Over the years I have had many interesting conversations with seminarians, particularly on the subject of the diaconate. I sometimes find myself reflecting on my own eight years (1963-1970) as a high school and college seminarian, and our conversations back then about the renewed diaconate following the Council. To put it mildly, we’ve come a long way! However, the current practice of the Church to ordain seminarians to the diaconate en route to the presbyterate continues to cause confusion for many people, sometimes even among the clergy themselves.
Theologically, of course, there is only one diaconate, and it is a permanent state, just as there is only one presbyterate and one episcopate. We would not, for example, speak of a presbyter who becomes a bishop as a transitional priest! Bishops know that they are priests as well as deacons. We don’t leave one order behind when we assume a different one.
However, with regard to the diaconate, our praxis suggests otherwise. One bishop years ago was asked to consider combining that year’s ordinations of deacons (both “transitional” and “permanent” to emphasize the unity of the Order. The bishop declined, saying that while there is but one diaconate, “the sacramental ends are different,” and he wanted to be able to tailor each ordination appropriately.
Those who exercise the diaconate permanently experience this in different ways, sometimes being asked by parishioners when their “real” ordination (meaning ordination to the presbyterate) will be, or if they might someday become a “real” priest. Imagine the reaction if someone asked a priest when his “real” ordination (meaning ordination to the episcopate) was going to happen, or if he was ever going to become a “real” priest (meaning a bishop).
Conversely, seminarians are discerning vocations to the presbyterate, not the diaconate, so this can add to the confusion: their experience of the diaconate, limited by time and opportunity to exercise the order, is substantially different from that of other deacons. Is it any wonder, then, that some seminarians struggle with the fact that they have indeed become “permanent” deacons?
What does any of this matter, especially in terms of ministry? It gives us presbyters and deacons some important things to ponder. First, the diaconate is something we share in common. As icons of Christ the Servant, all of us are deacons in a ministry grounded in the service of others. Some of us are, in addition, priests, icons of Christ the Priest.
However, the sacramental effects are cumulative, not exclusive. The common and deep foundation is found in the diakonia of the ordained diaconate. All deacons, even deacons later called to the priesthood, are permanent deacons.
Second, this common foundation includes the triple munus of Word, Sacrament, and Charity. The primum officium of all the ordained, according to the Second Vatican Council and subsequent documents from the Holy See, is official preaching and teaching. While we two orders exercise these ministries in distinctive ways, we share in the common responsibility for the Word. As brothers, we can and should be mutually supporting of each other’s ministries, affirming the unique contributions of each order with regard to the Word of God and charitable service we offer to all.
Likewise, our sacramental ministries demonstrate our complementarity, especially at the common Eucharist we share. The interplay of the roles of the deacon and the priest at Mass are a sign of the partnership of responsibility to which we are ordained.
DEACON DITEWIG, Ph.D., former executive director of the Secretariat for the Diaconate at the USCCB, now teaches and ministers in the Diocese of Monterey, Calif. He writes and consults extensively on the subject of the diaconate and contemporary ministry.