The Permanent Deacon

In some circles at least there is confusion about what exactly the role of a Permanent Deacon is. The confusion seems to me to be due, to some extent, to the fact that the Deacon is very closely associated with the priest. When we ask what a Deacon can do, we are more often than not given a list of functions we traditionally associated with the priest. But we are also told that the Deacon cannot act as celebrant of the Eucharist or administer the Sacrament of Reconciliation, even when a person is seriously ill and could benefit from the Sacrament of Anointing.
From this, one could easily get the impression that the deacon is a sort of ‘minor priest’ or ‘a priest whose ministry is limited’. But obviously there is something strange about this. Presiding at the Eucharist and administering the sacraments of Reconciliation and Anointing are among the most important functions of a priest. Why any active priest, ‘minor’ or major’, should be empowered to exercise these functions is simply impossible to explain. After all, when all is said, members of the laity can perform, and are performing many of the functions which we list as functions of the Deacon.
Our starting point is wrong. We should start with the ministry of Christ and not of the priests. Christ’s ministry was, as we know, very broad and not at all narrowly ‘churchy’. The Christ in the gospels was to be found much more often in the villages, on the roads, by the lakeside and in the hills, than in the Temples or synagogues. His Temple was wherever people were and his ministry started and ended with tending to their needs, for he saw these needs as the needs of the Father. After Christ our starting point obviously should be the ministry of his Body, that is, the Community of his followers, the Church. Just as the ministry of Jesus was broadranging, reaching out to every area of human need, so it is with the Church. Writing to a small Christian community in the city of Corinth, Paul reminds them that their task is a broad one: ‘There are all sorts of service to be done but always to the sane Lord’. (1 Cor. 12: 4ff) He goes on then to mention some of the areas of Church and human life in which Christians should be involved and, presumably, were in his day. He mentions, for example, ‘preaching’, ‘prophesy’, ‘healing’, ‘miracles’. In his letter to the Christians in Rome he also mentions ‘administration’, ‘teaching’, ‘almsgiving’, ‘officials’ and ‘works of mercy’. These were the needs Paul saw in his own day. Our list would be different because today’s needs are different. In the end ministry is about building up the body of Christ.
The Deacon is fully a member of the clergy and so has ceased to be a member of the laity. He is in Holy Orders and has a special role in the Liturgy. Still the ordination he received from the Church is not to the order of priesthood, but rather to a different ministry, that of Deacon. If we try to squeeze him into the ministry of the priest we will find it difficult, if not impossible, to appreciate the great potential of his role in today’s Church and world.
It is only when we remember the wide-ranging ministry of Christ and of the Church that we can see, and begin to appreciate, the potential the restored Permanent Deacon has for the Church today. The Deacons we were familiar with in the old days were transitory deacons on their way to priesthood. The Permanent Deacon is, for us, a new ministry. New wine needs new bottles. These new bottles are all around us if we think of the wider needs of the Church and the world and remember the wider ministry of Christ, and do not confine our thinking to the much more limited one of the priest. ‘There are all sorts of service to be done but always to the same Lord, (1 Cor. 12: 4ff.)

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  1. For those concerned about having a Eucharistic Celebrant, having a permanent deacon doesn’t solve their problem….

  2. Margaret Lee says:

    I find this interesting in the light of a current debate that is going on in Killaloe Diocese. I agree that we should separate priesthood and diaconate.
    As stated, the world has changed since the time of Christ and the question is “Can we have the ministries without being a permanent deacon?” I believe that we can and that many lay people are already carrying out these ministries–giving retreats, alleviating poverty, contributing to liturgy. The Killaloe proposal limits the diaconate to men. If they are married they need permission from their wives. If they are single, they have to make a vow of celibacy. This really gives out a message that celibacy is still somehow “better” than conjugal love and that the body is not to be trusted. And of course there is the small matter of gender equality. And finally, many people are pointing out that it is women who carry out most ministries within the church–cleaning, liturgy, membership of St. Vincent de Paul, counting the money (not spending it!)

  3. This article reads nicely, and can sound convincing, unless you happen to have listened to the reaction of the women in Killaloe diocese to the proposed introduction of the permanent diaconate there. There is clearly deep hurt, and a sense of being rejected and pushed aside after many years of service at parish and diocesan level.
    Enda has written many wonderful things, but I find it strange that he managed to write this reflection on the permanent diaconate without even referring to the massive elephant in the kitchen, the fact that only men can apply!
    Incidentally the Killaloe women have called a public meeting for Monday, Sept, 15th at 8.00pm in the Clare Inn.
    Tony Flannery

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