Sunday, May 18, 2014


Some 20+ years ago, sometime during my 9-year diaconate, a priest at whose Masses I regularly assisted as deacon once questioned me to check whether I really recited the silent prayer prescribed to be said while adding a little water to the wine in the chalice at the Preparation of the Gifts. (An abridgment of the ancient and venerable offertory prayer, Deus, qui humane substantiae ..., that used to be said by the celebrant as he blessed the water and then poured it into the wine, the prayer's contemporary English words were, By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.) At the time, I assured the priest that I did indeed recite it faithfully as prescribed, but added that if he had any doubts or worries on that score he should say the prayer himself, just to be safe! Knowing his personality, I interpreted his concern as an excess of caution, what some might call scrupulosity. But it could also have been interpreted as an illustration of a certain residual lack of confidence in the deacon!

That incident came to mind today as I listened to the 1st Reading at Mass (Acts 6:1-7) which recounts the familiar story of the Apostles' appointment of the "Seven." The deacons were scheduled to preach at the parish Masses today, and I somewhat expected them to use the occasion as an opportunity to say something about the diaconate. To my surprise, neither chose to do so. Of course, the "Seven" were not specifically called deacons in the story, and it is debated how explicitly Luke  had the diaconate in mind when recounting this incident. It is, however, traditionally associated with that order, is sometimes read at deacon ordinations, and is referred to in the ordination rite.

In any case, today is a good occasion to note the presence and importance of deacons in the contemporary Church. Growing up, I don't think I'd ever met a deacon. There were, of course, deacons in seminaries, but how many people ever saw the inside of a seminary? In those days, "deacon" designated one of the two subordinate ministers at Solemn Mass. If some special occasion warranted my attendance at a Solemn Mass, I might be asked afterwards who the priest, deacon, and subdeacon were. But they were, of course, all priests (two of whom were dressed as and functioned as deacon and subdeacon respectively). Indeed, a Solemn Mass was often referred to in popular parlance as a "Mass with 3 Priests." 

Vatican II restored the diaconate as a living order in the Church. And the Church has been enriched by the dedicated and generous ministry of men - many of them older with professional careers, most of them married - who have embraced the opportunity and challenge of service to the Church as deacon, not just filling in for a diminished number of priests but exercising a specific ministry genuinely distinct and complementary to that of bishops and priests.

I'm sure when the permanent diaconate was restored that there were doubts and uncertainties about how this would work out. The final chapter in the evolution of the permanent diaconate may remain yet to be written, but the current experience of the restored diaconate has more than vindicated the Council's courageous decision.

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