On 18 June 1967, Pope Paul VI issued a motu proprio providing the Latin Church general norms for the restoration of the permanent diaconate. Before we get into the rites of ordination proper, I thought it best to look at this document, Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem first. Then we’ll look at the 1973 apostolic letter, Ad Pascendum, to give some background on the immediate post-conciliar thinking regarding deacons.
Though we’ll keep a special eye on the interface between liturgy and the diaconate, we’ll also touch on other ecclesial aspects of ministry, teaching, service. Commentary, especially from deacons, will be most welcome to clarify and move the discussion.
Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem begins with an unnumbered introduction:
Beginning already in the early days of the Apostles, the Catholic Church has held in great veneration the sacred order of the diaconate, as the Apostle of the Gentiles himself. bears witness. He expressly sends his greeting to the deacons together with the bishops and instructs Timothy[Cf. Phil. 1:1.] which virtues and qualities are to be sought in them in order that they may be regarded as worthy of their ministry.[Cf. 1 Tim. 3:8-13.]
Deacons were the first of the traditional orders to be discerned and filled by name in the Biblical witness.
Furthermore, the Second Ecumenical Vatican Council following this very ancient tradition, made honorable mention of the diaconate in the Constitution which begins with the words “Lumen Gentium” where, after concerning itself with the bishops and the priests, it praised also the third rank of sacred orders, explaining its dignity and enumerating its functions.
On Catholic Sensibility, we looked at Lumen Gentium 29 in September 2006.
Indeed while clearly recognizing on the one hand that “these functions very necessary to the life of the Church could in the present discipline of the Latin Church be carried out in many regions with difficulty,” and while on the other hand wishing to make more suitable provision in a matter of such importance wisely decreed that the “diaconate in the future could be restored as a particular and permanent rank of the hierarchy.”[Cf. AAS 57 (1965) D. 36 n. 2S.]
The ministry of the Church has been hampered at times by prelates who have doubted the efficacy of deacons. There was that unfortunate shutdown in the Mexican state of Chiapas several years ago. Evangelicals make huge inroads in Latin America, and the curia fusses about peripherals. Ad Gentes, the document on missionary activity, adds to the conciliar witness of Lumen Gentium:
Although some functions of the deacons, especially in missionary countries, are in fact accustomed to be entrusted to lay men it is nevertheless “beneficial that those . . . who perform a truly diaconal ministry be strengthened by the imposition of hands, a tradition going back to the Apostles, and be more closely joined to the altar so that they may more effectively carry out their ministry through the sacramental grace of the diaconate.”[Ad Gentes 16] Certainly in this way the special nature of this order will be shown most clearly. It is not to be considered as a mere step towards the priesthood, but it is so adorned with its own indelible character and its own special grace so that those who are called to it “can permanently serve the mysteries of Christ and the Church.”[Cf. AAS 57 (1965) p. 46.]
The restoration was not intended to be broadly instituted across Roman Catholicism. The pope left the matter to be decided by bishops on a national level:
Although the restoration of the permanent diaconate is not necessarily to be effected in the whole Latin Church since “it pertains to the competent territorial Episcopal conferences, with the approval of the Supreme Pontiff, to decide whether and where it is timely that deacons of this kind be ordained for the care of souls,”[Cf. AAS 57 (1965) p. 36.] we therefore consider it not only proper but also necessary that specific and precise norms be given to adapt present discipline to the new precepts of the Ecumenical Council and to determine the proper conditions under which not only the ministry of the diaconate will be more advantageously regulated, but the training also of the candidates will be better suited to their different kinds of life, their common obligations and their sacred dignity.
There’s wisdom here. First set forth the norms, then implement a training adapted to the needs of the candidates and the pastoral situation.
Therefore, in the first place, all that is decreed in the Code of Canon Law about the rights and obligations of deacons, whether these rights and obligations be common to all clerics, or proper to deacons—all these, unless some other disposition has been made, we confirm and declare to be in force also for those who will remain permanently in the diaconate. In regard to these we moreover decree the following.
And in the days ahead, we will get to the particular decrees of Paul VI. Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem contains thirty-six numbered sections, covering the question of having deacons or not, requirements for entry into this order, intellectual and spiritual formation, married and older men, the “care and feeding” of deacons, their ministries, relationship with the bishop, and even what they are to wear.
Any comments as we commence into a close look at Catholic deacons?
Thanks for linking to that Times piece. I was aware of the syncretistic difficulties faced in the Indian regions of Latin America, but I wasn’t yet aware of some of the hierarchical complications. It really seems curious to me that Rome would go so far as to begin devouring the offspring its own regulations bore. Jeronimo Gomez seems like a delightful man, and his bewilderment that men can “make judgments about the work of other men from so far away” is spot on.
Since it was referenced in the article, I’m yet unsure of what I think about deaconesses. The biblical verses in question seem ambiguous as to whether the women mentioned are mere collaborators or truly ordained, and I don’t know that the theological question is settled as to whether the ordination conferred on deacons is one unique to that order and therefore possibly admitting of women candidates, or if it has some share in the charism of priesthood, in which case Ordinatio sacerdotalis would apply.
In such difficult questions, I have to work hard to set aside my prejudices and sympathies and at least try to ascertain what the mind of the Church is here (of course, I don’t mean “the Church” to be synonymous with Rome. I think you get that, though). I know there is, somewhere, a body of literature on this, but I’ve not yet begun to dig below the topsoil. I haven’t read either of these two documents in their entirety, so maybe it’s mentioned there and I’m just ignorant.
Looking forward to the discussion. And is that St. Stephen?
Stephen, yes, painted by Giotto.
An interesting article you linked to, Todd. I wish it gave more of Rome’s opinion in the matter, and less crazy speculation.
You made a good point about the growth of evangelicalism in the region. Somehow I doubt that many of the Protestant missionaries kidnap government bureaucrats, or espouse liberation theology, or practise much syncretism. I guess I’d be engaging in crazy speculation myself if I were to wonder whether Rome may want the church in San Cristóbal de las Casas to emulate some of the successes of these missionaries.