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Friday, June 23, 2006

What are Deacons?

On his always insightful blog, Steve Bogner writes about an article by the ethicist John Kavanaugh, SJ, in the June 19 issue of America:

He states that we 'must offer more than the impotence of outrage and moral posturing' in the face of embryonic stem cell research. Why, he asks, couldn't the church fund adult stem cell research programs at some of the major Catholic universities with medical schools? Why not fund programs that offer alternatives? Put our money, and our actions, where our mouth is?

And this brings us to an article in the current Pastoral Review by Michael Evans, Bishop of East Anglia, on the diaconate. This is not a non-sequitur. Bishop Evans tells us that the deacon has a threefold ministry of word, liturgy, and charity. But it is the ministry of charity that has preeminence. This is clear in both history and the Basic Norms of the Formation of Permanent Deacons, which says:

So that the whole Church may better live out this spirituality of service, the Lord gives her a living and personal sign of his very being as servant. In a specific way, this is the spirituality of the deacon. In fact, with sacred ordination, he is constituted a living icon of Christ the servant within the Church. The leitmotiv of his spiritual life will therefore be service; his sanctification will consist in making himself a generous and faithful servant of God and people, especially the poor and most suffering…

This does not mean that laypeople are not called to service, or, once more, will find themselves marginalized in the Church. The deacon is a “living icon of Christ the servant.” Bishop Evans reminds us that an icon is not merely a beautiful picture meant for admiration – an icon “is a work of liturgical art and an invitation to prayer.” The deacon, then, is called by God to “draw the whole Church into humble service, into the Christ’s washing of feet, into his humble ministry of love.” This is the meaning of his (or her) entire life: “Every part of a deacon’s daily life and ministry – his marriage, family life and work, the way he reaches out to others and talks to them, even the way he looks at them – contributes to the gentle power of his ‘iconhood’.” The deacon’s ministry of charity is inauthentic if it serves to exclude his brothers and sisters rather than to “facilitate, enable, animate, encourage and empower the service of the whole Church community.”

The deacon’s ministry of service is likewise inauthentic if it serves to draw attention to the deacon as a replacement for Christ, whether as the bearer of yet another ideology promising a glorious future or as a sign of ecclesiastical strength and influence in the present. Once more, the deacon is meant to be a “living icon” of Jesus Christ. Bishop Evans tells us, “That means a readiness to ‘image’ the humble servant of God portrayed in Isaiah 53, the suffering servant who came not to be served but to serve; the one who was despised and rejected, and led like a lamb to the slaughter; the servant master who washed the feet of his disciples, and who gave his life as a ‘nothing’ upon the cross.”

The bishop reminds us that Pope Benedict, in Deus Caritas Est, claimed that this ministry of charity is part of the “fundamental structure of the Church,” and has since said that it is “necessary to accompany the proclamation of the Gospel with the concrete testimony of charity.” This means attention to the new forms of spiritual and cultural poverty without turning away from the materially poor.

Let’s take Steve’s questions about embryonic stem cell research: “Why not fund programs that offer alternatives? Put our money, and our actions, where our mouth is?” These are urgent questions for all of us. But, perhaps, they also might serve to remind us of the important but often neglected role of deacons in the Church. What do you think?


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