Tuesday, February 25, 2014

What about deacons?

Today Pope Francis released a Letter to Families in advance of the Extraordinary Synod on the Family that will be held in Rome this fall. In his letter he asks families to pray for the synod, which, he wrote,
is dedicated in a special way to you, to your vocation and mission in the Church and in society; to the challenges of marriage, of family life, of the education of children; and the role of the family in the life of the Church. I ask you, therefore, to pray intensely to the Holy Spirit, so that the Spirit may illumine the Synodal Fathers and guide them in their important task
I would certainly encourage everyone to pray for the Synod in advance, during it, and afterwards. To pray for married Catholic couples to give joyful witness to this vocation which, like holy orders, has been raised by Christ Himself to the dignity of a sacrament, specifically a sacramental sign of the relationship between Christ and His Bride, the Church (Eph 5:32).

Reading the pope’s letter, I noticed something very interesting, at least to me. It interests me because it is something to which I am very attuned: the fact that the Holy Father, in writing that the Synod “will involve all the People of God,” mentioned “bishops, priests, consecrated men and women, and the lay faithful of the particular Churches of the entire world,” does not include deacons. In light of the subject of my master’s thesis, which I entitled, Making Up for What Was Previously Lacking: The Importance for the Church of the Dual Sacramentality of Married Permanent Deacons, I am convinced, just as I am convinced that deacons are evangelists par excellence, that married permanent deacons, their wives, and families play a valuable role in bearing witness to this Gospel truth.

It is important to note that while the vast majority of permanent Catholic deacons worldwide are married, not all permanent deacons are married. Some deacons were ordained without having ever married and so took a vow to live a celibate life, others are widowed, and some deacons have even suffered the pain of divorce. Having noted this, I truly believe that the omission of deacons is an oversight, not a calculated slight. But oversights like this one, I believe, are somewhat telling.

While I am in no way devastated, or deterred by the omission of deacons from the pope's letter, I would be lying if I did not admit, as I did when Evangelii Gaudium, the post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation for the Synod on the New Evangelization, was published (see "Who stood up for Stephen?: Deacons as Evangelists"), to being a tad disappointed. This would seem, once again, to point to the need to more clearly affirm and further establish the unique ecclesial identity of the diaconate as a permanent order of ministry in the Church with a legitimate place among the ecclesial hierarchy, even if, as it is stated in Lumen Gentium, deacons are "at a lower level of the hierarchy" (par 29). I still cringe whenever I hear or read the phrase "Clergy and deacons."

As regards Pope Francis, it bears noting that, according to the website Catholic Hierarchy, that the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires, as of 2012, had only 11 permanent deacons. The Diocese of Rome, as of 2011, has 114. One can see in a lovely photograph of Pope Francis’s visitation, as Bishop of Rome, to the parish of St. Thomas the Apostle, the Holy Father being assisted at the altar by two of his deacons (they're the guys kneeling behind the Holy Father).

Photo by CNS’s Paul Haring, a diaconal bow to Greg Kandera for bringing it my attention

Along these lines, making an effort to end on a positive note, despite my realization that anything bearing a title with the word "ideal" used in earnest will, in our despairing and existentialist age, put off many people, I point to Cardinal Francis Stafford’s address, delivered 19 February 2000, when he served as President of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, “The Ideal Family of the Permanent Deacon.”

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