An important consideration to make when trying to understand the vocation of deacons within the life of the Church is first to identify the ‘right’ question to ask about them. To begin with, we should try to resist the temptation to simple ask, “What can a deacon do or not do?” This is normally asked by way of comparison with the ministry of the priest, in which case we risk seeing the deacon, sadly, as ‘less than’ the priest rather than distinct from him. Instead begin by asking, “Who is the deacon?”.
Deacons are not mini-priests, or father’s helpers, or enhanced lay people. Deacons are ordained to be the sacramental sign and presence of Christ the Suffering Servant, “who came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (cf. Matthew 20:28). The vocation of the deacon is complimentary to that of the priest and it is distinct from it. Together the priest and the deacon take a share in the ministry of the bishop, who’s ministry is that of Jesus Christ the High Priest.
In the Church’s hierarchy the deacon sits below the priest who sits below the Bishop, yet beautifully the deacon goes ahead of all in ordained ministry for all are admitted to Holy Orders by way of humble servanthood – the diaconate. The diaconal character of ordained service therefore sets an indelible foundation and mandate for deacon, priest and bishop alike.
“Believe what you read, teach what you believe,
and practice what you teach.”
- Words of the Bishop at the Ordination of a Deacon
The deacon’s vocation is one of service. But what and who is he called to serve? Once he is ordained in the Mass he goes before the Bishop and kneels to receive the Book of the Gospels. The Bishop then instructs him with the words, “Believe what you read, teach what you believe, and practise what you teach.” So, the deacon is servant of the gospel of Jesus Christ and servant of the Church, the People of God. An awesome privilege and blessed burden!
The Church lays before us all the three-fold ministry of the deacon: He is servant (and minister) of the Word, servant of altar, and servant of charity. These are outward expressions of ‘who’ the deacon is at his core.
Servant of the Word: The deacon is called to proclaim the Gospel in the Mass and at other solemn gatherings of the People. He is called to preach the homily at Mass and generally help the People understand the Scriptures. So, when the deacon preaches at Mass he is not simply giving the priest a week off that duty, rather he is fulfilling an important aspect of his ministry as deacon. In taking into his heart and attentively living out the Word of God in his daily life and to the best of his ability, with the help of God’s grace, he is bearing witness to the gospel and so serving the Word of God!
Servant of the Altar: When the deacon is officiating at Mass he is modelling service for the Christian life for all the whole Church to see and imitate. At the same time, he is carrying out a real and practical work assisting the Bishop (or priest) and People. The Church teaches that the deacon, in the Liturgy, is a bridge between the sanctuary/altar and the pews, between the priest and the People. This is why, for example, the deacon (usually) issues instructions such as calling us to proclaim the mystery of faith, reads the prayers of intercessions, invites the people to share the sign of peace, and issues the dismissal at the end of Mass. This role is real and practical, but it is also, crucially, meant to be an indicator of his broader role in the Church – a visible sign of service so that all might do likewise in their daily lives. To express it this way: the priest is called to be as Christ in the church, celebrating and administering the Sacraments; the deacon is called to be as Christ in the world, celebrating and heralding the Word of God in action. A powerful image of this is seen when the deacon processes into church at the beginning of Mass carrying high the Book of the Gospels. Together the deacon and the priest collaborate in support of the ministry of the Bishop, who himself represents and makes present to us the fullness of Christ’s ministry as High Priest.
Servant of Charity: The first deacons - seven men of good repute - were called from the community to serve their Bishop (cf. Acts 6:2-4), assisting him in many and varied practical tasks. This freed the Bishop to devote more time to prayer and celebrating the sacraments. From the earliest times the diaconate found its ‘niche’, as it were, serving the needs of the poor, homeless and the destitute - distributing alms to widows, etc. Many great deacons such as St Francis of Assisi provide powerful examples of this sort of ‘service of Charity’ for us all. By their work in this ministry, deacons reveal, and render present today, Christ the deacon who sat (sits) with outcasts and ate (eats) with sinners. They remind us of the Lord’s servant kingship. This is a most fulfilling part of my ministry both in general terms and as a military chaplain in the Royal Air Force – a ministry of accompaniment! I so often find myself with people ‘outside’ the Church, or on the margins of the Church, who crave God’s love in their lives – even if they don’t know it is actually Christ whom they crave! As a deacon in military chaplaincy I am called to a sacramental ministry which is exercised on the margins; called and sent to exercise a service of Word, Altar and Charity out in the world. The diaconal way is a way of blessed obscurity!
Please pray for greater awareness and acceptance of the ministry of deacons and for vocations to the diaconate.
Prayer: Lord God, we give you thanks that you have given us the ministry of deacons in the Church to be a sure sign and a powerful reminder that all are called to be servants of one another. We pray for a fulsome acceptable of the permanent diaconate within the Church and for its nurturing within the community of faith, so that by the witness of their lives of service we all might be inspired to imitate our Lord, Jesus Christ, who reached out in love to the marginalised and the outcast, welcoming them all as your beloved sons and daughters. Amen
Deacon Dave Skillen. Principal RC Chaplain, RAF
Photo. Dn Dave Proclaims the Gospel at the final Mass at the former Memorial Church of the Holy Family,
RAF Halton. July 2018.
A New book!
No Ordinary Shepherds
Padres in World War II
In 2017 Dr James Hagerty published Priests in Uniform: Catholic Chaplains to the British Forces in the First World War. One reviewer described it as ‘a clear, well-researched and authoritative study…with inspiring stories.’ Another wrote: ‘This moving and vivid account recalls the dedicated ministry of priests who ministered to men engaged in a war without precedent.’
In No Ordinary Shepherds: Catholic Chaplains to the British Forces in the Second World War James Hagerty again shows how Catholic service personnel, away from home and frequently in life-threatening circumstances, identified with their chaplain − the focus of their faith community in uniform. For individuals and groups, the padre brought the presence of the Church, the comfort of prayer, and the power of the sacraments into the midst of war.
Chaplains ministered in an unfamiliar and dangerous world, with all services in all theatres of war. They encountered men and women, military and civilian, far removed from their usual way of life and familiar social relationships. They were confronted with circumstances, attitudes and personalities beyond their experience. Their ministry was an immediate, practical and difficult apostolate requiring faith, courage and fortitude. Some chaplains were killed; others were wounded. Many were decorated for bravery. Their military service was a profound individual and collective Christian witness.
Bishop Paul Mason wrote: ‘This is a thoroughly researched account of devoted priests who fulfilled their vocation in the most unusual and unexpected ways. No Ordinary Shepherds is an appropriate tribute to their heroic labours’.
James Hagerty, No Ordinary Shepherds: Catholic Chaplains to the British Forces in the Second World War is to be published by Gracewing in Autumn 2020 ()