Back to our Roots

In this column I continue a review of the address given by Pope John Paul II to the plenary assembly of the Congregation for the Clergy, Nov. 30, 1995. The Pope’s address was designed to encourage and assist the members in the presentation of two documents on the formation, ministry and life of permanent deacons. 

Last month I focused on the Pope’s observation that: “The exercise of the diaconal ministry — like that of other ministries in the Church — requires per se of all deacons, celibate or married, a spiritual attitude of total dedication. Although in certain cases it is necessary to make the ministry of the diaconate compatible with other obligations, to think of oneself and to act in practice as a ‘part-time deacon’ would make no sense. The deacon is not a part-time employee or ecclesiastical official, but a minister of the Church. His is not a profession, but a mission!” 

This observation is fundamental to a mature understanding of the sacramental nature of diaconate itself. Deacons often find themselves, however, dealing with a common misperception on the part of some presbyters and laity that they are, in fact, part-time ministers. Such a misperception places the locus of ministry on formal ecclesial structures themselves; the deacon, however, as a full-time minister, exercises diaconal ministry across the full range of human activity: whether he is at home with his family, at work in a secular profession, or functioning at church. At all times and in every venue he is, in fact, acting as a sacred minister of the Church, and the pope makes this point perfectly clear. 

However, the Pope continues, “His is not a profession, but a mission! It is the circumstances of his life — prudently evaluated by the candidate himself and by the bishop, before ordination — which should, if necessary, be adapted to the exercise of his ministry by facilitating it in every way. The many problems still to be resolved that are of concern to pastors should be examined in this light. The deacon is called to be a person open to all, ready to serve people, generous in promoting just social causes, avoiding attitudes or positions which could make him appear to show favoritism. In fact, a minister of Jesus Christ, even as a citizen, must always promote unity and avoid, as far as possible, being a source of disunity or conflict.” 

Here the Pope offers more material for serious reflection. Notice how he changes the focus of his attention: it is not only others who need to appreciate the fundamental sacramental identity of the deacon, but the deacon himself must evaluate the rest of his life in light of that identity! Furthermore, it is the other dimensions of his life that are to be adapted to the demands of ordained ministry, not the other way around. This is a topic that every diaconal aspirant and candidate, and all deacons, and all the wives of aspirants, candidates and deacons, should consider prayerfully and honestly. How one’s life is forever re-oriented as a result of diaconal ordination lies at the very heart and expression of the deacon’s sacramental identity. 

With this observation, the Pope reminds pastors (including bishops) that this is a concern that they too must address. The deacon is not someone who simply “fits in” the ministerial program as he can; he is a vital member of the ministry and must be treated as such. Finally, the Pope offers a rather nice summary of the pastoral attitude which ought to be the deacon’s: he is to be the very sign of what it means to be Catholic: “open to all, ready to serve people, generous in promoting just social causes.” While all people are called to this, the deacon sacramentalizes these traits. The deacon must avoid anything (“attitudes or positions”) that could be perceived as showing favoritism for one person (or group of persons) over others. I find it particularly interesting that the Pope even highlights the deacon’s role in what we considered the political sphere: that as “a minister of Jesus Christ, even as a citizen, [the deacon] must always promote unity and avoid, as far as possible, being a source of disunity or conflict.” 

This section of the Pope’s address offers a wonderful reflection on the proper orientation of the deacon, a vision of how the deacon not only ought to be perceived by others, but also how he should see and understand himself and the ordained ministry in which he participates. It is, in fact, a kind of diaconal worldview that can form the foundation of a healthy, well-integrated and transformative diaconate in the Church today. 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.