbyterate itself is being somehow “eroded” as others assume their own rightful and legitimate places in ministry, both within the Church and in the world.

But the bottom line remains:vocation

Deacons are ordained, and are permanently changed in the core of our being by that ordination (what we used to call in days gone by as “ontologically changed”).  We are always and everywhere full-time ministers, as St. John Paul II so passionately proclaimed, even when that ministry occurs outside the normal institutional structures of the Church.  During those same catecheses in 1993, John Paul II also reminded people that “a deeply felt need in the decision to re-establish the permanent diaconate was and is that of greater and more direct presence of Church ministers in the various spheres of the family, work, school, etc., in addition to existing pastoral structures.”  The diaconate is a sacrament and a proper vocation.  It is perhaps also a useful reminder to many of our sisters and brothers that we are all gifted with many “proper vocations” — calls from God! — in our lifetimes.  Our baptisms themselves constitute our primal vocation, before all others, for example!  Some of us are called to religious life, some are called to matrimony, some are called to Orders, and some of us are called to several of these at the same time!  Our God is a most generous God, and attempts to characterize one vocation over against another is to deny that divine generosity and to misunderstand the nature of vocation in the first place.

Now,  let us all go out and serve one another!

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15 comments on “Priest to Deacon: “Being a deacon is not a REAL vocation.”

  1. […] lot smarter than me for further insight. And Deacon Bill Ditewig wrote the following in response on his blog, quoting from the Norms for the Formation of […]

  2. Deacon James Flannery says:

    For years we have had this issue before us. Not to be able to dialogue in charity with this priest, shows the need as Deacon Greg says….more and more education of our seminarians, priests, and bishops are required. I must deacons too.
    I have always wondered why we have no deacons representing us in Rome?
    Lots of frustration, God knows and that gives me hope. Oh, just look at how Bill and Greg have assisted us…how blest we are to have brother deacons in community.
    We may no see it in our time, just maybe, we keep the path alive and well.

  3. Deacon Bill, this is a great post, and I am going to share it with many of my deacon friends. Although I suspect they may well see it anyway, I don’t want them to miss it. And I am certainly going to share it with some priests as well. In my diocese, we have a pretty robust formation program for deacons, so there may be a less confusion around here in general.

    One question for you however, and forgive me if I sound like I am nitpicking. While I can understand and accept being changed to the “core of your being,” is it a truly ontological change?

  4. Speaking as a priest from an Eastern perspective, I want to bang my head against a wall when I hear such nonsense as ‘the diaconate is not a real vocation’. It is part of the priesthood, derived from Christ, manifest in full in the bishop, and delegated to priest and deacon. I have written as much here: http://priestofthechurch.wordpress.com/2013/05/26/the-nature-and-role-of-deacons-or-the-fullness-of-priesthood/

  5. Thanks, Father, for all you’re doing.

  6. Deacon John Gerke says:

    I think there are some in our church who have a hard time accepting that we, as deacons, generally have received both of the “vocation” sacraments….Holy Matrimony and Holy Orders. I think that an awful lot of people see these two sacraments as mutually exclusive. In the minds of many you can’t be married and ordained at the same time (unless you migrate over from the Lutheran or Anglican Church). I can understand that confusion given the fact that ordination and celibacy were so closely linked for a millennium.
    There has, largely been an absence of catechesis on the vocation and the role of the permanent deacon for the vast majority of my life.

  7. James Graham says:

    Hi Bill,

    Thanks for your blog and this posting in particular.

    It is really sad that after fifty years, these issues remain. That probably tells us once again how badly we’ve implemented Vatican II. We really should examine our response to Lumen gentium in this case, and also gadium et spes in a more generalized way.

    As I posted to you in another format, I have to wonder about formation programs which do not develop spiritually mature candidates.

    How many of us define ourselves by “what we do” instead of by “who we are”? A form of clericalism flows from the “what we do” team and an insecurity soon follows as we feel threatened when “our job” erodes!

    One secure in “who he/she is” allows action to flow from “who we are”….. be it lay via baptism, or clerics via ordination.

    Oh, I’m sure there are those clerics who subscribe to the notion that all comes to its peek @ priesthood. After all, if a priest can effect Eucharist, then all other sacramental action is less. This thinking of course denies the “three fold” notion of Holy Orders flowing from the Episcopacy.

    Is the bishop not our spiritual father, and we priests and deacons his sons?

    Pope Francis taught all a lesson which quite frankly has been overlooked; prior to washing feet, he purposely rearranged his vestments to a diaconal form: Christ the Servant!!!

    In doing so, was he NOT acting in “the persona of Christ”?

    If we can NOT come to an understanding of who we “are” and RESPECT each other, ho much less so will the world around us!

  8. John Placette, Dcn. says:

    Deacon Bill,
    I am proud to say the Archdiocese of Galveston/Houston has a wonderful formation program headed by Deacon Gerald DuPont.

    Our Cardinal, Daniel DiNardo is exceptionally supportive of the diaconate. We have approx. 380 deacons in the archdiocese.

    However, we still have a couple of parishes where the priests are less supportive and that is a shame. Where there is a tandem ministry, but orders flourish. Both should be complementary to each other.

    I try to work into teaching moments how the diaconate is formed and what is expected – while always giving due respect to our priests.

    When ordained by our Cardinal, I couldn’t help but “feel” the change. One could tell he placed his whole being into the ordination rite. There was no doubt one was ordained through him by God. The laying on of hands was profound. 29 were ordained during the mass, but because of the Cardinal’s meticulous efforts, I think each one felt as if he was being ordained standing before God alone.

    I pray that all will see the integrity, honor, goodness and fullness-of-grace in each order.

    May we be God’s hands, and feet and heart.

  9. Andrew says:

    Bishop to Priest: “Being a priest is not a REAL vocation”.

  10. Reverend Mr. Robert Marian Rich says:

    This is definitely one of the reasons the church has strong relationships that are failing the people of God with statements from clergy who have undermined the gift of Holy Orders. They seem to forget that they were required to be ordained to the Transitional Deacon Order before they can be ordained as a Priest. So haow can they even think that a Deacon is not involved in a vocation?
    I myself have been harmed by such beliefs of Priests and of their Bishops who will not come to the aid of the Deacon and instruct their Priests that being a Permanent Deacon is a Vocation just as their ordination is a voccation as well.
    How long will the church suffer under the persecution of such clergy and their own agendas of interjecting personal beliefs instead of teaching the beliefs of the Church for which they are charged to do?

  11. Thank you, Dcn. Ditewig, for this wonderful post.

    Can I ask if the catecheses from Blessed John Paul II is available online? I would like to read the raw material.

    May God bless you for your ministry to the Church!

  12. Thank you, Dcn. Sartorius,

    The catecheses I wrote about from John Paul II can be found (along with a lot of other things we put up on the same page) RIGHT HERE. They’re great!

    God bless,

    Bill

  13. Fr. Joshua Allen says:

    This is an interesting post! Thanks for writing it. I think you covered the sacramental aspect, but what of the vocation comment?

    Language I have heard used is that the Diaconate is not a primary but a secondary vocation. The primary vocation would be the sort of “till death do us part” state of life to which we are called…in the case of a deacon, for the vast majority, either married life or priesthood. (I recognize that there are complexities in the sentence just written). Thus, a married man perceives at some point in his life (after, or perhaps even before marriage?) that he is being called to serve the POG in the diaconate. But his primary vocation must be resolved first.

    I don’t believe that sort of language has been used by the Church, but the “call within a call” nature of the Permanent Diaconate seems to require something like it I think.

    A priest (or anyone) saying that the diaconate is not a “real” vocation may just be trying to express that it is a second call after the state of life is established. Perhaps that’s overly charitable…

    Long and short: thank you for your ministry. I teach in the Permanent Diaconate Program in Atlanta, and I don’t know where we’d be without deacons.

  14. John Donaghy says:

    Thanks for this.

    I may have to translate it into Spanish (with your permission) to share with priests here in Honduras. When I told a priest from another diocese that I was a candidate for the diaconate, he asked me why not the priesthood. I said, “Because I have experienced a vocational call to the diaconate, not to the priesthood.” He replied, “If you have a vocation to the diaconate, you have a vocation to the priesthood.”

    This might be understandable because there are only two deacons in Honduras. But it’s better to do some catechesis before any ordination of deacons as a permanent order here in our diocese.

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