Sacrament of Servanthood

Reflections on the Permanent Diaconate

 Rev. Msgr. Michael J. Chaback  

          When in 1964 the fathers of the Second Vatican Council projected the restoration of the permanent diaconate, they were moved by an awareness of the pressing need in many mission lands for the presence of an ordained minister for baptisms, communions, marriages and funerals. There simply were not enough priests to go around. The permanent diaconate was restored then as a response to ministerial difficulties.  Thirty-five years later the permanent diaconate is a visible and significant element in the hierarchical structure of practically every diocese in the world.
          I have been particularly blessed during these years in having been able to share an active role in diaconal formation programs, not only in our own diocese, but also in Philadelphia, Camden, Wilmington and Scranton, and to have worked with deacons pastorally as a parish priest. All of it was for me an experience that reshaped my recognition of just who and what deacons are, and ultimately deepened my understanding of the Church itself. I have come to look on this experience as one of the great awakenings of my Catholic life.
          With the regular ordination of permanent deacons in almost every diocese, with years of ministerial service by deacons to local churches, with ongoing theological reflection by deacons and about deacons, several very significant things have happened.
          First, while permanent deacons reappeared in our time as a practical response to pastoral needs, it soon became apparent that the presence of deacons in local churches was not meant to be incidental. In line with the most ancient traditions of the church, deacons began to be recognized more and more as constitutive parts of the sacramental representation of Jesus Christ, Head of the Church.  In other words, we began to see that deacons were not meant to be ordained only where and when there were insufficient priests. The church ordains deacons so the fullness of the Mystery of our Redemption might be signed more clearly. Their presence to the church is part of the very design of God.
          Pope Paul VI, in restoring the permanent diaconate, acknowledged this when he affirmed that the ordained deacon possesses a unique sacramental character of his own, i.e., that he stands in a unique irrepeatible relationship with Christ before the Father and the People of God. The deacon sacramentalizes by his very presence the servanthood of Jesus Christ, which servanthood is ultimately the form in which salvation appears. This is his unique mission.
          Every believer regularly needs to see this servanthood concretely and effectively. Every church then needs deacons so none of us may ever forget that the Son of God came to serve and not to be served. In this sense, the deacon sacramentally embodies the conscience of the church. His very presence makes it impossible for any sort of triumphalism, clericalism or authoritarianism to make much advance in the house of God.
          Together with priests, who sacramentalize the divine Sonship of Jesus and who sacramentally embody the originary holiness that gives life to the church, deacons enable the full image of the Redeemer, Eternal Son and Suffering Servant, to shape and give form to the church. This deepened appreciation of the sacramentality of the diaconate has led to a stronger and clearer grasp of the dynamics of its ministry.
          Commonly, we had said that deacons serve Jesus Christ in the ministry of the Word, of the altar and of charity. Practically, however, we stressed the ministry of charity, since that had proven, I believe, to be its most immediate and tangible aspect. It is now clearer, after years of having the sacrament present to us, that the signing of the Servanthood of Christ specifies all diaconal ministries, not just the ministry of charity.
          When the deacon takes up the Word of God, he does not take it up as a priest does. The sacramental graces that grants efficacy to diaconal teaching and preaching moves specifically to the ongoing revelation of the Suffering Servant. Deacons are sustained by grace when in their service of the Word they lift up the needs of real men and women, the humanity for which the Word became flesh. When a deacon preaches, the Spirit calls us through him to look on the many for whom Christ died, and on all their neediness.
          In their service of the altar, deacons liturgically move in the space between the altar and the people. They call the people to prayer, lift up the intercessions, prepare the gifts, require the sign of peace, offer the cup at Communion, send the people forth. In all this, again, they are representing the one who came to serve. They serve him by drawing his people into the same servanthood. They witness to the shape of holiness in Christ and in us. Again, they have the promise of sacramental grace to render effective this particular service at the altar of God.
          The same is true of their ministry to the pastoral communities to which they are assigned. Deacons are responsible for the vindication of charity as the primary form of all church activity. With their eyes, ears, hands and hearts, they serve the self-forgetting love of God as it seeks to transform every human situation. All they do, they do in the name of the Son of Man, who had nowhere to lay his head and yet is adored by all the angels of heaven.
          Finally, through all this, something with immediate and personal consequence has occurred for me as a priest and for my brothers who are deacons. I have learned over these years that they are not my assistants, less-perfect ministers given to me by the church to take up my slack, to enable me to get by. When they first came to our parishes, it seemed to many of us that they were just that. Working with deacons and growing with them has led me and many of my brother priests to see more clearly their sacramental reality and to reassess, in that light, our ecclesial relationship.
          In the end, I have come to see the deacon, for all that he is, as an essential co-operator and partner in revealing the full face of Jesus Christ. As a priest, I have been consecrated to the representation of the Divine Mercy that took flesh in Jesus. The deacon who stands alongside me witnesses the humble shape of that Incarnation. Together, sharing a common origin in our bishop, we bring, by what we are and what we do, both the majesty and the consolation of the Gospel to a tiny corner of the world, to the neighborhood that is a parish community.
          I know I am a better priest because of the presence of deacons to me. I am aware that there still are places where they are not yet fully understood or even accepted. It is not uncommon, even after all these years, to hear them occasionally labeled as “lay deacons.” Do not think of them as good men volunteering particular and regular help to burdened priests. See them for what they are sacramentally. Welcome them into your lives and rejoice that God has provided the constitution of the church with an ordained minister whose duty it is to place everywhere that accent that tells us that God, in infinite love, graciously cares for even the least of us, and does so by having become what we are.

When This Article Was Originally Published, Rev. Msgr. Michael J. Chaback, S.T.D., was pastor of SS. Cyril and Methodius, Bethlehem, and a member of the faculty of the Year of Spirituality, Mary Immaculate Center, Northampton, Currently He Serves As Director for the Office of the Permanent Diaconate.
This article appeared in The A.D. Times, January 21, 1999.