‘Novus Mentis Habitus’

Fifty years ago this month, the Second Vatican Council took up the question of a renewed diaconate permanently exercised. The major discussions took place between Oct. 4-16, 1963, and a vote taken on Oct. 30 overwhelmingly secured the renewal to come. We have been reflecting for the last two months on the “new way of thinking” (Paul VI and John Paul II) demanded by the Council as it applies to our ministries as priests and deacons. Certainly one of the best examples of this creative pastoral response is found in the Council’s decision on the Order of Deacons. One of the bishops who took part in the discussions was the 42-year old auxiliary bishop of Krakow, Karol Wojtyla. Thirty years later, as Pope, he offered a series of catechesis on the diaconate and during one of them on Oct. 6, 1993, he recalled, “A deeply felt need in the decision to reestablish the permanent diaconate was and is that of a greater and more direct presence of Church ministers in the various spheres of the family, work, school, etc., in addition to existing pastoral structures.”

I was thinking about this quote from Pope John Paul when I read the text of the homily given by Pope Francis on July 6:

[The Holy Spirit] renews all things: He renews our heart, our life, and makes us live differently, but in a way that takes up the whole of our life. . . . In the Christian life, even in the life of the Church, there are old structures, passing structures: it is necessary to renew them! And the Church has always been attentive to this, with dialogue with cultures . . . It always allows itself to be renewed according to places, times, and persons. The Church has always done this! . . . The Church always goes forward, giving space to the Holy Spirit that renews these structures, structures of the churches. Don’t be afraid of that! Don’t be afraid of the newness of the Gospel! Don’t be afraid of the newness that the Holy Spirit works in us! Don’t be afraid of the renewal of structures!

The conciliar vision of a renewed diaconate, as expressed by Pope John Paul, places a particular responsibility for structural renewal on the diaconate. As we have discussed many times in this column, the diaconate needs to transcend existing ecclesial structures. There is a tendency sometimes to become so focused on existing parochial and diocesan structures that we risk developing ecclesial “blind spots.” I once had a deacon tell me that “there’s no need for more deacons in our deanery” because all the parishes’ needs were already being met. Obviously, the larger question was being missed: were there no people hungry, homeless, sick and marginalized in that deanery? What needs were out there that none of the parishes or existing ecclesial structures were able to meet? According to Pope John Paul, that was where the Council Fathers hoped the deacons would be, extending the reach of the diocesan bishop and to serve as a kind of “safety net” for those in need. According to Pope Francis, the Holy Spirit is calling all of us to be renewed and to renew the whole Church. As deacons and priests, we might ask ourselves and our parishioners two questions:

1. What are the spiritual and corporal needs of the people in our communities (not simply our parishes)? Brainstorming such a list by the ordained and lay leaders of the parish will identify quite a number; 2. With this list in hand, critique objectively what structures may exist, or will need to be created, to meet these needs? Relatedly, what structures may exist but will need to be transformed or renewed to increase their effectiveness?

Unless we actually get to the point of such prayerful, practical and pastoral reflection and action — as individuals and as communities of faith, “structural renewal” will remain little more than nice words in a papal homily or an unrealized dream of the world’s bishops 50 years ago. 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.