Ad Pascendum A: Historical Roots

The 1972 motu proprio, Ad Pascendum “Containing Norms for the Order of Diaconate,” includes a long unnumbered introduction. For the sake of clarity, I’ve lettered the first posts on the apostolic letter.

This introduction makes a Biblical and Patristic case for the diaconate, touching first upon the pragmatic notion that Christ established the Church, and intended its constituent ministries to serve the needs of the people of God:

For the nurturing and constant growth of the people of God, Christ the Lord instituted in the Church a variety of ministries, which work for the good of the whole body. (Lumen Gentium 18)

Saint Paul builds upon the establishment of the diaconate order in Acts 6:

From the apostolic age the diaconate has had a clearly outstanding position among these ministries, and it has always been held in great honor by the Church. Explicit testimony of this is given by the Apostle Paul both in his letter to the Philippians, in which he sends his greetings not only to the bishops but also to the deacons, (Cf. Phil. 1:1.) and in a letter to Timothy, in which he illustrates the qualities and virtues that deacons must have in order to be worthy of their ministry. (Cf. 1 Tim 3:8-13.)

Qualities for the early deacons:

Later, when the early writers of the Church acclaim the dignity of deacons, they do not fall to extol also the spiritual qualities and virtues that are required for the performance of that ministry, namely, fidelity to Christ, moral integrity, and obedience to the bishop.

And some testimony from the early saints. First that the office of deacon is the very ministry of Jesus Christ:

St. Ignatius of Antioch declares that the office of the deacon is nothing other than “the ministry of Jesus Christ, who was with the Father before all ages and has been manifested in the final time.” (Ad Magnesios, VI, 1: Funk, Patres Apostolici 1, p. 235.) He also made the following observation: “The deacons too, who are ministers of the mysteries of Jesus Christ should please all in every way; for they are not servants of food and drink, but ministers of the Church of God.” (Ad Trallianos, II, 3: ibid., p 245.)

Polycarp picks up on the imitation of Christ:

St. Polycarp of Smyna exhorts deacons to “be moderate in all things, merciful, diligent, living according to the truth of the Lord, who became the servant of all.”( Ad Philippenses, V. 2: ibid., pp. 301-303.) The author of the Didascalia Apostolorum, recalling the words of Christ, “Anyone who wants to be great among you must he your servant,” (Mt. 20:26-27.) addresses the following fraternal exhortation to deacons: “Accordingly you deacons also should behave in such a way that, if your ministry obliges you to lay down your lives for a brother, you should do so. . . If the Lord of heaven and earth served us and suffered and sustained everything on our behalf, should not this be done for our brothers all the more by us, since we are imitators of him and have been given the place of Christ?” (Didiscalia Apostolorum III, 13, 2-4: Funk, Didiscalia et Constitutiones Apostolorum I, p. 214.)

This is a heady start for the deacons of the early seventies. Many deacons I know exemplify these qualities indeed in moderate and diligent ways. A question for the deacons reading: are these principles as received from the early saints part of your formation? A part of personal prayer?

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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