Going Golden: Fifty Years of Renewed Diaconate

PopePaulVIIt was just fifty years ago today that the Order of Deacons was renewed as a ministry to be exercised permanently in the Catholic Church.  Fifty years ago today, 18 June 1967, Blessed Pope Paul VI acted on the 1964 recommendation of the world’s bishops at the Second Vatican Council.  He promulgated motu proprio Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem, which you can read in full here.

Following the conclusions of the Second Vatican Council (cf. Lumen gentium, #29), the Holy Father directed the appropriate changes to canon law which would permit the diaconate to be renewed as a “particular and permanent” order, and opened the diaconate to be conferred on married as well as celibate men.  The introductory paragraphs offer significant insights into the vision behind the renewal:

Beginning already in the early days of the Apostles, the Catholic Church has held in great veneration the sacred order of the diaconate, as the Apostle of the Gentiles himself bears witness. He expressly sends his greeting to the deacons together with the bishops and instructs Timothy which virtues and qualities are to be sought in them in order that they may be regarded as worthy of their ministry.

Furthermore, the Second Ecumenical Vatican Council, following this very ancient tradition, made honorable mention of the diaconate in the Constitution which begins with the words “Lumen Gentium,” where, after concerning itself with the bishops and the priests, it praised also the third rank of sacred orders, explaining its dignity and enumerating its functions.

Indeed while clearly recognizing on the one hand that “these functions very necessary to the life of the Church could in the present discipline of the Latin Church be carried out in many regions with difficulty,” and while on the other hand wishing to make more suitable provision in a matter of such importance wisely decreed that the “diaconate in the future could be restored as a particular and permanent rank of the hierarchy.”

Although some functions of the deacons, especially in missionary countries, are in fact accustomed to be entrusted to lay men it is nevertheless “beneficial that those who perform a truly diaconal ministry be strengthened by the imposition of hands, a tradition going back to the Apostles, and be more closely joined to the altar so that they may more effectively carry out their ministry through the sacramental grace of the diaconate.” Certainly in this way the special nature of this order will be shown most clearly. It is not to be considered as a mere step towards the priesthood, but it is so adorned with its own indelible character and its own special grace so that those who are called to it “can permanently serve the mysteries of Christ and the Church.”

deaconsFrom the beginning, then, the renewal of the diaconate as a “particular and permanent” order of ministry has been about sacramental grace.  The diaconate must never be reduced simply to the sum of its various “functions” which might easily be performed by others without ordination.  However, the Council and the Pope recognized that those performing those functions in the person of Christ and in the name of the Church should be strengthened by the sacramental grace of ordination.

This is a very special day for the Church and her deacons.  We remember with great respect and humility the giants of the renewal of the order of deacons: the bishops, theologians, and most especially those pioneering early deacons who set out into the unknown, charting a course for the rest of us to follow.

Deacons of the Church: Happy Golden Anniversary!

50th-Anniversary

Deacons: Bringing it Home

Pope Francis poses with cardinal advisers during meeting at Vatican

In news from the Holy See today, it was announced that the nine special Cardinal-advisers to Pope Francis (known colloquially as the C9) have wrapped up their latest three-day meeting in Rome.  You can read Vatican Radio’s account of the meeting here.  The overall topic is the reform and restructuring of the Vatican bureaucracy itself.  Amid the several major areas discussed, ranging from finances to communications to decentralization, several interesting bits were mentioned which directly concern deacons.

In the news conference reporting on the meeting, Director of the Holy See Press Office, American Greg Burke included:

Among other proposals, the possibility of transferring some functions from the Roman Dicasteries to the local bishops or episcopal councils, in a spirit of healthy decentralization.

For example, the transfer of the Dicastery for the Clergy to the Episcopal Conference for examination and authorization for: the priestly ordination of an unmarried permanent deacon; the passage to new marriage for a widowed permanent deacon; the request for priestly ordination by a widowed permanent deacon.

married deaconMany people might be unaware of the history behind these three items, so let me cover each briefly.  Before doing that, however, we should keep one traditional factor in mind.  Throughout the Catholic tradition, East and West, it has been a well-established principle that “married men may be ordained but ordained men may not marry.”  Following ordination, then, the longstanding norm (until the 1984 Code of Canon Law) was that, once ordained, a man could not marry — or marry again, in the case of a married cleric whose wife has died.  In other words, the very reception of Holy Orders constitutes an impediment to entering a marriage.  The 1984 Code (c. 1078), however, permits a request for a dispensation from the “impediment of order” which would then permit the widowed deacon to re-marry.  More about this below.

USCCBThe three issues mentioned today are all questions that up until now have required a petition from the cleric involved to the Holy See for resolution.  None of them were things that could be decided by the local diocesan bishop or the regional episcopal conference (such as the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops).  So let’s take a closer look at these three situations.

  1. “Unmarried permanent deacons”: There are some people who wrongly assume that all so-called “permanent” deacons are married men.  This is inaccurate, and international statistics suggest that somewhere between 4-10% of all permanent deacons are, in fact, unmarried.  When an unmarried candidate for the diaconate approaches ordination, he makes the same promise of celibacy made by seminarian candidates for the (improperly called) “transitional” diaconate.  The situation addressed by the C9 concerns these celibate permanent deacons should they later discern a vocation to the presbyterate.  Many Catholics are surprised to learn this, but the Church rightly teaches that each Order is its own vocation: that a call (vocation) to serve as Deacon does not mean that Deacon necessarily has a vocation to the Presbyterate or Episcopate.  Deacon formation programs are not helping men discern a general vocation to the ordained ministry; rather, the focus is on the particular vocation of the diaconate.  So, if a deacon later discerns a possible vocation to the presbyterate, he must enter into a formation process for the priesthood to test this vocation.  In the US, the need for this careful discernment and formation is detailed in the USCCB’s 2005 National Directory for the Formation, Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons in the United States.  Up until now, the diocesan bishop (or religious superior) had to petition the Holy See to permit the subsequent ordination of that celibate permanent deacon to the presbyterate.  What the C9 is rightly suggesting (in my opinion) is that such decisions might be made at the more appropriate level of the episcopal conference, and not the Holy See. (I would think that should this idea go forward, the decision will ultimately be referred back to each diocesan bishop as the authority best positioned to know the situation and the people involved the best.)  NOTA BENE: This particular situation involves permanent deacons who have never been married before; the situation of a widowed permanent deacon will be covered in the third item below.
  2. US Bishops“The passage to new marriage for a widowed permanent deacon”:  This is a situation which has been faced by many of our deacons over the past decades.  Obviously a married man cannot and does not make the promise of celibacy prior to ordination as a Deacon: we do not promise a hypothetical: “I promise to embrace the celibate life IF my wife predeceases me” is not part of our liturgical and sacramental lexicon.  However, once ordained of course, that married deacon is impeded from entering another marriage.  First, of course, because he is already  married!  But if his wife dies, he is still not free to marry again because he has assumed that “impediment of order” I mentioned above.  St. John Paul II developed three conditions under which a widowed permanent deacon might petition for a dispensation from the impediment of order (notice, by the way, that this is not a “dispensation from celibacy” since the married deacon has never made such a promise from which to be dispensed in the first place).  These three reasons, which need not concern us at the moment, have taken various forms over the years, including some revisions by Cardinal Arinze which made the likelihood of obtaining such a dispensation most highly unlikely.  The petition for this dispensation right now begins with a petition from the widowed deacon to the Holy See, via his diocesan bishop (or religious superior).  What the C9 is suggesting is that in the future, this petition would go from the Deacon to the Episcopal Conference (or, if the Conference develops such procedures) to the diocesan Bishop.
  3. The last reference is to “the request for priestly ordination by a widowed permanent deacon.”  Here we find the widowed deacon discerning a different path.  Rather than discerning a new marriage, he is discerning the possibility of a vocation to the presbyterate.  In a sense, then, he is in the same position as the deacon above who was never married.  In the past, such petitions were handled by the Holy See; if the suggestion of the C9 is accepted and implemented, such decisions would be made at the local (Conference or diocesan) level.

Finally, notice that the C9 specifically mentions the Episcopal Conference as the possible new decision-maker, while I have suggested the possibility of the diocesan bishop in some cases.  What I am envisioning is that the Conference might well develop procedures and policies which might further delegate such matters, under certain circumstances, to the diocesan bishop.  For example, in 1968, it was the Episcopal Conference which received authorization to ordain (permanent) deacons.  The Conference then extended that authorization to each Bishop for his decision on the question.

The question of “healthy decentralization” is a wonderful one, and it is intriguing that the diaconate is part of that conversation!

gaudiumconfweb-171x200

 

 

Deacons: Myths and Misperceptions

reeseHeadshotWebJesuit Father Thomas Reese has published an interesting piece over at NCRonline entitled “Women Deacons? Yes.  Deacons?  Maybe.”  I have a lot of respect for Fr. Tom, and I thank him for taking the time to highlight the diaconate at this most interesting time.  As the apostolic Commission prepares to assemble to discuss the question of the history of women in diaconal ministry, it is good for all to remember that none of this is happening in a vacuum.  IF women are eventually ordained as deacons in the contemporary Church, then they will be joining an Order of ministry that has developed much over the last fifty years.  Consider one simple fact: In January 1967 there were zero (0) “permanent” deacons in the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church (the last two lived and died in the 19th Century).  Today there are well over 40,000 deacons serving worldwide.  By any numerical measure, this has to be seen as one of the great success stories of the Second Vatican Council.  Over the last fifty years, then, the Church has learned much about the nature of this renewed order, its exercise, formation, assignment and utilization.  The current question, therefore, rests upon a foundation of considerable depth, while admitting that much more needs to be done.

However, Father Reese’s column rests on some commonly-held misperceptions and errors of fact regarding the renewal of the diaconate.  Since these errors are often repeated without challenge or correction, I think we need to make sure this foundation is solid lest we build a building that is doomed to fall down.  So, I will address some of these fault lines in the order presented:

  1.  The“Disappearance” of Male Deacons  

exsultet1Father states that “[Women deacons] disappeared in the West around the same time as male deacons.”  On the contrary, male deacons remained a distinct order of ministry (and one not automatically destined for the presbyterate) until at least the 9th Century in the West.  This is attested to by a variety of sources.  Certainly, throughout these centuries, many deacons — the prime assistants to bishops — were elected to succeed their bishops.  Later in this period, as the Roman cursus honorum took hold more definitively, deacons were often ordained to the presbyterate, leading to what is incorrectly referred to as the “transitional” diaconate.  However, both in a “permanent” sense and a “transitional” sense, male deacons never disappeared.

  1.  The Renewal of Diaconate as Third World Proposal

1115_p12b500Father Tom writes that his hesitancy concerning the diaconate itself “is not with women deacons, but with the whole idea of deacons as currently practiced in the United States.” (I would suggest that this narrow focus misses the richness of the diaconate worldwide.)  He then turns to the Council to provide a foundation for what follows.  He writes, “The renewal of the diaconate was proposed at the Second Vatican Council as a solution to the shortage of native priests in missionary territories. In fact, the bishops of Africa said, no thank you. They preferred to use lay catechists rather than deacons.”  This statement simply is not true and does not reflect the history leading up to the Council or the discussions that took place during the Council on the question of the diaconate.

LocalsRebuildDresdenAs I and others have written extensively, the origins of the contemporary diaconate lie in the early 19th Century, especially in Germany and France.  In fact there is considerable linkage between the early liturgical movement (such as the Benedictine liturgical reforms at Solesmes) and the early discussions about a renewed diaconate: both stemmed from a desire to increase participation of the faithful in the life of the Church, both at liturgy and in life.  In Germany, frequent allusion was made to the gulf that existed between priests and bishops and their people.  Deacons were discussed as early as 1840 as a possible way to reconnect people with their pastoral leadership.  This discussion continued throughout the 19th Century and into the 20th.  It became a common topic of the Deutschercaritasberband (the German Caritas organization) before and during the early years of the Nazi regime, and it would recur in the conversations held by priest-prisoners in Dachau.  Following the war, these survivors wrote articles and books on the need for a renewed diaconate — NOT because of a priest shortage, but because of a desire to present a more complete image of Christ to the world: not only Christ the High Priest, but the kenotic Christ the Servant as well.  As Father Joseph Komonchak famously quipped, “Vatican II did not restore the diaconate because of a shortage of priests but because of a shortage of deacons.”

Vatican IICertainly, there was some modest interest in this question by missionary bishops before the Council.  But it remained largely a European proposal.  Consider some statistics.  During the antepreparatory stage leading up to the Council (1960-1961), during which time close to 9,000 proposals were presented from the world’s bishops, deans of schools of theology, and heads of men’s religious congregations, 101 proposals concerned the possible renewal of the diaconate.  Eleven of these proposals were against the idea of having the diaconate (either as a transitional or as a permanent order), while 90 were in favor of a renewed, stable (“permanent”) diaconate.  Nearly 500 bishops from around the world supported some form of these 90 proposals, with only about 100 of them from Latin America and Africa.  Nearly 400 bishops, almost entirely from both Western and Eastern Europe, were the principal proponents of a renewed diaconate (by the way, the bishops of the United States, who had not had the benefit of the century-long conversation about the diaconate, were largely silent on the matter, and the handful who spoke were generally against the idea).  Notice how these statistics relate to Father Tom’s observation.  First, the renewed diaconate was largely a European proposal, not surprising given the history I’ve outlined above.  Second, notice that despite this fact, it is also wrong to say that “the African bishops said no thank you” to the idea.  Large numbers of them wanted a renewed diaconate, and even today, the diaconate has been renewed in a growing number of African dioceses.

One other observation on this point needs to be made.  No bishop whose diocese is suffering from a shortage of priests would suggest that deacons would be a suitable strategy.  After all, as we all know, deacons do not celebrate Mass, hear confessions or anoint the sick.  If a diocese needed more priests, they would not have turned to the diaconate.  Yes, there was some discussion at the Council that deacons could be of assistance to priests, but the presumption was that there were already priests to hand.

In short, the myth that “the diaconate was a third world initiative due to a shortage of priests” simply has never held up, despite its longstanding popularity.

  1.  Deacons as Part-Time Ministers

Father cites national statistics that point out that deacons are largely unpaid, “most of whom make a living doing secular work.”  “Why,” he asks, “are we ordaining part-time ministers and not full-time ministers?”

shutterstock_137696915-660x350Let’s break this down.  First, there never has been, nor will there ever be, a “part-time deacon.”  We’re all full-time ministers.  Here’s the problem: Because the Catholic Church did not have the advantage of the extensive conversation on diaconate that was held in other parts of the world, we have not fully accepted the notion that ministry extends BEYOND the boundaries of the institutional church itself.  Some of the rationale behind the renewal of the diaconate in the 19th Century and forward has been to place the Church’s sacred ministers in places where the clergy had previously not been able to go!  Consider the “worker-priest” movement in France.  This was based on a similar desire to extend the reach of the Church’s official ministry outside of the parish and outside of the sanctuary.  However, if we can only envision “ministry” as something that takes place within the sanctuary or within the parish, then we miss a huge point of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council and, I would suggest, the papal magisterium of Pope Francis.  The point of the diaconate is to extend the reach of the bishop into places the bishop can’t normally be present.  That means that no matter what the deacon is doing, no matter where the deacon is working or serving, the deacon is ministering to those around him.

We seem to understand this when we speak about priests, but not about deacons.  When a priest is serving in some specialized work such as president of a university, or teaching history or social studies or science at a high school, we would never suggest that he is a “part-time” minister.  Rather, we would correctly say that it is ALL ministry.  Deacons take that even further, ministering in our various workplaces and professions.  It was exactly this kind of societal and cultural leavening that the Council desired with regard to the laity and to the ordained ministry of the deacon.  The bottom line is that we have to expand our view of what we mean by the term “ministry”!

  1.  “Laypersons can do everything a deacon can do

Father writes, “But the truth is that a layperson can do everything that a deacon can do.”  He then offers some examples.  Not so fast.

ANSA-John23Hospital-255x318Not unlike the previous point, this is a common misperception.  However, it is only made if one reduces “being a deacon” to the functions one performs.  Let’s ponder that a moment.  We live in a sacramental Church.  This means that there’s more to things than outward appearances.  Consider the sacrament of matrimony.  Those of us who are married know that there is much, much more to “being married” than simply the sum of the functions associated with marriage.  Those who are priests or bishops know that there is more to who they are as priests and bishops than simply the sum of what they do.  So, why can’t they see that about deacons?  There is more to “being deacon” than simply the sum of what we do.  And, frankly, do we want priests to stop visiting the sick in hospitals or the incarcerated in prisons simply because a lay person can (and should!) be doing that?  Shall we have Father stop being a college professor because now we have lay people who can do that?  Shall we simply reduce Father to the sacraments over which he presides?  What a sacramentally arid Church we would become!

The fact is, there IS a difference when a person does something as an ordained person.  Thomas Aquinas observed that an ordained person acts in persona Christi et in nomine Ecclesiae — in the person of Christ and in the name of the Church.  There is a public and permanent dimension to all ordained ministry that provides the sacramental foundation for all that we try to do in the name of the Church.  We are more than the sum of our parts, we are more than the sum of our functions.

  1.  “We have deacons. . . because they get more respect”

francis-washing-feetWith all respect to a man I deeply admire, I expect that most deacons who read this part of the column are still chuckling.  Yes, I have been treated with great respect by most of the people with whom I’ve served, including laity, religious, priests and bishops.  On the other hand, the experience of most deacons does not sustain Father’s observation.  The fact is, most people, especially if they’re not used to the ministry of deacons, don’t associate deacons with ordination.  I can’t tell the number of times that I’ve been asked by someone, “When will you be ordained?” — meaning ordination to the priesthood.  They know I am a deacon, but, as some people will say, “but that one really doesn’t count, does it?”  I had another priest once tell me, “Being a deacon isn’t a real vocation like the priesthood.”  If it’s respect a person is after “beyond their competence” (to quote Father Reese), then it’s best to avoid the diaconate.

No, the truth is that we have deacons because the Church herself is called to be deacon to the world (cf. Paul VI).  Just as we are a priestly people who nonetheless have ministerial priests to help us actualize our priestly identity, so too we have ministerial deacons to help us actualize our ecclesial identity as servants to and in the world.  To suggest that we have deacons simply because of issues of “respect” simply misses the point of 150 years of theological and pastoral reflection on the nature of the Church and on the diaconate.

In all sincerity, I thank Father Reese for his column on the diaconate, and I look forward to the ongoing conversation about this exciting renewed order of ministry of our Church.

 

 

 

Holy Jubilee and Deacons: “Proclaim and Serve”

unnamed-2-740x493The Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy focused over the last few days on the ministry of deacons.  Today the Holy Father celebrated Mass in Saint Peter’s Square and thousands of the world’s deacons were there.  The Holy Father’s homily is a short but powerful lesson in diakonia.

In one sense, Pope Francis picks up where St. John Paul II left off sixteen years ago at the 2000 Jubilee.  In his address to deacons during this audience with us, Pope John Paul challenged deacons to be “active apostles of the New Evangelization.”  Today Pope Francis began his homily by quoting St. Paul:

“A servant of Jesus Christ” (Gal 1:10). We have listened to these words that the Apostle Paul, writing to the Galatians, uses to describe himself. At the beginning of his Letter, he had presented himself as “an apostle” by the will of the Lord Jesus (cf. Gal1:1). These two terms – apostle and servant – go together. They can never be separated. They are like the two sides of a medal. Those who proclaim Jesus are called to serve, and those who serve proclaim Jesus.

Active apostles, active servants: no better challenge for deacons!  Not surprisingly Pope Francis reflects what Pope-emeritus Benedict once referred to as “the great et. . .et” (both-and) as contrasted to “aut. . . aut” (either-or).  Pope Benedict was responding to a question from an older priest who had recalled that his seminary spiritual director had once criticized him for preferring playing football over studying, and Pope Benedict rather humorously reassured the priest:

Catholicism. . . has always been considered the religion of the great “et. . . et” [“both-and”]: not of great forms of exclusivism but of synthesis. The exact meaning of “Catholic” is “synthesis”. I would therefore be against having to choose between either playing football or studying Sacred Scripture or Canon Law.

DEACONS JUBILEE MASS

Today, Pope Francis says the same thing about apostles and servants.  We are called to be both, not one or the other.  His simple simile captures it perfectly: apostle and servant “are like the two sides of a medal.”  “A disciple of Jesus cannot take a road other than that of the Master. If he wants to proclaim him, he must imitate him. Like Paul, he must strive to become a servant. In other words, if evangelizing is the mission entrusted at baptism to each Christian, serving is the way that mission is carried out.”

Pope Francis offers three ways deacons can live this great “et. . . et” in our lives:

  1. Be Available.  Most deacons I’ve known over the years readily joke that there’s no such thing as a deacon’s “day off”!  Between responsibilities for our families, our various jobs and professions, as well as ministries, most deacons wouldn’t know what a real “day off” feels like, any more than we can take a “sabbatical” from any of those responsibilities.  I’m sure that Pope Francis’ words touched many a deacon and his family when he observed:

A servant daily learns detachment from doing everything his own way and living his life as he would. . . . [He] has to give up the idea of being the master of his day. He knows that his time is not his own, but a gift from God which is then offered back to him. Only in this way will it bear fruit. One who serves is not a slave to his own agenda, but ever ready to deal with the unexpected, ever available to his brothers and sisters and ever open to God’s constant surprises.

The pope had some words about trying to keep to a “timetable” for service, too:

One who serves is not worried about the timetable. It deeply troubles me when I see a timetable in a parish: “From such a time to such a time”. And then? There is no open door, no priest, no deacon, no layperson to receive people… This is not good. Don’t worry about the timetable: have the courage to look past the timetable. In this way, dear deacons, if you show that you are available to others, your ministry will not be self-serving, but evangelically fruitful.

2.  Be Meek.  Using the example of the centurion who pleads with Jesus to save his servant, the pope stresses that even though the centurion was a man in authority, he was also a man under authority.  The centurion could have thrown his weight around to get help for his servant, but he did not: he approached the Lord meekly and in acknowledgment of Christ’s authority, power, and mercy.  “Meekness,” says Francis, “is one of the virtues of deacons.”

When a deacon is meek, then he is one who serves, who is not trying to “mimic” priests; no, he is meek. . . .  For God, who is love, out of love is ever ready to serve us. He is patient, kind and always there for us; he suffers for our mistakes and seeks the way to help us improve. These are the characteristics of Christian service; meek and humble, it imitates God by serving others: by welcoming them with patient love and unflagging sympathy, by making them feel welcome and at home in the ecclesial community, where the greatest are not those who command but those who serve (cf. Lk 22:26). And never shout, never. This, dear deacons, is how your vocation as ministers of charity will mature: in meekness.

3.  Be Healed.  Finally, Pope Francis turns to the example of the servant whom Christ heals.

The Gospel tells us that he was dear to his master and was sick, without naming his grave illness (v. 2). In a certain sense, we can see ourselves in that servant. Each of us is very dear to God, who loves us, chooses us and calls us to serve. Yet each of us needs first to be healed inwardly. To be ready to serve, we need a healthy heart: a heart healed by God. . . .  .

Dear deacons, this is a grace you can implore daily in prayer. You can offer the Lord your work, your little inconveniences, your weariness and your hopes in an authentic prayer that brings your life to the Lord and the Lord to your life. When you serve at the table of the Eucharist, there you will find the presence of Jesus, who gives himself to you so that you can give yourselves to others. . . ,  to encounter and caress the flesh of the Lord in the poor of our time.

Those final words echo the promise we make at ordination.  The bishop asks, “Are you resolved to shape your way of life always according to the example of Christ, whose body and blood you will give to the people?”  We respond:”I am, with the help of God.”  This Jubilee — this holy season of Mercy — gives us a chance to re-affirm that promise:

“I am, with the help of God!”

shutterstock_137696915-660x350

Deacons and Synod 2015

Synod Press ConferenceAt a recent press conference (6 October 2015) held in Rome highlighting some of the points raised thus far in the Synod, Father Thomas Rosica summarized one particular area of special concern for deacons.  As phrased by Father Rosica, some Synodal Fathers were asking, “How can the permanent diaconate come to the aid of so many people who are in need of mercy?  Are there new ways of using the permanent diaconate and those who are permanent deacons to be real ministers and bearers of mercy?”

Here is a link to the full press conference.  Father Rosica’s brief questions on the diaconate begin at about 24:08.

Before going on, let me point out that by focusing on this particular issue I am not ignoring other and far more substantive matters before the Synod!  However, deacons are not often mentioned in a context such as this, so it seems important for those of us interested in the diaconate to stop and take a closer look.

thomas-rosicaFirst: this was a summary given by Father Rosica.  It suggests that the questions may have been present in the interventions by several bishops, but we don’t know any other details.  Therefore, the phrasing of the summary is Rosica’s alone and we want to be cautious not to read too much into it as we would if it were contained in some kind of magisterial document!

DurocherSecond: Although Father Rosica doesn’t allude to the intervention of Canadian Archbishop Paul-Andre Durocher of Gatineau, Quebec (who was also present at the press conference but remained silent on this point), I’m guessing that it was within the context of “how can permanent deacons be real ministers or bearers of mercy?” that the Archbishop may have offered his intervention that there should be a conversation about women deacons.  From what I’ve seen so far, however, there’s no way to confirm that.  So, I do not wish to sidetrack onto that specific question in any case, because I think that Rosica’s questions themselves have foundational importance to how we understand and employ the diaconate in general.

Third: Although the Synod is, of course, focused on the family, notice how the questions on the diaconate refer in a particular way to mercy itself, so these are very broad based questions that suggest important opportunities for the diaconate in general, not simply within the context of the family.

So, to the questions.

new way“How can the permanent diaconate come to the aid of so many people who are in need of mercy?”  My first reaction to this question was to think of all the ways deacons already are coming to the aid of so many people!  In fact, I admit to a bit of defensiveness: What did the bishops (or, perhaps this was Father Rosica’s misperception) think we were already doing?  But then I settled down and thought, “What more COULD we be doing?”  And, of course, “How effectively are we already doing this — or not?”

  1.  Are we truly ministers of mercy?  If yes, how precisely are we doing that, across the spectrum of Word, Sacrament, and Charity?  Am I full of mercy when I preach and teach?  Am I full of mercy when we celebrate baptisms and weddings and all the myriad liturgical and sacramental ministries we’re involved in?  Am I full of mercy when offering a helping hand to the sick, marginalized, and the dying?
  2. After this examination of conscience, are there specific ways — more intentional ways — of conveying God’s mercy to others.  What are the very concrete ways (the “concrete consequences” of the deacon’s ministry referred to by Herbert Vorgrimler) we can be better at this?  After all, if the bishops (or Father Rosica) don’t perceive that we’re already doing this, then that perception is problematic and we need to work to fix it.

The second way Father Rosica phrased the question was interesting, too:

“Are there new ways of using the permanent diaconate and those who are permanent deacons to be real ministers and bearers of mercy?”

Here I sense several significant opportunities:

First: Notice the distinction he makes between the diaconate itself and those of us who are deacons.  This suggests that there is interest in the very nature of the diaconate, the fundamental core of the Order.

Second: What are the possible “new ways” of using the diaconate?  Taking just one example: might there be a re-opening of the question of deacons anointing the sick under certain circumstances, perhaps?  Most of the ways we can be used are already included in our canon and liturgical law, so something “new” would seem to be suggesting a willingness to look at things not previously considered.  I am using Anointing of the Sick only as an example here; I am not promoting it or suggesting that this is what is being suggested at the Synod.  But if the bishops are open to looking at “new ways” of using deacons, what might come up in the discussions?

Pope-Feet-2_2522628bThird: When Father Rosica alludes to deacons becoming “real ministers and bearers of mercy,” the first thing I thought of was what is happening with our priests in this regard.  Remember that the Holy Father has found new ways for priests to extend the hand of God’s mercy through sacramental reconciliation, and that he’s even identifying priests to go around the world to offer reconciliation.  Again not wanting to read too much into Father Rosica’s words here, but what additional responsibilities — what “new ways” — might the bishops find for deacons to take on?  Again, I am not proposing anything, and in particular, I am not suggesting that we start hearing confessions!  However, the questions here are most intriguing, and it will be interesting to see what the bishops might discuss.

If for no other reason then, these questions give us much to pray over and to ponder in the days and weeks ahead.  How can we deepen and extend our existing activities even more to convey God’s mercy to all?

Reflections on the Pope in DC, Part One: “Siempre Adelante”!

24B5572900000578-0-image-a-78_1421328465237“Keep Moving Forward”: Siempre Adelante!

During the papal Mass at the Catholic University of America last Wednesday, Pope Francis ended his homily by quoting St. Junipero Serra’s motto, “Siempre Adelante!”  Indeed, as has become a cornerstone of his teaching, the pope’s entire homily was about not remaining bottled up inside ourselves or our churches or our ecclesial institutions, but about going out to meet people where they actually are and not, as he would echo in New York, where we would like them to be.  He spoke of the joy associated with living out this pilgrim spirit and, with power and poetry, he challenged:

Go out to all, proclaim by anointing and anoint by proclaiming. This is what the Lord tells us today. He tells us:

A Christian finds joy in mission: Go out to people of every nation!

A Christian experiences joy in following a command: Go forth and proclaim the good news!

A Christian finds ever new joy in answering a call: Go forth and anoint!

These last few days have been remarkable on so many different levels and the impact of the Apostolic Journey of Pope Francis of Rome will be felt, studied, pondered and — we pray to God! — experienced for years to come.  In keeping with his charge to keep moving forward, he himself has left Cuba, Washington, and now New York.  As I write these words he has just landed in Philadelphia on the last leg of his North American sojourn.  Each and every stop along the way has significance, both in itself as well as in relationship to his whole overarching vision of the church as the loving outstretched hands of God’s own mercy.  We, the Church, are servant-missionaries, going out to encounter others in their own sitz-im-leben, their own particularities of life, their own existential realities, and caring for each other there.  As Christ Himself told his followers: “Be not afraid,” and, “Put out into the deep.”

IMG_1780I was so blessed to be able to participate as one of the corps of deacons assigned as ministers of Holy Communion during the papal Mass at the Catholic University of America.  As a deacon of the Archdiocese of Washington who is currently serving in the Diocese of Monterey (the home of our newest Saint), and as a former resident of the District and student at CUA, just arriving back in town was a thrill.  But experiencing the pope on such familiar territory was electrifying and beyond words.  It will take a long time for its full impact to sink in.  These are a few initial recollections.

The day began early.  Even though we’ve lived in Washington many times over the years, trying to gauge the impact the pope’s travels through the District would have on public transportation was nearly impossible.  The Catholic University campus was scheduled to open at 10:00 AM, with Mass beginning at 4:15 PM.  Concelebrating priests and assisting deacons were told to be checked in and at our staging areas by 2:00 PM.  My traveling companions and I decided to forego the Metro and splurge on a taxi, leaving at 7:00 AM.  Traffic was light and we made great time.  Michigan Avenue was closed at Trinity Washington University, so we got out and walked toward Catholic University.  We hit the first security checkpoint at 7:30 and there we waited until they opened at 10:20.  The mood was good, however, and people were just excited about being in place instead of stuck in traffic across town!  There were pilgrims gathering from all points of the country.  People of all ages, colors, languages and backgrounds were lining up.  IMG_1748There were also sisters, some very young and others in their wisdom years, as well as priests and deacons (perhaps most noticeable by our ubiquitous little bags carrying albs and stoles for the Mass!).  The weather was wonderful, although by mid-morning, the temperature and sun began to bake a bit.  Some sisters found temporary relief under some nearby trees!

As a former career Navy officer, I was also struck by the sheer volume and diversity of the security forces assembled around the checkpoint: TSA, Homeland Security, the Secret Service, DC police, FBI, and others who left their uniforms and windbreakers at home to operate more subtly.

At 10:20 we began going through the checkpoint and, with the exception of being able to leave our shoes on, the procedure was exactly like going through security at the airport; in fact, that’s probably because the officials handling it were all TSA!  Belts off, jackets off, bags checked, and on and on.  However, everyone, including the TSA personnel, were in great spirits and full of excitement (unlike most lines at the airport!).

IMG_1272Once through we made our way to our assigned entrance point.  Priests and deacons had to check in with our own coordinators to receive additional instructions about where to vest and so on.  Then there was time to wonder around the familiar campus and check out the venue.  The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception is the best known feature of the campus and, of course, the papal Mass was going to be celebrated right outside in order to accommodate as many people as possible.  Even though the Basilica is the eighth largest church in the world, it was no where close to being adequate for the estimated 25,000 to 30,000 pilgrims who were gathering.

There were volunteers everywhere, most of them very excited and happy students, who directed folks to tents for water, cookies, and nutrition bars, and the Basilica Gift Shop had set up a couple of huge tents in front of Mullen Library.  I made my way to our assembly point for deacons and checked in.  It was a wonderful reunion, since many of the deacons gathering were brother deacons from the Archdiocese of Washington, along with a small contingent of deacons from the Diocese of Monterey and, of course, from other dioceses around the country.  I showed the Monterey group around a bit, and we had lunch together sitting on a curb along with some undergraduates taking a break from their own escort duties.

IMG_1293As we reassembled in our staging area, we found out how this was going to work.  We deacons would remain in the building during the first part of the Mass.  We could follow the Mass through the windows or on a TV located in the building.  We were introduced to our teams as well.  Each of us had an assigned “escort” who was, in most cases, an undergraduate student from CUA.  The escort would have an umbrella to hold over us during communion, not so much for us, but to show people where the communion ministers were actually located!  In addition to the escorts, we had team captains for each section who helped get us where we needed to be and help with crowd control.  It was all very well organized.  Long before the Mass began, every one of those chairs was filled with students and deacons.  And that was just one of the rooms being used.

And then, the Pope arrived.

IMG_1310Look, I’m a teacher, and I love being around students.  Here we were, assembled in a hot, humid classroom.  But the students (as well as most of us deacons) all had their cell phones out, tracking the pope’s location. Their own excitement and love for the man was palpable — and noisy!  “He’s just left the nunciature!”  “They’re approaching the USCCB!”  “They just left the USCCB — can you see him yet?”  “There he is!  There he is!”  “Francis!  Francis!”  They were standing on chairs, they helped each other find space at the windows, and I have never seen such joy, as they saw Francis make his way in the popemobile along the same paths that they walked every day to classes.  I have to admit, I was pretty much an undergraduate at that moment myself — it was surreal to see this man, this Pope, on such familiar territory.

The Mass itself was glorious.  Several things stood out, for me at least.  The canonization of Junipero Serra, the subject of concerns raised by some Native American groups, was handled beautifully.  In fact, not only did Native Americans participate in the canonization itself, the first reading of the Mass, from Isaiah, was proclaimed in Chochenyo, a native language previously declared to be a “dead” language, which has now been restored. IMG_1772 In fact, the man who proclaimed that reading was himself one of those responsible for restoring the language and here it was being heard again publicly for the first time by millions of people watching around the world!  After the Mass, the Pope met with nine Native American tribal leaders from California, including descendants of the Peoples with whom St. Junipero had served.  One of those leaders was Andy Galvan, who had helped present the relics of the saint during the Mass.  A fascinating and passionate man, he eagerly recounted his meeting with the pope as well as his pride in his cousin, who had proclaimed that first reading during the Mass.

Another part of the Mass which I will always remember took place during the pope’s wonderful homily.  A number of hosts had been consecrated at an earlier Mass to facilitate the distribution of communion during this Mass.  During the homily, Masters of Ceremonies brought a ciborium to each deacon so that we would be ready to form our procession and get to our communion stations.  Picture this: we were seated listening to the Holy Father speak of “going out” and of bringing Christ to all peoples where they actually are, and calling us all to a joyful mission, and all the while we were holding the Eucharistic Christ in our own hands, ready to do just that in a very real way.  For me, and I believe for all of us deacons assembled that day, this was a profound moment.

communionPerhaps another point to ponder for deacons.  It was interesting that it was the Order of Deacons who distributed Communion that day.  We were not able to sit outside with the bishops and priests in front of the Holy Father, but were instead staged inside with our student-escorts and team captains.  But then the Order of Deacons emerged from that building and processed to all points of the assembly to serve, as we should, the People of God.  It was the deacons who were called to serve in a particular way at that Mass.  As the ordained servants of the People of God, we were focused on carrying out that service.

As always, distributing Holy Communion is a joy: we experience the Christ who is really present under the sacramental forms of bread and wine, and we also experience the Christ who is really present in the people coming forward.  Some people dropped to their knees to receive, other stood and received on the tongue and others on their outstretched hands: all were reverent, joy-filled, and happy.

IMG_1309As people left the campus after the Mass, some of us stayed behind to speak with the media and to enjoy the afterglow before finding our way back to wherever we were staying.  It had been a long day, but a glorious one.  And all who were there left, I believe, with a renewed sense of mission.

A mission to “keep moving forward”: Siempre adelante!

In the next blog, we’ll reflect on the Pope at the Congress of the United States.

The Synod on the Family: Curtain Up on Act II

Beatification Paul VIToday we experienced the ringing down of the curtain on Act I of the synodal process on the Family.  Pope Francis closed the Extraordinary Synod today with Mass in St. Peter’s Square and the beatification of Blessed Paul VI.

But the process has only just begun!  Perhaps the best road map to the future is found in the Pope’s speech on Francis at SynodSaturday closing the final work session of the Extraordinary Synod.  In fact, I believe that this beautiful speech deserves to be read in its entirety; you may find it in English translation here, and if you read Italian you can read it as the Pope delivered it, here.  It is spiritually rich, and it also gives us wonderful insights into the Holy Father’s dreams for the next steps in the process.

Act II, which has now begun, takes place over the next twelve months.  Act III will be Ordinary Synod on the Family to be held in October 2015.  Here’s how the Pope explained it in his speech:

Dear brothers and sisters, now we still have one year to mature, with true spiritual discernment, the proposed ideas and to find concrete solutions to so many difficulties and innumerable challenges that families must confront; to give answers to the many discouragements that surround and suffocate families.

One year to work on the “Synodal Relatio” which is the faithful and clear summary of everything that has been said and discussed in this hall and in the small groups. It is presented to the Episcopal Conferences as “lineamenta” [guidelines].

US BishopsUsing the Synod’s Relatio, the various bishops’ conferences around the world will be discussing its contents and mapping out their specific courses of action for their dioceses.  For example, here in the United States, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) will have it on their agenda next month at the Fall Meeting in Baltimore.  We can expect that individual diocesan bishops will then develop ways and means of encouraging further conversations within their own dioceses over the coming year.  Keep in mind, as the Pope says above, that the current Relatio is merely a starting point, a kind of rough draft, for the work that lies ahead.

Then, next October, Act III will begin as the Pope opens an Ordinary Synod (not an Extraordinary one such as just ended) on the Family.  At that time, more discussions will be held by the Synod Fathers, many of whom will be different bishops than the ones who attended this one, and a final document will be prepared for the Holy Father.  It can then be anticipated that the Pope will take all of these results and draft his own Apostolic Exhortation in which he charts the course ahead.

I think there are several important things to keep in mind.

1) To speak of the current Relatio as anything other than a working document is a mistake.  It does not constitute in any way “official teaching.”  Rather, it simply recounts, as the Pope says, the various elements which were discussed during this first stage of the process.  So, for people to be upset over what the document currently says, or doesn’t say, is very inappropriate and unnecessary.  The various topics for FUTURE work are all there; what final forms may come in the year remain to be seen.

2) This is why the Pope directed that even those three paragraphs which did not gain a 2/3 majority vote would still be printed in the text.  He also directed that the voting results be included so that everyone (and not just bishops!) could see how the voting went.

francis at synod 23) I would strongly recommend that people spend more time on the Pope’s speech at this point, because it gives the clearest indication of how HE is seeing things.  Consider just two tantalizing tidbits.

  • When the mid-point version of the Relatio was released last week, much attention was given to the language of “welcome” that used with regard to homosexuals, as well as the gifts that they bring to the Church.  In fact, some in the blogosphere complained about that translation of “welcome”.  The Italian verb used was “accogliere”.  According to Italians I’ve asked, the best English translation for that verb is “to welcome.”  Still, the English translation was later changed to “provide for” — clearly not an accurate translation.  Now look at the Pope’s speech from Saturday.  He’s not talking specifically about homosexual persons, but more generally, and he uses “accogliere” again.  He reminds the bishops that there first duty is to “feed your sheep, feed your sheep.”  He then tells them that they are to:

Seek to welcome [“accogliere”] – with fatherly care and mercy, and without false fears – the lost sheep. I made a mistake here. I said welcome [“accogliere”]: [rather] go out and find them! [“Ho sbagliato, qui. Ho detto accogliere: andare a trovarle.”]

I find it interesting that he takes the time here to use the very verb so many were fussing about earlier in the week: and then he plainly says that even as “welcoming” it doesn’t go far enough!  We’re not merely to welcome those who come to us who are lost: we are to go out and find them.

  • The Pope also reminds us that, as a Church, we are already to be open to all who seek.  In a particularly beautiful passage, he teaches:

And this is the Church, the vineyard of the Lord, the fertile Mother and the caring Teacher, who is not afraid to roll up her sleeves to pour oil and wine on people’s wound; who doesn’t see humanity as a house of glass to judge or categorize people. This is the Church, One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic and composed of sinners, needful of God’s mercy. This is the Church, the true bride of Christ, who seeks to be faithful to her spouse and to her doctrine. It is the Church that is not afraid to eat and drink with prostitutes and publicans. The Church that has the doors wide open to receive the needy, the penitent, and not only the just or those who believe they are perfect! The Church that is not ashamed of the fallen brother and pretends not to see him, but on the contrary feels involved and almost obliged to lift him up and to encourage him to take up the journey again and accompany him toward a definitive encounter with her Spouse, in the heavenly Jerusalem.

So, however Act II and Act III develop over the next year, the vision of our Holy Father Francis is quite clear: the Church as “field hospital” for all in need is open to receive patients; in fact, we’re supposed to be out in the streets and the fields and the back alleys finding those in need.  Brother deacons, this message is particularly apt for us!  If the whole Church is a field hospital, we deacons should be the EMTs.

Stay tuned.  This is going to be quite a year ahead!  And, as the Pope requested, pray for him.  He has set us on a challenging course, but one that will, with God’s grace, bear much fruit.

Moon Over St. Peter's