Earlier this month, fittingly on June 9th, the feast of the holy deacon St. Ephrem of Syria, Bishop Alexander Sample of Marquette, Michigan issued a pastoral letter entitled, “The Deacon: Icon of Jesus Christ the Servant.” This pastoral letter is a welcome contribution to the body of teaching on the permanent diaconate, which has been restored in the West since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).
Even the title of the pastoral letter is instructive. Deacons receive the Sacrament of Holy Orders, and thus are clerics. There is no such thing as a “lay deacon.” Yet deacons do not share in the priesthood of bishops and priests. Rather, they are ordained for diakonia, or service. They sacramentalize the Church’s call to imitate Christ, who came not to be served, but to serve (Mark 10:45). The deacon exercises this sacred ministry through the Word, the liturgy, and especially acts of charity. So, as the pastoral letter’s title suggests, the deacon should be a living image, or icon, of Jesus Christ the Servant.
It’s disappointing that the good of this pastoral letter has been dampened by excessive attention to Bishop Sample’s commentary that the deacon’s preaching at Mass should not be “scheduled” or “routine.” One of the better commentaries on the subject was offered by Deacon Keith Fournier at Catholic Online. Bishop Sample’s application of Church law on this subject is only for the Diocese of Marquette and is probably in response to specific pastoral issues that have arisen in that diocese. Further, his words should not be interpreted as meaning that the deacon’s faculties to preach are extraordinary, such that he should only preach when the priest has last-minute laryngitis or writer’s cramp.
We will come back to the vocation to the permanent diaconate again at this blog, but I thought I would close for now with the words of Blessed John Paul II, in a 1987 address to deacons during a visit to the United States:
“Since deacons are ministers of the Word, the Second Vatican Council invites you to constant reading and diligent study of the Sacred Scriptures, lest–if you are a preacher–you become an empty one for failing to hear the Word in your own heart (cf. Dei Verbum, 25). In your lives as deacons you are called to hear and guard and do the Word of God, in order to be able to proclaim it worthily. To preach to God’s people is an honor that entails a serious preparation and real commitment to holiness of life.”