Terrorism, Dachau and Diaconate: Perspectives and PBS

INTRODUCTION

12172xlAs I write this, reports are coming in from Baton Rouge about yet another attack with multiple casualties.  The world is reeling from the endless chain of violence and death of recent months.  On Friday, the PBS series Religion and Ethics Newsweekly ran a program on the Order of Deacons in the Catholic Church.  Given the state of the world, one might think this an odd or even irrelevant topic.   Upon reflection, however, I believe that there are some important dots to connect.  It is precisely because of the current state of violent death, destruction and havoc that the diaconate — properly understood — might offer a glimmer of hope.  After all, it was precisely because of the “abyss of violence, destruction and death unlike anything previously known” (John Paul II, referring to World Word II) that the Order of Deacons was renewed in the first place; we’re here to help do something about it. So we shall review the PBS story against that critical backdrop.

47e73934-588c-4a95-985f-3ddac791ede4.png.resize.298x135THE PBS PROGRAM: Religion & Ethics Newsweekly

First, watch the program or read the transcript for yourself; you may find both of them here.  The diaconate is not often covered in the media, so this could have been a wonderful opportunity to spread the word about a remarkable ministry.  Unfortunately, despite very obvious good intentions, the program was full of errors ranging from simple errors of fact to more serious, even egregious, errors of history and theology.  Furthermore, a wonderful opportunity was missed to connect the “concrete consequences” which the diaconate might offer a hurting world.

The Mistakes

Why focus on some of the errors made in the program?  First, simply to get them identified and out of the way.  Second and more important, it is crucial to dispel such errors because they can distort the meaning of the diaconate and distract the audience from its proper potential.

  1. “He’s a married layman.” This simple error of fact is made twice at the very beginning of the report.  Of course this is simply not true.  Deacons are clergy and not laymen.  For those of us who live and teach about the diaconate, this is usually the first red flag that the rest of the discussion is not going to go well.  Why is this distinction important?  Back to that in a moment.
  2. “Celebrating Mass is a function reserved only for priests who are considered heirs to the original apostles.” In Catholic theology, of course, the “heirs” or “successors” of the apostles are bishops, not priests.
  3. “[The deacon] did have to step in recently to speak the words of consecration at communion – for Catholics the most sacred part of the Mass. That’s because his pastor is on leave, and the priest filling in doesn’t speak English.” This is terribly wrong on several levels.  First, the deacon can be seen and heard praying part of the Eucharistic Prayer, which is absolutely reserved to priests alone.  The priest in question should have just said the prayer in his native language, whatever it is.  For years, Catholics of the Latin Rite celebrated Mass in Latin: no one stood next to the priest to translate the Latin for us.  Not only did the deacon not “have to step in” to do such a thing, church law expressly forbids it.  Canon 907 states: “In the eucharistic celebration deacons and lay persons are not permitted to offer prayers, especially the eucharistic prayer, or to perform actions which are proper to the celebrating priest.” My guess is that every deacon who saw that part of the segment is still cringing!  (The other cringe-worthy tidbit was seeing the deacon improperly vested, wearing his stole on the outside of his dalmatic. How cringe-worthy ?  Think wearing underclothing over your pants).
  4. VaticanII“In the Middle Ages the role of deacons began to fade as the power of priests and bishops grew. In the 1960s, the Second Vatican Council restored the role of deacons – but only for men.” The evolving role of deacons throughout history is far more complicated than that, and overlooks the fact that the diaconate never completely disappeared, but became primarily a stepping stone to the priesthood.  I fully acknowledge that the history of the diaconate in all of its complexity goes far beyond what can be covered in such a brief program, but still: the broad brush strokes of the history could have been recognized and acknowledged.  This is also when the program shifts to the question of the possibility of ordaining women as deacons.  I will deal with that question below.
  5. “Until recently, the wives of deacons were required to take the same classes over four years as their husbands did to prepare for the diaconate.” Here the reporter falls victim to a common danger when discussing the diaconate: extrapolation.  There are nearly 200 Catholic dioceses in the United States, and the procedures and processes of formation vary greatly from place to place.  National standards established by the US Bishops do not mandate such a requirement, although wives are definitely encouraged to participate to the extent possible so that the couple grows together throughout the formation process.  Even the “until recently” is confusing: perhaps in that particular diocese something has changed, but not in all.  Not every wife of every deacon candidate is required to write papers or attend classes. Like many things in the renewed diaconate, it varies by location and bishop. But even more important — and completely left out of the piece — is the question of vocation.  Preparing for ordination is far more than taking classes, writing papers, and giving practice homilies.  At the heart of formation is the crucible of discerning God’s will: is God calling a person to ordained ministry?  Becoming a deacon is not simply “signing up”, taking a few courses, and putting on the vestments.  This is a life-altering process which at the moment is only engaged in by men.  Whether that changes in the future remains to be seen.  And, if it does, and women enter formation, they too will then go through that crucible of formation — as well as the papers, the courses and the homilies.
  6. “After increasing for several decades, the number of men entering the permanent diaconate has begun to decline, despite a growing need.”  It is worth noting that the diaconate is the only vocation that is growing in the United States—outpacing the priesthood, sisters and religious life. In my own research on the diaconate, I would question again the extrapolation going on: perhaps in some areas or in some dioceses, the number of deacons is going down, but that is simply not the case throughout the country and the rest of the world.  The diaconate has been growing steadily for decades and continues to do so.  The diaconate worldwide has the potential to be one of the great success stories of the Second Vatican Council.

13-2-600x450Now, on the PLUS side:

One exceptionally brief section of the program was a bright spot, and captured the characteristic identity of the deacon.  Several deacons were shown installing a laundry room in a home for women emerging from crisis.  The reporter describes this group as “a ministry that responds to crises. . . .”  One of the deacons involved points out that “besides doing liturgical functions, we’re also called to serve the poor and serve the people of God.”  There it is: the role of the deacon is to respond to crises, to serve those most in need.  The identity of the deacon is expressed in many ways, but most characteristic is this focus on the needs of others: while we are called to exercise our ministries of Word, Sacrament, and Charity in a balanced way, all of it finds its most significant expression in the servant-leadership of the community in service.  If the program had focused on these dimensions — on the very heart of the diaconate itself — it might have avoided the problematic areas which they got largely wrong.

POPE WAVES AS HE ARRIVES FOR GENERAL AUDIENCE AT VATICAN

Diaconate and Diakonia: An Essential Element of the Church

The entire Church is called to be a servant-church, a diaconal church.  Pope Paul VI repeatedly taught that deacons are to be “the animators of the Church’s service,” and St. John Paul II carried it a step further when he referred to the diaconate as “the Church’s service sacramentalized.”  These popes were echoing the teaching and the decisions of the the bishops of the Second Vatican Council when they determined that the Church’s diakonia should be a permanent part of the sacramental life of the Church.  Being a deacon is not simply some activity which a person takes on themselves, at their own initiative; rather, it is believed to be a call from God as discerned through the help of the broader Church.

Pope Benedict wrote in Deus Caritas Est, citing St. Luke:

20. “All who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:44-5). . . .  As the Church grew, this radical form of material communion could not in fact be preserved. But its essential core remained: within the community of believers there can never be room for a poverty that denies anyone what is needed for a dignified life.

21. A decisive step in the difficult search for ways of putting this fundamental ecclesial principle into practice is illustrated in the choice of the seven, which marked the origin of the diaconal office (cf. Acts 6:5-6). . . .  Nor was this group to carry out a purely mechanical work of distribution: they were to be men “full of the Spirit and of wisdom” (cf. Acts 6:1-6). In other words, the social service which they were meant to provide was absolutely concrete, yet at the same time it was also a spiritual service; theirs was a truly spiritual office which carried out an essential responsibility of the Church, namely a well-ordered love of neighbor. With the formation of this group of seven, “diaconia”—the ministry of charity exercised in a communitarian, orderly way—became part of the fundamental structure of the Church.

It is time now to bring all of this together: in the light of Baton Rouge, Nice, Dallas, “Black Lives Matter,” terrorist acts and wounded communities all around the world: why should we care about an order of ministry within the Church?

THE DIACONATE IN CONTEMPORARY CONTEXT: WHY?

DachauBunkBedsSo, what is the connection?  How can the diaconate be understood against that much larger and violent backdrop?  The most important question of all is perhaps, why do we have deacons in the first place?

  1. We have deacons because the church and the world needed ministers to link the needs of people with the providence, mercy and love of God.  This is why deacons have always been described as being associated with the ministry of the bishop and with having the skills to administer “the goods of the Church” for the good of people.
  2. Deacons have historically not been exclusively associated with parish ministry.  For the bulk of church history, deacons served as the principle assistants to their bishops, often representing them in councils and as legates, in catechesis (consider Deacon Deogratias of Carthage), in homiletics (Deacon Quodvultdeus, also of Carthage) and by extending the reach of their bishops, such as Deacon Lawrence of Rome.  Over time, deacons became subordinate to presbyters as well as bishops, and increasingly involved in what we would recognize as parish ministry.  To this very day, deacons are ordained solely by their bishop, for service to him and under his authority: where the bishop is, so should be his deacon.
  3. dachau_collIn our time, as I’ve written about extensively, the Second Vatican Council decided overwhelmingly that the diaconate should be renewed as a permanent ministry in the church once again, even to the extent of opening ordination to married as well as celibate men.  The bishops in Council did this largely because of the insights gleaned from the priest-survivors of Dachau Concentration Camp.  Following the war, these survivors wrote of how the Church would have to adapt itself to better meet the needs of the contemporary world if the horrors of the first half of the 20th Century were to be avoided in the future.  Deacons were seen as a critical component of that strategy of ecclesial renewal.  Why?  Because deacons were understood as being grounded in their communities in practical and substantial ways, while priests and bishops had gradually become perceived as being too distant and remote from the people they were there to serve.

    In short, the diaconate was renewed in order to deal more effectively with the horrors of the contemporary world, not simply to function as parish ministers.

    As I frequently challenge myself and other deacons: is the energy I’m expending as a deacon helping to create the conditions in the world in which another “Dachau” could not exist?  Or am I involving myself in things that are superficial, contingent, and relatively inconsequential?

  4. light_christThe diaconate today, fifty years after the Council, has matured greatly.  Those who would talk intelligently about the diaconate need to keep that in mind.  Over the past fifty years, formation standards have evolved to better equip deacons for our myriad responsibilities, for example.  The diaconate has, at least in those dioceses which have had deacons for several generations, become part of the ecclesial imagination.  In some dioceses we have brothers who are deacons, fathers-in-law and sons-in-law who are deacons, fathers and sons who are deacons.  In one archdiocese, an auxiliary bishop is the son of that archdiocese’s long-time director of the diaconate.  As I mentioned above, the diaconate looks and feels different from one diocese to another and while it is tempting to generalize whenever possible, it is particularly dangerous.
  5. Let me briefly address the question of women and the diaconate.  This is a question demanding serious conversation, just as the Holy Father has indicated.  He is not alone, nor is he the first pope to think so.  Pope Paul VI, St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict (both before his ascension to the papacy and after), and now Pope Francis have all been interested in the question.  The 2002 study document of the International Theological Commission (ITC), convened by the authority of then-Cardinal Ratzinger, concluded that it remained for the Church’s “ministry of discernment” to work toward a resolution of the question.  But the main thing at this point is to have the conversation.  And that conversation will need to take place within the broader context of the lived diaconate, the diaconate whose pastoral praxis and theological reflection has deepened over the past fifty years.  Many who opine about women and the diaconate do so from a dated or inadequate understanding of the order.  If this conversation is going to be done, it must be done well.  In short, to understand the possibilities of women in diakonia, one must first understand the diaconate itself.

violenceHere is my point: If we deacons were restored in response to Dachau and similar world shattering violence, translate “Dachau” to Baton Rouge.  “Dachau” to Nice.  “Dachau” to “Black Lives Matter”.  “Dachau” to 9/11.  “Dachau” to every act of senseless terror and random  violence.  What are we doing to confront these tragedies?  What are we doing to work toward a world in which THEY can no longer exist?  This is so much more than who gets to exercise “governance” (a technical canonical term) in the Church, or who gets to proclaim the Gospel in the midst of the community of disciples.  Like the bishops of the Second Vatican Council, we must ask ourselves how we must evolve and adapt to the new violent conditions of our own age.  How can they best be addressed in the interest of the millions of suffering people — here at home and abroad — whose needs we are called to serve?  We deacons must, like our “founders” at Vatican II, look beyond the normal categories of parish and issues of “insider baseball.”

Paul-VII hope that there will be more media programs on the diaconate.  I hope that not only will they be done accurately, but that they will also be done with a sense of the vision and potential of the diaconate.

As Pope Paul VI said of us, we are to be “the animators” of the Church’s service: May we give our lives to change the world.

 

 

Advertisements

“Lead, Follow, or Get Out of the Way!”

Thomas Paine This famous quote, generally attributed to Thomas Paine, but used (and abused!) by many has inspired leaders for a long time.  “Leadership” and its exercise, especially in the Church, is something that concerns us all in one way or another.  Some years ago, I reflected on ecclesial leadership while working on my doctoral dissertation, which dealt with the theological and canonical issues related to governance and deacons.  Although my degree is in Theology, not Canon Law, there was no way to address this issue without consulting extensively with canonists, and, in particular, the late and great American canonist, Fr. James H. Provost.  Jim became a good friend before his death, and his loss is still being felt by all who knew him.  Provost

I recently came across some notes I made from an article Jim wrote entitled,“Canonical Reflection on Selected Issues in Diocesan Governance” (in The Ministry of Governance, James K. Mallett, ed.).  I offer the following list, taken and adapted from Jim’s article, as a reflection on traits essential to servant-leadership in the Church today.  Jim wrote them specifically for his fellow canon lawyers, but I believe they have relevance for all pastoral ministers.  The categories are Jim’s; the brief commentary is mine.

1)      Be always vigilant for the spiritual purpose.

As we serve the People of God, this vigilance should be at the forefront.  Regardless of the issue we are helping people with, what is the ultimate spiritual purpose behind it?  Without this focus, ministry might become little more than social work.  Obviously, this is not to suggest that social work is a bad thing!  For the minister, however, we go beyond that task.  As canon law itself reminds us, “The salvation of souls is the highest law” (salus animarum suprema lex).  Keeping this principle in mind will help us keep our priorities straight.

2)      Think with the Church.

As Pope Francis has recently reminded us, to “think with the Church” does not simply mean knowing the teachings of the Church, as important as that is, but to have a sense of what all members of the Church are thinking, and what their needs are.  In other words,  the Church — as People of God, Mystical Body of Christ and Temple of the Holy Spirit — is not simply the hierarchy, nor is the “mind of the Church” (mens ecclesiae) reducible to a collection of dogmas and doctrines: it involves active and caring listening to all, attempting to discern the will of God, and then acting accordingly.  In short, when we consider this maxim, Pope Francis would remind us, “Think with the WHOLE Church.”

3)      Serve if you would lead.

Anyone who has ever led others quickly realizes the profound truth that “a good leader is first a good follower.”  However, it is equally true that the best leadership style is a servant-leadership, one that cares for the people serving with the leader.  This is true, no matter what the venue.  After leaving the seminary after eight years, I joined the Navy and wound up serving on active duty for twenty-two years, first as an enlisted linguist, and then — for the bulk of my career — as an officer.  I served for many leaders, and had the privilege of serving in leadership as well: and the BEST leaders were always servant leaders.  Such a leader was always concerned first with the needs of those he or she is leading so that they are then free to carry out the mission, whatever that happens to be.  If this is true even in ways of life outside the Church, how much more profoundly is it true of those who serve in leadership in the Church.  Servant leaders put others first, dream dreams, have visions, and inspire others to greatness in the eyes of God.

4)      Use the power you have.

Power is not a bad word, despite the negative connotations often associated with it.  Power is the first of the divine attributes, and power is imparted to us through the sacraments.  Power is the ability to act, to serve, to provide care: all of this is good.  Often people, even those who serve in ministry, will bemoan the apparent fact that they “don’t have the power to change” something.  Still, all of us, through the grace of sacramental initiation and, for some, ordination, have a measure of “power” which must be used in service of others.  Instead of worrying about what we cannot do, we need to focus on what we can do!

servant-leadership-mountain2-e12788128583935)      Empower the Church.

Speaking of power, it is meant to be shared.  When Christ heals Peter’s mother-in-law, she immediately gets up to serve.  That’s a good lesson for us in ministry: We are called not only to help others, we are called to help them UP.  We are to give them the power they need to serve others and continue that mission.  Power is meant to be used and shared.

6)      Promote and protect rights.

The theology of the Church, as expressed through the law of the Church, focuses not only the responsibilities we have under the law, but on the rights we have: rights that come from God, and rights that are extended through the ministry and authority of the Church.  Jim’s advice here, to focus on rights, puts the correct emphasis on ministries.  The responsibilities we have flow from those rights: the responsibility for parents to be the prime educators of their children in faith, for example, flows first from their RIGHT to do so!  In other words, we are encouraged not only to react to our responsibilities but to act first out of our rights; to be ACTIVE, not merely REACTIVE.

7)      Consult when making decisions.

Fr. Provost was reminding canonists that the law often requires prior consultation in decision-making, but his advice is helpful to all of us.  The Church, from its earliest days, has valued collegiality, collaboration and consultation.  Consider, as just one example, the so-called “Council of Jerusalem” when Paul went up to Jerusalem to meet (confront?) the other leaders of the Church over the issue of Gentile converts.  After talking together, those early leaders wrote a letter to the converts which acknowledged their dependence on the Holy Spirit who then informed their decision.  Although we often hear from some folks that “the Church is not a democracy,” this is simply too simplistic and ignores the evidence of history, which suggests widespread models of collegiality and consultation, and we ignore that to our peril.

8)      Interpret the law as it is meant to be interpreted.

This is a tricky one, but critical!  For those of us who are not lawyers, it might be tempting to “read the black” and assume we know precisely what it means!  Language, however, is symbol, and symbols always “contain” more than appears at first sight.  When serving in ministry, do we make the proper attempts to find out how specific laws are to be interpreted?  Consider point #1 again: How am I to interpret this law in light of the overall spiritual purpose of the situation?  I am not suggesting that we find ways around our laws; merely that they will need to be interpreted as the law itself expects.  For that, consultation may be required  (see #7)!

9)      Be generous.

One principle of the interpretation of Church law involves the very “generosity” of the law.  The law exists for the spiritual good of people, and that involves being as generous as possible with the benefits of the Church.  For example, do we seek out ways to provide the sacraments to people?  We saw this recently when Pope Francis baptized the infants in the Sistine Chapel, including a child of a couple not yet married in the eyes of the Church.  The situation of the parents, while of concern to us of course, need not cause us to be stingy with the benefits of baptism for the child as well as her parents.  All of us in ministry can think of countless other examples: we need to think with our arms open.

10)   Be consistent.

Every pastoral situation is unique, as we all know full well.  And yet, justice obliges us to be consistent in our interpretation and application of law, while still appreciating the unique demands of each situation.  I think the caution here also involves the dangers of parochialism or favoritism for some people, and a narrow interpretation for those we may not know — or like! — as well!  This gives us a needed balance of pastoral approach.  It also conveys a sense of positive predictability: we are trying to be even-handed with all because all are equal in the sight of God.

11)   Be timely.servantLeadershipLogo

Is this one ever important!  Remember, again, that Jim was writing this to fellow canon lawyers, reminding them that “justice delayed is justice denied.”  That applies across the whole spectrum of pastoral ministry.  Are we as responsive as we should be to the questions, requests, concerns that come our way, or do we procrastinate or even ignore certain things?  The people we serve have a right to a timely response, whatever their need is.  How do we feel when it seems someone is ignoring or discounting us and our concerns?

12)   Be forthright.

Many of us struggle with this one.  As ministers, we don’t want to hurt others.  Sometimes, however, we are the bearers of bad news or difficult decisions.  Jim’s reminder is that, despite the difficulties which we may encounter in doing so, we need to be honest and direct with those we serve.  This does not mean that we are insensitive or nasty about things; it simply means that we all have to be honest with each other.

I, for one, continue to struggle with these principles.  Still, they are a good “checklist” for servant-leadership, and can serve as a fine reflective tool when we’re on retreat, for example!  Perhaps it is better to say that they can form part of a ministerial examination of conscience as we grow in service to others.  There are times when each and every one of us is asked to “lead.”  At other times we are all called to “follow”, and still other times when we just need to “get out of the way”!

Francis washing feet