The appointment of deacons, as recounted in the Acts of the Apostles, was a response to the needs of fellow Christians and the desires of the Twelve to be more available for prayer and the proclamation of the word.
While the task at hand concerned material requirements of the community—the fair distribution of food among the widows—what is more interesting about the account is the Apostles’ flexibility in responding to the needs of their time.
As the ages rolled by, the function and meaning of the diaconate took various shapes, sometimes of minor importance, but always linked to service, whether liturgical or communal. In the contemporary Western church, the hallmark of deacons is that they assist, not preside, even though, in response to need, deacons do preside at baptisms, marriages, and burials. Thus, the diaconate gets more closely linked to the priesthood. But I hope not too close.
I have often wondered whether there is a hidden hindrance in the preaching and the hearing of the word in today’s Catholicism. I mean more than the quality and length of sermons. It is inevitable that some of us preachers are just not as good as others—certainly not as good as some preachers who have grown up more in the tradition of the word than of sacrament.
There is a deeper issue here that involves our lives and labors. As an old African-American woman told a group of us one day, “I’d rather hear one sermon lived than ten preached.”
If there are problems with our preaching, it is not only that we are too busy doing other things—although administrative duties can consume a pastor in any parish. A far bigger problem is this: even the best of homilies can be sloughed off because it is tied to the very nature of the presiding office, the task, the business of priestcraft.
A significant charism of deacons in the contemporary church is related to the fact that most of them are married, have other places of work, have had an active career, and have no reason to give service to the church other than their faith. The work of priests, even their preaching, can be subconsciously passed off as “what they have to do.” But when a deacon visits the sick, when a mail carrier or a business person gets into the pulpit, something else is going on. And people know this. It is not just “their job.”
There is something particularly moving and engaging about an ordinary person who wants to read and preach the word of God—and it’s not “business as usual.” It can’t be sloughed off as something that is “expected” to be done.
Two of my closest friends, till the day they died, had prayed for the ordination of women in the Catholic church. Though they are gone, I still hold their hope that if it is the will of God and the work of the Spirit, the church will have the humility to change.
Yet both of these women eventually confided to me that they experienced in their labors (one as a nun-physician, the other as a wife and professional photographer) strange powers of communicating faith that no priest or preacher seemed to have. Since they didn’t have to preach and pray, people could not ignore them the way they could ignore an official minister. Since they were not expected to be servants of the poor, advocates for justice, or ministers of the word, they could not easily be explained away.
This is the very thing I experienced in those moments when married women scouted the far reaches of mystical prayer or a father of a large family revealed before me and other men how his life would have no final meaning or joy without Christ. We have all known deacons who, because of their kind service, led others to say, “See how those Catholics love one another—and others as well.” It was precisely because they were not priests that they were so effective.
We are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a consecrated nation. The ritual prayer that commissions deacons should be for us all, “Receive the Gospel of Christ whose herald you are; believe what you read, preach what you believe, put into practice what you preach.”
Whatever our office in the church, we are all called to be deacons, just as we are called to the priesthood of faithful believers. The diversity of roles is life-giving. A mother lives what I could never preach. A celibate reveals a color in the spectrum of faith that spouses cannot. A single lay person consoles in ways that other Christians never could.
Isn't it appropriate, then, that Jesus is reported to have said, “In my father’s house there are many mansions”?