Permanent Diaconate Celebrates Five-Decade Milestone

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The core vocational work of permanent deacons is to evangelize and care for others, not to perform office duties, the apostolic nuncio to the United States said July 22 to more than 1,300 deacons attending the 2018 National Diaconate Congress in New Orleans.

In his post-Communion remarks at the opening Mass of the five-day gathering, Archbishop Christophe Pierre noted that St. John Paul II had declared that the “service of diaconal ministry finds its identity in evangelization.”

“Not (in) doing office work,” but in “evangelizing,” Archbishop Pierre said.

The opening Mass was celebrated in a ballroom holding 2,200 seats. Of the 18,500 permanent deacons in the U.S.—who represent 40 percent of the worldwide total—1,300 permanent deacons attended the July 22-26 conference, along with their wives and children, for a record total of 2,800 attendees.

“I’m quite amazed to see so many deacons and wives of deacons,” the nuncio said.

Recalling the 50th anniversary of the restoration of the permanent diaconate in the Latin-rite Church by Blessed Paul VI through his 1968 “motu proprio” (on his own initiative) titled “Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem,” Archbishop Pierre lauded the permanent deacons for their humble service of charity, proclaiming the word and leading the faith community in prayer.

He echoed Pope Francis’ remarks that defined permanent deacons as “pioneers of the new civilization of love.”

“This is Christ’s call, isn’t it?” Archbishop Pierre asked. “Don’t forget, the job is Jesus’. Otherwise, it is your job, your work, right? No. The work is Christ’s. It is one thing to serve at the altar. It is another to be an evangelizing force in the world.

“In my travels throughout the United States, I’ve seen how permanent deacons continue to serve through their hard work and generous service. Deacons have been able co-workers with their bishops, priests and laity in many dimension of ecclesial life, especially the apostolate works.”

Archbishop Pierre praised the deacons for their works, especially in hospital ministry.

Archbishop Pierre offered the personal greetings of Pope Francis and said the permanent diaconate has “flourished” in the last half-century, “particularly here in the United States, where deacons carry out their threefold diaconal ‘munera’ of word, charity and liturgy.”

He asked the deacons and their wives to reflect on the words of dismissal at Mass, often spoken by the deacon—“Go forth, the Mass is ended”; “Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord”; “Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life”; “Go in peace.”

“Share the peace of Christ with all those you meet—your family first—your friends and even your enemies,” Archbishop Pierre said. “Be instruments of the gift of peace. Thank you and thanks be to God for you and your service to the Church and for all those who have supported you.”

In his homily at the opening Mass, New Orleans Archbishop Gregory M. Aymond stressed the deacon’s role in being the “conscience” of the Church in matters of service to the poor and disenfranchised.

“All Christians are called to charity by their baptism, but deacons lead us as a Church in the works of charity,” he said. “We look to you in some ways as the conscience of the Church. We ask you to find those who are in need and to invite us to serve them. And when we forget them or fail to be people of charity as a Church, we ask you to be our conscience and to call us back to what God asks.”

While the ministry of the deacon has changed in the Catholic Church’s history, Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin of Newark said deacons today are a sign of what Christians are called to be in their service of God and neighbor.

Speaking at the National Diaconate Congress on July 23, Cardinal Tobin said the diaconate is crucial to the Church’s life. Deacons have a threefold ministry of “word, sacrament and charity ...permeated by a commitment to charity and justice.”

“The deacon brings the Church’s ordained ministry to every dimension of human life—from workplace, marketplace to home, to school, to hospital, nursing home and prison.”

Cardinal Tobin traced the permanent diaconate’s restoration to its mention at the Council of Trent in the mid-16th century. Five centuries later, the Second Vatican Council finally implemented it.

Are deacons necessary today? “The answer must be a resounding yes,” Cardinal Tobin said. “And, not simply as a stepping-stone to the priesthood or as a remedy to the shortage of priests.”

He said that “a deacon’s actions at the altar reflect his identity of serving others, leading the cry for mercy in the penitential rite, guiding the faithful in his baptismal call to pray through the intercessions, assisting the priest in preparing the altar, calling the faithful in expressing their unity of peace prior to making that unity a reality in the reception of Eucharist.”

Those in the audience laughed when he mentioned that the deacon, not the priest, even if it is the pope, has the last word at Mass in dismissing the faithful.

The dismissal, he said, “can help the assembly understand where the mission of the Church can take them. A permanent deacon is not a glorified altar server. There should be an unmistakable link between the service during the Eucharist and as visible witness to the Eucharist as a mystery to be lived.”

He repeated St. John Paul II’s words about the unique challenges and contributions that a deacon and his wife make to the Church.

“The deacon and his wife must be a living example of the fidelity and indissolubility in Christian marriage before a world in dire need of such signs…They strengthen the family not only of the Church community but the whole of society… They show how the obligations of family, work and ministry can be harmonized in the service of the Church’s mission.”

He believes permanent deacons have a second gift: to close the chasm between faith and love, a chasm that divides the Eucharist from daily life. By their “deceivingly simple gesture” at the Eucharistic table dismissing the assembly at Mass’ conclusion, he believes deacons can close this gap.

“It is the deacon who has the final word: ‘The Mass has ended, go in peace,’” he said. —CNS

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