Slaves for Christ

David Oatney Diocese of Knoxville, Vocations

deacon-group-ord.011As we continue our series on vocations in the Church at Life At 25, today we’ve come to a vocation that has touched my life in a personal way because I have been called to formation into that vocation, and that reality has played a roll in why I write entries on this diocesan blog. Among those in the Church who are called to be ordained, there are three levels of ordination, that of deacon, priest, and bishop. No priest ever becomes a priest without being first a deacon, just as no bishop ever becomes a bishop without first being ordained a priest. Priests and bishops are first ordained deacons, and as one of our former instructors, Bishop Joseph Martino, the Bishop Emeritus of Scranton, rightly pointed out “I am a deacon, I will always be a deacon.” Some clerics are called to be bishops, still more are called to exercise the ministry of the presbyterate for their lives in the Church. And then there are those men who are called to exercise the ministry of the diaconate permanently, as their permanent ordained ministry.

Deacons Ordination-158The diaconate or order of deacons as a permanent order of ordained ministry in the Church is not some “new” thing, as some might mistakenly think, that appeared in the Latin Church in the 1960’s and 1970’s after the Second Vatican Council (the Council simply restored the diaconate to its ancient place in the Church). Instead, the ordained vocation of the deacon in the Church is ancient. The apostles ordained the first seven deacons in Acts 6:1-6 specifically to see to the needs of the widows and others among them who needed the Church’s care and charity. The Greek word from which we get the word “deacon” is diakonia, and it literally means servant or (in its most literal sense) slave. St. Paul uses the word in his great hymn to Christ’s Passion and Lordship in Philippians 2:6-11 when the Scripture tells us in verses 7-9 that:

Rather, he emptied himself,taking the form of a slave (diakonia), coming in human likeness and found human in appearance, he humbled himself becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.

deaconsandpope Holy Mother Church considers this passage of Sacred Scripture to be so important that priests, deacons, and religious, along with members of the laity who recite the Liturgy of the Hours, say, sing, or chant this passage as a canticle every Saturday evening in the First Vespers of Sunday. Along with holding up Christ as the ultimate example of obedience, he is held up even more as the supreme example of service-of diakonia-accepting even the Cross. Christ served as the example for those very first deacons, and one of their number, St. Stephen, would become the first martyr for the faith. Like Christ, Stephen emptied himself even unto death. Deacons were found serving in the Church all through the early centuries. St. Lawrence was a great deacon of the Roman Church, and St. Francis of Assisi, the founder of the Order of Friars Minor, lover of the poor, protector of creation, and patron of our present Holy Father, was also a deacon.

Most informed Catholics know that transitional deacons are those deacons who will eventually be ordained to the priesthood, but as many of them will tell you, just as Bishop Martino once told us, that they are deacons, they never stop being deacons, and they continue being deacons even though they go on to become priests. There is a reason for that, and it is because deacons are chiefly ordained and called to serve. Deacons are ministers of the Word, ministers of the altar, and ministers of charity. Charity can take many different forms, from teaching and imparting the faith to others, to feeding the hungry and clothing the naked in a very overt way, to giving aid and comfort to someone in ways we might not expect, but the ministry of charity is ordinary to the deacon, as it has been from the earliest days of the Church.

stoleSince I have been in diaconate formation for the Diocese of Knoxville, it is inevitable that at least once a week I’ll get a question from someone who asks sincerely “how is formation going” or “how are your classes coming along.” Those are queries that are truly difficult to answer in a few words. The reason is not because formation is going badly (quite the contrary!), but because it is not an experience that is easy to explain. From the beginning of formation, we are all reminded that none of this is about us, but it is about others and about service to the Church. Even so, I find myself feeling incredibly blessed to be in spiritual and academic formation with some of the finest men I have ever had the honor and pleasure to meet. Indeed, I often feel as though I am the “least of these” in the truest sense, and that the other men are far more worthy to be in formation than I am. Holy Orders, however, is something that God calls us to through his Church, and Mother Church is rigorous in her desire to determine God’s will. Neither I nor any of the men in our formation class believe that we are entitled to be ordained, but that if we are it is the gift of the Holy Spirit conferred through the Church. It would be entirely disingenuous of me to say that in the course of the last two years I’ve never doubted whether this is God’s call for my life, especially since those of you who know me know that I deal daily with a disability and, among other things, I don’t drive. It is inevitable, then, that I would ask “can I do this,” those kinds of questions are very human. Throughout this process I have felt the hand of Jesus leading me along saying “no you can’t…but I can, follow me.” If you have a vocation from the Holy Spirit, I believe that one of the ways that you can know this is when the Lord begins to open doors for you to follow that path even though the obstacles and the odds are against you, and he has certainly done that in my case thus far.

Jesus-washing-feet-01It strikes me that there are two dominant misconceptions about deacons, both of which are not rooted in reality. The first of which is that deacons are some kind of “junior-grade priest.” I suppose that notion comes from the reality that there are many men who are ordained deacons who go on to become priests, and deacons usually have the faculties to preach, as priests (who are deacons) do. A deacon can be the face of Christ, the hands and arms and feet of Christ, and can serve as Christ did, but a deacon cannot consecrate Our Eucharistic Lord in the Mass, cannot absolve sins in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and cannot give the Sacrament of the Sick. deaconemblemThose are functions of the presbyterate, and the reality that priests must spend a lot of time doing those things is one of the historic reasons for the diaconate. The second misconception is that permanent deacons are glorified altar servers. Deacons assist the bishop and his priests in their ministry and are united with them, not only in ministering at the altar and proclaiming the Word of God, but in the ministry of charity in the name of Christ and his Church. In the good words of our Director of Deacons, Deacon Tim Elliot, “the diaconate is service that has been sacramentalized.” The deacon is called to be conformed to Christ who came not to be served, but to serve.

Permanent deacons can be married before they are ordained, and most are. Those who may not be must commit to chaste celibacy, and those who are will be the husband of one wife, they can’t marry again. Deacons are clergy, and it is important to remember this, because the man who is ordained a deacon will be entering the clerical state. Every deacon that I know is very thankful for the support of his wife, and my wife has been invaluable to me. One important thing to remember about permanent deacons is that unless they are fortunate to have a job with the diocese (a few do), all of them volunteer to do what they do for the Glory of God and the good of souls, which is a big reason why both my wife and the help of my brother Candidates for ordination  has been so important on this journey.

Could God be calling you to be a permanent deacon? It is something to pray about. Be ready to be challenged, be ready to be changed, and open your heart to God’s call.


This entry is part of a series on vocations in the Church.