JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (CNS) — Bishop W. Shawn McKnight of Jefferson City suggested a revision to an article for a recent issue of The Catholic Missourian, the diocesan newspaper.
Where it said “the word ‘deacon’ is derived from the Greek word, ‘diakonia,’ which means ‘servant,'” he wanted the definition changed to “minister on behalf of another.”
That distinction is a key premise of Bishop McKnight’s book, “Understanding the Diaconate: Historical, Theological and Sociological Foundations,” released this July by The Catholic University of America Press.
“Deacons are messengers. They are go-betweens, they are intermediaries,” Bishop McKnight said. “I see deacons as spiritual entrepreneurs in getting ministries started that are needed but currently don’t exist.”
In the book he draws on theology, scriptural exegesis, history and sociology to cast a renewed vision for the permanent diaconate in the Catholic Church, which he said is by nature both priestly and diaconal.
Deacons animate lay involvement while serving as ambassadors between a bishop and his diocese, between priests and parishes, Bishop McKnight said.
“Those who make decisions in the church benefit from knowing the needs and the desires of the Christian faithful, which deacons bear responsibility for communicating,” he told The Catholic Missourian.
Deacons also extend the ministry of the bishop and that of the priest in showing care and concern for whomever they meet, he stated.
Bishop McKnight noted that St. Paul referred to Christ as the deacon of God.
“Jesus is the word of the Father, and he revealed the Father,” said the bishop, “and all of us are to reveal Jesus to the world around us.”
“In essence, the deacon is involved in supporting everyone else in their role in the church,” he said.
The bishop sees deacons playing an important role in his vision for parishes as centers of mercy and charity. The key is for deacons to be catalysts, encouraging and empowering laypeople to get involved in Christ-centered service.
“All of this will require a lot of imagination and creativity and not being afraid to try something new,” he said.
Bishop McKnight studied the permanent diaconate extensively while pursuing his licentiate and doctorate in sacramental theology at the Pontifical Atheneum of St. Anselm in Rome.
His book is an extension of his doctoral thesis, which he completed under the mentorship of Father James F. Puglisi, a member of the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement.
Having contributed articles to journals and church publications and led retreats and seminars on the Diaconate, Bishop McKnight is scheduled to give a keynote presentation during the 2018 National Diaconate Congress in New Orleans July 22-26.
Bishop McKnight said deacons are “an important tool given back to us by the Second Vatican Council to assist with the overall goal of increasing lay participation in the life and mission of the church.”
Vatican II called for the return of a permanent diaconate in the Latin church, and Blessed Paul VI restored it in 1967. Although the Eastern Catholic churches kept the permanent diaconate, for hundreds of years the Latin church used the diaconate only as a transitional stage to the priesthood.
In 1968 the U.S. bishops petitioned the Vatican for permission to restore the diaconate in this country.
Bishop McKnight sees the diaconate as a gift from God, bestowed on the early church and handed down as part of the deposit of faith.
St. Luke recounts in the Book of Acts that as the church grew, the need arose for ministerial intermediaries between the apostles and groups within the church. Seven leaders, often known as the Seven Deacons, were elected to fill this role.
The bishop noted that Stephen and Philip, who were among the seven, are immediately found preaching and baptizing.
“So deacons from the very beginning were helping overcome problems within and beyond the church — not replacing those in authority but serving in support to them,” he said.
“Deacons are not mini-priests,” he emphasized. “They are not laypeople, either. They are bona fide clergy.”
Like priests and bishops, they receive the sacrament of holy orders, but their vocation is unique. They cannot replace priests.
“We have deacons precisely because we have priests, not because we are lacking priests,” Bishop McKnight said. “They are important auxiliaries, to assist the priests in the fulfillment of their ministry.”
Deacons’ role as collaborators, he noted, “is symbolically manifested in the celebration of the Mass, where they are almost always next to the priest, serving as the priest’s right-hand man.”
“The way they’re involved in the exchange between the nave and the sanctuary, between the people and the priest, manifests the bridge function that the deacon has between his pastor and his flock,” he said.
By carrying the Book of Gospels in procession, proclaiming the Gospel and sometimes preaching the homily, deacons reinforce that they are formally charged with bearing the Word of God.
Also significant is the deacon’s role in leading the general intercessions at Mass.
“Historically, deacons were expected to be the experts on who and what needs to be prayed for,” the bishop said.
At the end of Mass, the deacon is the one who dismisses the people — “Go in peace, glorifying the Lord with your life” — further defining him as a bridge between the altar and everyday life.
“So the question is: How do we use the diaconate to further our obligation, our mission, especially that of our parishes to be centers of mercy and charity?” said Bishop McKnight.
Editor’s Note: Information on ordering Bishop McKnight’s book, “Understanding the Diaconate: Historical, Theological and Sociological Foundations,” can be found at www.cuapress.org.
Nies is editor of The Catholic Missourian, newspaper of the Diocese of Jefferson City.
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