Msgr. Michael K. Magee

The Challenge of Jesus today

Four weeks ago the front page of the Catholic Standard & Times featured an article announcing the re-opening of admissions to the program of formation for permanent deacons in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. This announcement provides an occasion to reflect on this important ministry that takes us back to the Church’s own origins. Yet it is subject to certain misunderstandings.

According to one misunderstanding, the diaconate, as the Order of Deacons is called, is regarded by some as a sort of emergency measure to supply for the current shortage of priests. Thus, instead of going “the whole way” in priestly formation, married men would be ordained “only” to the diaconate and thus be empowered to fulfill some of the functions that fill the gap. According to such a view, the permanent diaconate should perhaps be abolished once there are again enough priests. {{more}}

The truth is that while ordination to the diaconate is a necessary preliminary step for men who are advancing toward the priesthood, the diaconate was never instituted merely as such a step, but has always been a distinct ministerial order in the Church by which men are ordained, as St. Hippolytus said already in the third century, “not to the priesthood but to the ministry,” to serve specifically in the three ministries of the word, of the altar and of charity.

The time when there were no deacons except those passing through on the way to the priesthood was the real abnormality within the scope of the Church’s history.

On the other hand, there are some who seem wrongly to regard the deacon’s ministry in purely practical terms, as a creation of the Church’s own pastors to get certain things done. There are indeed certain kinds of service in the Church that arise in this way.

In the Bible and the ancient writings, these kinds of service may even be called diakonia, since that word simply means “ministry” or “service” in Greek. But the ordained diaconate is something of a very different kind.

The laying on of hands and the conferral of sacramental grace mark his ministry as something more than merely his own work. When a validly ordained deacon preaches the homily it is Christ who is speaking to His people by virtue of the sacrament that the deacon has received. When the Deacon performs various kinds of service in the Church it is Christ Himself who is tending to His Church in a very unique way through that ministry.

The Church and every member of her has a diakonia to the world, but God has chosen certain members of the Church to have a diakonia to the Church herself. The Second Vatican Council has taught that these, together with priests and bishops, constitute for all time the three levels of ordained ministry in the Church (Lumen gentium, n. 28).

Upon the announcement of the re-opening of admissions to the program in the Archdiocese, the Catholic Standard & Times received a letter expressing regret that the ministry was not open to women. Yet this regret seems to be based on a misunderstanding of the two different kinds of diakonia in the Church.

While there were women in the early Church – just as today – who provided service, these did not constitute an order of sacramentally constituted ministers such as the diaconate has always been. They did not preach or minister at the altar in the same way as ordained deacons, though they did baptize women, which was necessary since baptism was administered to the candidate who was completely unclothed.

Undoubtedly, theological research may still delve more deeply into the meaning of Christ’s choice to call only men to the ranks of official ministry in the Church. However, the Church has already articulated rather clearly the fact that she does not have the authority to call women to the priesthood. Since the diaconate constitutes a different order within the same sacrament of holy orders, the same seems necessarily to apply to it as well.

There may not be anything in the purely functional aspect of ministerial work, of course, that requires one particular gender rather than the other. But if this ministry is then sealed by a sacrament to become a sign – indeed a sort of icon – not of the inspanidual’s service to the community, but of Christ the Bridegroom’s own care for His Bride the Church, then gender is in fact quite relevant here.

Does it not seem better to be thankful for God’s gift to His Church rather than to lament that He did not choose a different manner of giving it?

Msgr. Michael K. Magee is a faculty member at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, Wynnewood.