A Model of Diakonia

In the weeks leading up to the conclave and election of our new Holy Father Francis, just about everyone was trying to see if they could predict who the new Bishop of Rome might be. I resisted as long as I could, but the Catholic version of “March Madness” was just too strong to resist, and on my Facebook page I offered a prediction about who would be elected (not even close!), on what day of balloting (off by a whole day), that he would be a Franciscan who would wear his habit onto the loggia (tantalizingly close in some regards), and that he would take the name (drum roll, please) Francis. I suppose that as these things go, one out of four isn’t all that bad!  

The world has been watching closely as our new Holy Father models his own unique approach to the Petrine ministry. What has become very obvious is his ability to relate to people in a most humble, human and even tactile way. Every pope brings his own gifts and talents to the ministry, and we are all the better for all of those gifts; nonetheless, the world seems particularly taken with the simplicity and directness of Pope Francis. In a word, from the perspective of the diaconate, Pope Francis is very much a model deacon.  

On almost every occasion Pope Francis has stressed the servant role of the Church and her ordained ministers. His wonderful homily at the Chrism Mass was an earthy and inspiring call to service. Some deacons have shared that they hope the Pope will soon address himself to the ministry of the diaconate directly. While that will be wonderful when it happens, there is much we can already discern which is of import to all who are ordained. For example, it is not a stretch to take his Chrism Mass homily, for example, and adapt it to deacons. In many cases, if you replace “priest” with “deacon,” and “chasuble” with “dalmatic,” you find a near-perfect exhortation to deacons. From his appreciation of carrying the people on our shoulders and in our hearts, his emphasis on “unction, not function,” and serving with “the smell of the sheep,” there is a strong diaconal message for all of us.  

In those first hours and days following the election, images began to emerge on the life and ministry of Jorge Mario Bergoglio. Even before his decision to preside at the Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper at the youth detention center, we saw images of Cardinal Bergoglio washing the feet of women and men, young and old, from various walks of life.  

One detail struck many of us immediately: the archbishop had rearranged his priestly stole into a diaconal stole before he washed the feet. As priests and deacons, how often have we ourselves approached this part of the rite by removing our chasubles or dalmatics? In some churches, I’ve noted priests and deacons even taking off their stoles prior to washing feet; not so in other parishes. Still, think of the intentionality of then-Cardinal Bergoglio and now-Pope Francis when he not only removes his chasuble, but takes the deliberate step of reconfiguring his stole: this action clearly has significance for him. We saw him do exactly the same thing on his first washing of feet as pope. That’s a conscious decision, suggesting that he wanted to convey that his actions be understood as diaconal in form and in substance.  

Pope Francis is the first Holy Father ordained to the priesthood after the Second Vatican Council. It strikes me that he has taken into his very being the exhortation of Pope Paul VI at the end of the Council. During the last general session on Dec. 7, 1965, Pope Paul addressed the Council fathers with these words:  

“We stress that the teaching of the Council is channeled in one direction, the service of humankind, of every condition, in every weakness and need. The Church has declared herself a servant of humanity at the very time when her teaching role and her pastoral government have, by reason of this Church solemnity, assumed greater splendor and vigor. However, the idea of service has been central.”

Pope Francis seems to be placing this same notion of diakonia at the very heart of his own ministry, modeling how it should be for all of us as well. TP 

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.