Missing from the synod: deacons

An interesting observation from John Allen at NCR:

Here’s a rather striking omission at the synod: So far, nobody’s said anything about deacons.

In the abstract, suppose somebody told you that there’s a corps of 40,000 Catholics out there ready to go to work for the New Evangelization, who have received something like five or six years of hard-nosed formation specifically to equip them to preach the gospel in the modern world, and who can represent the church in an official capacity as ordained ministers. It’s hard not to think that ought to be a fairly significant resource for whatever the “New Evangelization” will end up looking like in practice.

At least in theory, this is exactly what the permanent diaconate is designed to be. Deacons are ministers of the church specifically charged with preaching the gospel, and because most of them are married and have jobs, they’re also ministers with one foot solidly in the secular world – the front lines of where the New Evangelization is supposed to unfold.

Yet so far at the synod, the silence about deacons has been deafening. So far, in the official summaries of synod speeches released by the Vatican Press Office, the word “family” has been mentioned 126 times, “parish” 92, “media” 65, “movements” 37, and some version of “small,” “base,” or “basic communities” 36. Yet the word “deacon” has been invoked only six times, and two of those were because Cardinal Angelo Sodano identified himself as the oldest bishop-deacon in the synod, one was as reference to Philip in the Acts of the Apostles, and the other three were toss-away mentions of “priests and deacons.”

To date, no one has offered any systematic reflection on the role deacons might play, which is especially odd given that in 2000, Pope John Paul II gave an entire speech titled “Deacons as Apostles of the New Evangelization.”

I contacted American Deacon William Ditewig, who served as the U.S. bishops’ staffer on the diaconate and is now involved in building an international study center based at Rome’s Lateran University, for his take on why deacons ought to be at the core of the New Evangelization.

“Deacons are charged in a special way with presenting the gospel of the church to all,” he said. “This is reflected throughout the tradition and is celebrated sacramentally at the deacon’s ordination.  This proclamation is linked to the care of the people in every walk of life.  Since deacons are able to live and move in circles that other ‘sacred ministers’ cannot, then we can be particularly effective in projecting the gospel.”

In Ditewig’s recent book 101 Questions and Answers on Deacons, he describes a statewide meeting where somebody asked a bishop what role he saw for deacons in the next five to ten years. As Ditewig recounts the exchange, the bishop replied that there was a region in his diocese with almost no Catholics that’s known for anti-Catholic attitudes. The bishop said his plan was to “let loose the deacons” in that area, and within five to ten years, he expected the church to be thriving.

One intriguing question about the synod thus becomes: Is anybody going to propose letting the deacons loose?

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