How Deacons are Called to Serve
The Church has two types of deacons: permanent and transitory; the latter being future priests. To mark the December 26 feast of St Stephen, REV RUNAINE RADINE, who was ordained to the transitory diaconate in September, reflects on the deacon’s call to serve.
On Heritage Day this year, Bishop Vincent Zungu of Port Elizabeth ordained three transitory deacons — and I was one of them. The occasion was marked by noble simplicity.
My fellow ordinands, Patrick Misomali and Xolile Mafu, and I processed into the packed St Augustine’s cathedral, to the singing of that appropriate hymn “Holy God We Praise Thy Name”. It was a moving experience, especially after each of our unique journeys.
Eight Years of Formation
In my case, it came after I spent eight long, uninterrupted years in formation, a time not without its fair share of challenges. This moment felt like the fulfilment of an era and the opening of another, more exciting one.
It was a celebration of community, with the presence of people from all areas of our lives: beloved family, friends, past educators, parishioners of our home parishes as well the communities in which we now serve. All gathered around the altar with the bishop and clergy of the diocese and beyond.
Those Catholics “schooled” prior to the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) often speak about the seven steps to priesthood: the tonsure, the minor orders (offices of porter, lector, exorcist, and acolyte), and the major orders (subdiaconate, diaconate, and the priesthood).
Pope Paul VI in his 1972 apostolic letter Ministeria quaedam addressed the first tonsure, minor orders, and subdiaconate, which were closely related to the liturgical celebration and the practice of charity from the Church’s earliest times.
He abolished the first tonsure and renamed minor orders as ministries. Furthermore, having abolished the subdiaconate too, only the ministries of lector and acolyte are retained in the Latin Church, and these ministries can now be conferred, by institution rather than ordination, on both those men who are candidates for holy orders as well as those who are not.
Minor and Major Orders
Nonetheless, candidates for ordination as deacons and priests must receive the ministries of lector and acolyte prior to ordination. Since ministries are no longer strictly reserved to the clergy but are open to lay Christians, four categories of ministries have emerged:
- Hierarchic ministry of the ordained: bishop, priest, and deacon (the permanent diaconate was restored by Pope Paul VI in Ad Pascendum of August 15, 1972)
- Instituted (lector and acolyte)
- Deputised (for example, readers and extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion)
- Recognised ministries (commentators, altar servers, and so on).
The aim of this reflection is to consider in greater depth the order of the diaconate, by which men become members of the clergy. If this is the final step to the priesthood, it is certainly a step down, in the sense that a deacon is a servant (from diakonia in Greek).
Indeed, deacons were typically servants; they were the assistants of the bishop and involved in a great range of services.
Rooted in Scripture
The Acts of the Apostles (6:1-7) relays a prime example of this ministry which arose out of the needs of the local Church. The duties associated with this new ministry would entail serving at table while the apostles would continue to devote themselves “to prayer and the service of the word” to the faithful, ever-increasing in number.
Vatican II’s dogmatic constitution on the Church, Lumen gentium, explains the meaning of the diaconate as follows: “At a lower level of the hierarchy are deacons, upon whom hands are imposed not unto the priesthood, but ‘unto a ministry of service’. For strengthened by sacramental grace, in communion with the bishop and his group of priests, they serve in the diaconate of the liturgy, of the word, and of charity to the people of God” (29).
While reaffirming the distinction — in degree and essence — between the common priesthood of all the baptised and the ministerial priesthood of the ordained, Pope Benedict XVI clarified the difference between the three grades of Holy Orders, in his 2009 apostolic letter Omnium in mentem.
Here, the pope added a third paragraph to canon 1009, in order to demonstrate that only those in the episcopate and presbyterate act in the person of Christ the Head, whereas deacons are empowered to serve the people of God in the ministries of the liturgy, the word and charity. If anything, this clarification stresses the fact that deacons serve.
In his homily during the Mass of ordination, Bishop Zungu explained this key understanding of the diaconate as a ministry of service.
Going through the rite of ordination itself will illustrate this aspect.
Presented to the Bishop
Ordination, which takes place during the Mass, begins after the Gospel, with the calling of the candidates by a deacon. Following this, the candidates are presented to the bishop.
This was done by Fr Peter Whitehead, who is responsible in Port Elizabeth diocese for seminarians and their formation. He was thus in a privileged position to respond to the rather direct question of the bishop, “Do you judge them to be worthy?” His testimony allows the bishop to elect the candidates for the order of deacons, to which the people consent with the response, “Thanks be to God.”
After exhorting the candidates in the homily, the rite of ordination continues with a series of questions, pertaining to the life and ministry of deacons, which expresses the free will with which we approach this order.
In our cases, since we are transitioning to the priesthood and therefore unmarried, we make a public commitment to celibacy, “as a sign of…interior dedication to Christ…for the sake of the kingdom and in lifelong service to God and mankind”.
The response of the bishop to this commitment shows that it cannot be done without the help of God’s grace: “May the Lord help you to persevere in this commitment.”
The examination of candidates underscores essential elements of the office of deacons: humility and love; assisting the bishop and the priests; serving the people of Christ; prayer (especially the Liturgy of the Hours) — all of this in imitation of Christ who came not to be served but to serve (Mark 10:45).
At this point, each individual candidate approaches the bishop to make a promise of obedience, by placing his hands into those of the bishop.
It is worth mentioning here that we are members of the secular (or diocesan) clergy who are attached to a diocese under the direct authority of the diocesan bishop, unlike religious clergy (such as, for example, Franciscans or Dominicans) who belong to their religious order.
The Litany of the Saints comes at the right time — with all these kinds of commitments — as we now need the prayers of Our Lady and all the saints! The candidates prostrate themselves during this part, a sign of their resolve.
Then comes the essential element of ordination, the laying on of hands and the prayer of ordination, for a candidate is ordained for Church ministry by the laying on of hands and the gift of the Holy Spirit.
For diaconate ordination, only the bishop lays hands, in silence. If this ministry is received kneeling, it says something about how it is sustained through dependence on God’s grace, in prayer and the sacraments.
The prayer of ordination acknowledges that the Father enriches the Church of Jesus Christ with a variety of ministries through the Holy Spirit.
The threefold ministry of bishops, priests and deacons, closely associated with divine worship, has been established for the glory of God’s name. It traces the origins of the diaconate in the Scriptures, beginning with the selection of Levi’s sons for the ministry of the tabernacle.
After recalling the institution of the diaconate in the early Church, for service at table, the Holy Spirit is invoked, so that the ordinand may carry out the ministry faithfully, “excel in every virtue; in love that is sincere, in concern for the sick and the poor, in unassuming authority, in self-discipline, and in holiness of life”. This prayer brings together everything expected of deacons.
Duties of the Deacon
What follows are the explanatory rites, since they show how the minister will carry out the order just received, such as the investiture with stole and dalmatic. I asked Fr Max Salsone, who celebrated the golden jubilee of his own priestly ordination a few years ago, to vest me, since he was the one who baptised me as an infant.
Then, for one who “resolved to hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience, as the Apostle urges, and to proclaim this faith in word and action as it is taught by the Gospel and the Church’s tradition”, the presentation of the book of the Gospels is significant, not only because a deacon primarily reads the Gospel during Mass but because he is to believe what he reads, teach what he believes, and practise what he teaches.
The duties of deacons include proclaiming the Gospel, preaching the homily, assisting the priest at Mass, administering baptism, and distributing Communion. As a leader of prayer, he may preside over funeral and burial services, act as the official witness at weddings, administer sacramentals, and bless articles of popular devotion.
His pastoral ministry may include bringing Communion to the sick and housebound, preparing the faithful for the sacraments, and some administrative duties.
Above all, charitable works, especially the works of mercy, must be part of the deacon’s life.
By the end of this year, 14 young men, from a number of dioceses across Southern Africa, who completed their theological studies at St John Vianney Seminary in May will have been ordained deacons.
Since this is the final “step” to the priesthood, for these recently ordained transitory deacons, please pray that God, who has begun the good work in us, may bring it to fulfilment. Amen.