The introduction to Pope Paul’s second motu proprio on the permanent diaconate continues in a vein somewhat foreign to most Catholics. Here is presented the notion that a deacon is connected to his bishop:
Furthermore, when the writers of the first centuries insist on the importance of the ministry of deacons, they give many examples of the manifold important tasks entrusted to them, and clearly show how much authority they held in the Christian communities and how great was their contribution to the apostate. The deacon is described as “the bishop’s ear, mouth, heart and soul.” (Didiscalia Apostolorum II, 44, 4; ibid., p. 138.) The deacon is at the disposal of the bishop in order that he may serve the whole people of God and take care of the sick and the poor; (Cf. Traditio Apostolica, 39 and 34; La Tradition Apostolique de St. Hippolyte. Essai de reconstitution by B. Botte (Münster, 1963), pp. 87, 91.) he is correctly and rightly called “one who shows love for orphans, for the devout and for the widowed, one who is fervent in spirit, one who shows love for what is good.” (Testamentum D.N. Iesu Christi I, 38, ed. and translated into Latin by I. E. Rahmani (Mainz, 1899), p. 93.) Furthermore, he is entrusted with the mission of taking the holy Eucharist to the sick confined to their homes, (Cf. St. Justin, Apologia I, 65, 5, and 67, 5; St. Justin, Apologiae duae, ed. G. Rauschen (Bonn, 1911), pp. 107, 111.) of conferring baptism, (Cf. Tertullian, De Baptismo XVII, 1: Corpus Christianorum I, Tertulliani Opera, Turnholt (1954), p. 291.) and or attending to preaching the Word of God in accordance with the express will of the bishop.
Except for the last two, these are all apostolates undertaken by the laity. One might ask if the ministries define the office, or if the office defines the ministries. In other words, when lay people are confirmed (spiritually and pastorally speaking rather than officially) in these ministries, are they already de facto deacons? Or are we in a situation in which we have a drastic shortage of deacons, and lay people are just filling the roles till the institution gets its act together?
Accordingly, the diaconate flourished in a wonderful way in the Church, and at the same time gave an outstanding witness of love for Christ and the brethren through the performance of works of charity, (Cf. Didiscalia Apostolorum II, 31, 2: Funk I, p. 112; Testamentum D.N. Iesu Christi I, 31: Rahmani, p. 75.) the celebration of sacred rites, (Cf. Didiscalia Apostolorum II, 57, 6, and 58, 1: Funk I, pp. 162, 166.) and the fulfilment of pastoral duties. (Cf. St. Cyprian, Epist. 15, 16 ed. G. Hartel (Vienna, 1871), pp. 513-520; cf. St. Augustine, De catechezandis rudibus I, cap. I, 1: PL 40, 309-310)
Don’t misunderstand my snark. The question is important, as it impacts on discerning candidates. Maybe there’s no problem with clergy, deacons, and laity working side by side in the works of charity described by early Christian authors. Even if there’s not, are deacon candidates sifted through more for their potential rather than what they’ve demonstrated a calling to do? Keep in mind most young priest candidates have little or no experience in pastoral ministry heading into the seminary. In a sense, they are being trained in a career. Permanent deacons, I find, come to formation with a long track record of service.
What do you think?