Back to Our Roots

Last month we began a reflection on the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Missionary Activity as it applies to the ministry of the deacon. While deacons are mentioned in this influential document, it is perhaps even more significant to understand the missionary and evangelical context provided by the document. It is against this backdrop that the true impact of the diaconate can be seen in high relief. As we discussed last month, the entire Church is called to be the Herald of Christ to the world; at the deacon’s ordination, the bishop literally hands the Book of the Gospels to the newly-ordained deacons with the charge that the deacon now be “the Herald of Christ” in the name of the Church. This month we shall look even more deeply into the heart of the Church’s mission and the deacon’s role within it. 

Re-reading the Decree in 2011 can be a most enlightening experience, given the stunningly rapid cultural changes that have been experienced throughout the world since the days of the Council. For example, Ad Gentes, No. 11, was originally describing the Church’s activity in the so-called “mission” territories, and yet today it seems particularly applicable to any and all societies. 

For all Christians, wherever they live, are bound to show forth, by the example of their lives and by the witness of the word, that new man put on at baptism and that power of the Holy Spirit by which they have been strengthened at Confirmation. Thus others, observing their good works, can glorify the Father and can perceive more fully the real meaning of human life and the universal bond of the community of mankind. 

The strength of this paragraph, in my opinion, lies in its next section which offers very practical applications of the principles outlined above. While it is somewhat lengthy, I believe it is a most valuable and practical guide: 

In order that they [Christians] may be able to bear more fruitful witness to Christ, let them be joined to those people by esteem and love; let them acknowledge themselves to be members of the group of people among whom they live; let them share in cultural and social life by the various undertakings and enterprises of human living; let them be familiar with their national and religious traditions; let them gladly and reverently lay bare the seeds of the Word which lie hidden among their fellows. At the same time, however, let them look to the profound changes which are taking place among nations, and let them exert themselves to keep modern man, intent as he is on the science and technology of today’s world from becoming a stranger to things divine; rather, let them awaken in him a yearning for that truth and charity which God has revealed. Even as Christ Himself searched the hearts of men, and led them to divine light, so also His disciples, profoundly penetrated by the Spirit of Christ, should show the people among whom they live, and should converse with them, that they themselves may learn by sincere and patient dialogue what treasures a generous God has distributed among the nations of the earth. 

In today’s highly polarized cultural climate, how challenging these words are! The deacons, in fraternal collaboration with the priests, can lead the way in modeling for their own communities how Christians are to live together in respect. In our attempts to transform the cultures around us, do we begin, as this document charges, from an attitude that we are all “members of the group of people among whom we live”? Do we truly “share in cultural and social life” of the community? Are we “familiar with their national and religious traditions” which are such a part of our diverse cultures here in the United States? Finally, in our apostolic activities, do we model and encourage “sincere and patient dialogue” with others, including those with whom we already live and serve? Today’s Christians, in order to be effective evangelists, need to be able to confront the radical polarization so often evident, unfortunately, even within our parishes.

The deacon is placed in an advantageous position to assist in all of this. As a cleric he proclaims the Good News not only within the ecclesial community itself, but through the actions of his life shared within the secular community in which he works and lives, he can be a servant of evangelization and reconciliation between peoples. 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, California.  He writes and consults extensively on the subject of the diaconate and contemporary ministry.