Back to Our Roots

We come to our third and final reflection on the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Missionary Activity as it applies to the ministry of the deacon. However, we can’t leave Ad Gentes (AG) without considering the specific teaching it contains about the role of clergy in evangelization. While many of the comments are specifically directed to priests, they were written before the permanent diaconate had been restored. Therefore, we may examine them to see if they apply as well to deacons. 

After stressing the unique role of the Christian laity in the Church’s missionary activity, paragraph 15 continues:  

Now, in order to plant the Church and to make the Christian community grow, various ministries are needed, which are raised up by divine calling from the midst of the faithful congregation, and are to be carefully fostered and tended to by all. Among these are the offices of priests, of deacons, and of catechists, and Catholic action.  

This role is especially effective when people are served by clergy from their own cultures: “For the Church drives deeper roots in any given sector of the human family when the various faithful communities all have, from among their members, their own ministers of salvation in the order of bishops, priests, and deacons, serving their own brethren. . .” (AG, No. 16). 

The bishops continue by stressing the importance of pre-ordination formation, which would apply equally to deacons:  

Of great importance are the things which are said about closely joining spiritual formation with the doctrinal and pastoral; about living a life patterned after the Gospel without looking out for one’s own comfort or that of one’s family; about cultivating a deep appreciation of the mystery of the Church.  

However, they add something else: these “common requirements” of formation “should be combined with an attempt to make contact with their own particular national way of thinking and acting. Therefore, let the minds of the students be kept open and attuned to an acquaintance and an appreciation of their own nation’s culture. In their philosophical and theological studies, let them consider the points of contact which mediate between the traditions and religion of their homeland on the one hand and the Christian religion on the other.” 

Perhaps this is a dimension in which the diaconate can be of particular service. Given the diverse states of life in which deacons live and minister, the National Directory for the Formation, Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons in the United States offers significant guidance. Paragraph 144 observes that as a result of the effects of immigration:  

This changing face of the Catholic Church in the United States should have a significant effect on diaconal formation. The cultures and traditions of those in diaconal formation — mirroring as they do the rich diversity of gifts and unity in faith — need to be respected, valued, and understood. . . .There should be formal instruction regarding the developmental role and function of culture in the life of the individual and community. . . .Given the ethnic and racial diversity of our national population and the mobility that is so characteristic of our society, a participant in diaconal formation ought to have meaningful cross-cultural experiences and specific training for ministry in his own cultural context.  

Finally, the bishops refer explicitly to the rationale for renewing a permanent diaconate in the first place: “For there are men who actually carry out the functions of the deacon’s office, either preaching the word of God as catechists, or presiding over scattered Christian communities in the name of the pastor and the bishop, or practicing charity in social or relief work. It is only right to strengthen them by the imposition of hands which has come down from the Apostles, and to bind them more closely to the altar, that they may carry out their ministry more effectively because of the sacramental grace of the diaconate.” 

This theology of sacramental grace was a fundamental theme during the conciliar discussions concerning the diaconate in Lumen Gentium. We might profitably ask ourselves this question. In our parishes, dioceses and Catholic institutions, who are the people who are already carrying out “the functions of the deacon’s office”? These are the people who should be invited and encouraged to consider participation in formation for ordination. 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.