Rev. Mr. Owen F Cummings
years following Vatican Council II, there has been a
proliferation of substantive books and articles on
the priesthood, both on theological issues and on
more pastoral issues. The permanent diaconate has
not fared as well, at least in English. Apart from
the key essays of Karl Rahner in his Theological
the major books available are: Edward P. Echlin, The
Deacon in the Church: Past and Future,
James M. Barnett, The Diaconate: A Full and Equal
John N. Collins, Diakonia; Re-Interpreting the
In my judgment, the major reasons for this paucity
of publications is that the diaconate is still very
young, and needs more time to generate substantial
theological reflection from within its own ranks.
This essay on the permanent diaconate
is a modest contribution that reflects on various
images of the diaconate, various ways in which the
diaconate is perceived. These reflections
deliberately oscillate between experience and
theology. At this time, debate continues about the
role of experience in theology, about what
experience might mean, about the role of community
in the formation of experience.
My approach is to see the community as the primary
formative factor in Christian experience, but at the
same time, to acknowledge that the individual
appropriates experience and gives personal shape to
it in the light of individual circumstances and
reflection. This oscillation will yield different
images and characteristics of the diaconate by
exploring the Church's rites of ordination and
marriage, and by examining some perceptions of the
diaconate as it is actually lived out. Let us begin
with diaconal ordination and marriage.
2. Diaconal Ordination
The majority of permanent deacons throughout the world
are married. There are, however, three categories of
exception: permanent deacons who are celibate prior
to ordination; permanent deacons who are widowed;
permanent deacons who are divorced. In talking about
the two diaconal sacraments of ordination and
marriage, and the images of the deacon emergent from
these, I have in mind the majority who are married,
but in order to avoid any suggestion of
exclusiveness, and, therefore of possible
alienation, attention must also be given to these
other three categories of deacon.
If we return to the charter of the
diaconate in Lumen Gentium 29, it is noticeable that
little is said of marriage and the diaconate:
"Should the Roman Pontiff think fit, it will be
possible to confer this diaconal order even upon
married men, provided they be of more mature age..."
Nothing more is said. Marriage in relation to the
diaconate is both undeveloped and underdeveloped -
but perhaps the experience of marriage is the
ingredient necessary for such development to occur.
My intention in this
part of the presentation is three-fold: first, to
conduct a brief examination of the respective rites
of ordination and marriage, both fruitfully
understood as sacraments of service, literally
diaconal sacraments; second, to affirm that the
sacrament of marriage is also a sacrament of
encounter with the living mystery of God-in-Christ,
co-equal in that respect with the other sacraments,
in particular with holy orders; third, that the
meaning of service/diakonia is central to the
tradition of Catholicism because it reflects the
3. An Examination of the Rites of Marriage and Ordination
There is a tendency, at least at the popular level,
to think of the sacraments of marriage and orders as
equivalent to the celebration of the rites. Thus,
one hears people say, "I was married so many years
ago", or "I was ordained so many years ago". This
way of understanding is most inadequate. The
sacrament in both cases consists in the entire lives
of the married and the ordained until death. The
sacrament begins with the public celebration of the
rite but does not end there. That is why for example
getting married in church, that is, with the rite of
Catholic marriage, means so very little unless being
Church for the couple is an important priority. It
is essentially being Church that makes the marriage
fully sacramental, Church understood as the
fundamental sacrament of Christ, Christ understood
as the fundamental sacrament of God.
A further point needs to be made
about the sacramental rites of the Church. The
Church has traditionally taught the axiom that lex
orandi statuat legem credendi: the rule or shape of
the Church's worship is the primary and fundamental
and most important articulation and expression of
the Church's teaching and doctrine. Aidan Kavanagh
views the liturgy as theologia prima and all other
theological expressions as theologia secunda.
Thus, if one wants to grasp the essence of the
Church's views and teaching on marriage, one should
go to the rite of marriage first before turning to
secondary sources, however fine they may be.
The Rite of Marriage begins with the
priest or deacon addressing the couple to be married
with these or similar words: "My dear friends, you
have come together in this church in the presence of
the Church's minister and this community. Christ
abundantly blesses this love. He has already
consecrated you in baptism and now he enriches and
strengthens you by a special sacrament so that you
may assume the duties of marriage in mutual and
In this address, baptism is recognised as the basic
sacrament, out of which marriage has grown; marriage
is described as a sacrament of enrichment and
strengthening; and the duties of marriage are to be
assumed in mutual and lasting fidelity. The minister
then proceeds to ask the couple; "... have you come
here freely and without reservation to give
yourselves to each other in marriage? Will you love
and honour each other as man and wife for the rest
of your lives?" Marriage is self-gift, one to the
other, "for the rest of your lives". Faithfulness
and permanence are emphasized. The faithful,
self-gift, one to the other, is then pledged in the
declaration of consent by the bride and the groom,
and is given expression in the exchange of rings, in
the name of the Trinity.
The Rite of Ordination
of a deacon commences with the calling and
presentation of the candidate, the election by the
bishop and the consent of the assembly. After the
homily there takes place the examination of the
candidate, in which the bishop asks five questions
about his willingness to serve the people of God,
according to the mind of Church. The promise of
obedience to the bishop then follows, and after the
Litany of Saints, the laying on of hands and the
prayer of consecration. This beautiful prayer
contains the following words: "Almighty God... You
make the Church, Christ's Body, grow to its full
stature as a new and greater temple. You enrich it
with every kind of grace and perfect it with a
diversity of members to serve the whole body in a
wonderful pattern of unity. You established a
threefold ministry of worship and service for the
glory of your name... Lord, send forth upon him the
Holy Spirit, that he may be strengthened by the gift
of your sevenfold grace to carry out faithfully the
work of the ministry... May he in this life imitate
your Son, who came not to be served but to serve,
and one day reign with him in heaven..." The prayer
describes ordination as an enrichment and
strengthening to serve faithfully in self-gift the
local Church. Finally, the deacon is invested with
the stole and dalmatic, and presented with the book
of the gospels.
A careful reading of
both the Rite of Marriage and the Rite of Ordination
indicates very close similarities between them. Both
marriage and ordination are sacraments of enrichment
and strengthening; both are sacraments of
self-donation, to one's spouse, and to the local
church through the bishop; both sacraments are
permanent; both have external signs of fidelity and
of the pledge made.
4. Marriage as a Sacrament of Encounter Co-Equal with
the Other Sacraments.
No one would question for a moment that the
sacrament of Holy Orders invites and enables the
ordinand to encounter and engagement with
God-in-Christ. Sometimes, however, there is a sense
that the sacrament of marriage is not quite equal in
this regard. Central to the sacrament of marriage is
the right ordering of sexuality, one of the most
powerful of human forces and dynamics. Yet there is
a certain reluctance to acknowledge the experience
of sexuality as God-given, and a mediating encounter
with God. Probing the reasons for this reluctance
would demand a multi-disciplinary, co-operative
effort, but some words of Karl Rahner might alert us
to the central importance of the issue: "It must
always be borne in mind... that in a true theology
of marriage, marriage must really and truly not be
regarded as a mere concession to human weakness (a
conception attempted over and over again by an
almost manichaean intellectual undercurrent in the
Church), but must be seen to have an absolutely
positive and essential function, not only in the
private Christian life of certain individuals, but
also in the Church. Marriage, understood as a
sacramentally consecrated union, is both in and for
the Church the concrete and real representation and
living example of the mystery of Christ's union with
Our experience tells us that Rahner, retrieving the
Church's traditional affirmations of marriage and
marital sexuality here, is absolutely right. The
bliss of falling in love with someone, the
experience of love-making, the intensity of our
attraction to another person - the cumulative,
positive impact of these experiences suggests
powerfully that human sexuality is of God, and is
not outwith the presence of God.
A powerful, narrative statement of
the human-Christian reluctance to grasp the
spirituality, the sacredness of sexuality is
available in Alan Paton's novel, Too Late the
Phalarope. In this story one of the central
characters, Pieter van Vlaanderen, a devout South
African Christian and a policeman, has a very
difficult and taxing relationship with his wife,
Nella. Nella has had a strict, Calvinist upbringing,
as a result of which she cannot believe that human
sexual pleasure is a good thing. In the course of
the novel, Pieter speaks as follows: "And I wanted
to cry out at her that I could not put the body
apart from the soul, and that the comfort of her
body was more than a thing of the flesh, but was
also a comfort of the soul, and why it was I could
not say, and why it should be, I could not say, but
there was in it nothing that was ugly or evil, but
only good. But how can one find such words?"
Sexuality is not of the soul which she equates with
goodness, and therefore, sexuality cannot be of God.
She subscribes to the latent manichaeanism of which
Rahner speaks and not to the Hebrew and Christian
doctrine of creation, with its basis in the creation
narratives of the Book of Genesis. In the account of
Gen.1:1-2:4a, the nucleus of the meaning of creation
is found in the refrain, "And God saw that it was
good", the refrain being repeated in 1:10, 12, 18,
After the creation of male and female in the image
of God (vv. 26-27), that is, after the creation of
sexuality, comes the affirmation of v.31: "And God
saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was
very good." Sexuality in the creation account is
God's good gift.
In the early centuries of nascent Christianity, the
omnipresent Platonic and Neo-platonic equation of
often to a low view of the body, and, therefore, to
a low estimate of human sexuality: If, eschewing
this Platonic dualism of soul-body and espousing the
anthropology of en-souled bodies or embodied souls,
then there emerges a more balanced view of the
person, consonant with the doctrine of creation.
Robert McAfee Brown describes the human person
nicely like this: "... a total being who can do many
different things - think, fight, remember, love,
anticipate, copulate, sing, laugh, imagine. All the
activities can be used for good ends, all can be
abused and turned to evil ends."
Human sexuality and spirituality are not opposites,
but are intimately and inseparably bound together.
A clear and tragic example of the
negative consequences of failing to recognize this
offers itself is the person of the great Danish
thinker, Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855).
In 1841 he became engaged to Regina Olsen. Fearing
that marriage might distract him from a total
commitment and love of God, he broke off the
engagement. The Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber,
comments on Kierkegaard's decision: "That is
sublimely to misunderstand God. Creation is not a
hurdle on the road to God, it is the road itself. We
are created along with one another and directed to a
life with one another. Creatures are placed in my
way so that I, their fellow-creature, by means of
them and with them, find the way to God. A God
reached by their exclusion would not be the God of
all lives in whom all life is fulfilled... God wants
us to come to (God) by means of the Reginas (God)
has created, and not by renunciation of them."
5. Celibacy, Widowhood, Divorce
The celibate, permanent deacon is a complementary sign
to the encounter with God in and through marital
sexuality. He is not a better sign, nor a more
valuable sign - such distortions are human
projections rather than a real reading of the
situation. The fullness of the sign of celibacy
resides in the deacon's ability to be more freely at
the service of the Church. In the course of the
ordination, the bishop addresses the deacon in these
words: "... you will be more freely at the service
of God and mankind, and you will be more untrammeled
in the ministry of Christian conversion and
There has been very little reflection
on the widowed deacon. The only such reflection that
I have come across is from a deacon's wife. The
widowed deacon continues, of course, to be a deacon,
a servant of the Church, but his service is now
invested with two special contributions in the area
of Christian suffering and love: Christian theology
has no tight conceptual answer or response to the
problem of suffering, in this case suffering the
absence of a loved one.
Bette Midler, the American singer and actress, has a
great song "From a Distance", a spiritual song in
which God sees our world and has compassion on it
"from a distance". A great song, but bad theology!
God entered into our world as a man, knows our
humanity from the inside, and knows the experience
of abandonment in death from the inside. This has
been finely developed by the late Hans Urs von
Balthasar, especially in his Mysterium Paschale.
For Balthasar, God is not distant from the
experience of suffering and death, because he has
been there in the experience of Jesus. The widowed
deacon knows in his heart and soul the experience of
abandonment, the loneliness in the death of his
wife. "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?",
are words written on the widowed heart. But even in
this experience the deacon serves by proclaiming
that he is not alone in his suffering.
The widowed deacon, because of his
public position and ministry in the Church, can
become an effective sacrament of the suffering and
abandoned Christ, and through that experience may be
able to witness more sensitively to others. The
widowed deacon's service is also to be a vibrant
sacrament of hope. In the "Preface of Christian
Death I", in masses for the dead, we read, "Lord,
for your faithful people, life is changed, not
ended." The widowed deacon in the Catholic Church
stands also as sacrament of the Church's hope that,
in Julian of Norwich's beautiful words, "All shall
be well... all manner of things shall be well."
Out of his hope he can serve others, especially in
similar circumstances. Bishop Dale J. Melczek,
chairman of the Bishops' Committee on the Permanent
Diaconate in the United States, describes ministry
in the Church in terms which lend strong support to
this understanding of the widowed deacon's service.
He writes: "The task of those in the Church's
ordained ministry is principally to mediate the very
presence, life and being of God to the Church, where
the living God is continually revealed through
Christ in the Holy Spirit."
The widowed deacon mediates the sense of God's
strong solidarity in the suffering of his people
and, through that conviction of solidarity, a
profound sense of hope.
Something similar is true of the
divorced deacon although little gets said of him.
Divorce is a most complicated matter, but it is a
legal statement that the relationship of marriage
has broken down irretrievably. The Church finds the
situation of the divorced deacon very difficult
because of the clear, ecclesial teaching on the
indissolubility of marriage, and also because of the
public, ecclesial role of the deacon. How is one to
comment on this most sensitive issue? The recent
work of the accomplished Christian novelist, Susan
Howatch, is helpful here. In her novel Absolute
the Anglican Bishop of Starbridge, Dr. Charles
Ashworth, is faced with the request to receive a
divorced priest, Lewis Hall, into his diocese.
Ashworth contemplates all the possible problems, for
example, the possibility of scandal, the issue of
re-marriage, the awkward social situation of such a
clergyman at diocesan events. As it happens,
however, Lewis Hall becomes an instrument of God's
grace not only to the run-down parish in which he
serves, but also to the spiritual life of Dr.
Ashworth himself. One thinks of the Pauline theme of
strength being made perfect in weakness.
Just as the widowed deacon may become a sign of
God's nearness and hope in suffering, so the
divorced may also become a tangible, living sign of
hope. Our flawed human nature, the consequence and
expression of original sin, which infects our lives
and relationships, does not have the last word. With
God's grace, and ongoing spiritual direction and
discernment, the divorced deacon may have an ongoing
role and witness and contribution in the Church.
6. Self Donation and God
The images of the diaconate which we have looked at so
far spring from or are related to the sacraments of
marriage and ordination. They find their unifying
focus in the notion of self-donation, self-gift. The
essence of the diaconate is self-gift:
the donation of self to one's spouse in marriage,
the donation of self to the Church in holy orders.
It is interesting to speculate on why this notion of
self-donation is so important, so critical in the
Christian tradition. The following thoughts are but
the beginnings of an attempt to explore an answer.
central to the tradition of Christianity because it
reflects and participates in the very reality of the
triune God. God creates and redeems. Did God have to
create? Is there some inherent necessity for God to
create? The traditional answer is in the negative.
God needed and needs nothing to be complete. Why,
then, does God create? The traditional answer of St.
Thomas Aquinas is diaconate/self-donation/self-gift.
Or, as Aquinas would have put it: "Bonum est
diffusivum sui." Goodness is diffusive of itself.
Goodness is like that, and the good God finds
"natural" expression, so to speak, in giving of
himself, in diaconate, in self-donation.
Historically, debate has taken place
about whether in order to redeem our fallen world,
God had to become human, to suffer and to die. For
example, Aquinas denies that incarnation was
necessary for the restoration of humanity, "if
'necessary' means that people could have not been
restored without it."
The debate is often regarded as futile today,
because God did become incarnate, suffer and die.
But perhaps there is an insight in the debate. If
the incarnation and the cross were unnecessary, why
did God act in this way? The answer is because
self-gift/self-donation/diaconate is like that. It
counts not the cost. John Macquarrie puts it like
this: "lf we think of creation as taking place
through that outgoing aspect of God's being which we
call his Word, the second Person of the Trinity,
then we can say that already in that eternal Word
the suffering Messiah is included. For God was
putting something of himself into the creation from
the beginning, and eventually he must find perfect
expression in the creation.
For the creation is no casual
production. God cares about it, and especially for
those creatures whom he has made capable of
communion with himself. Wherever there is caring,
there is vulnerability and suffering, or at least
the readiness to suffer.
The self-donation of
God in creation reaches its unique climax in the
total self-donation of Jesus on the cross. It is the
same divine pattern of self-donation/diaconate that
is the essence of marriage and diaconal ordination.
The self-donation that is God wants to have and to
hold, from the moment of creation onwards, for
better for worse, in sickness and in health, until
the final expression of self-donation in death. The
self-donation that is God is willing to carry out
the work of ministry, that is service, in creation
until the climactic moment of service that is the
redemptive death of Jesus on the cross.
7. Dysfunctional Images of the Diaconate: The Deacon and the Church
In looking at images of the diaconate in terms of
self-gift, self-donation, it is also important to
have regard to negative or dysfunctional images of
the diaconate. Self-knowledge demands nothing less.
There are dysfunctional traits that concern the
deacon and the Church, as well as the deacon and his
With regard to the
deacon and the Church one may point to five
dysfunctional characteristics that impede
diakonia/self-donation to the Church: ritualism,
clericalism, anti-intellectualism, crusadism,
Ritualism is the tendency of deacons
to get hung up on liturgical rites rather than
attending to authentic liturgical service. A proper
attendance to liturgical rites is not ritualism.
Knowing the rites in detail, using them in personal
prayer and spirituality, in such a way that the
liturgy flows smoothly and with dignity enhances
diaconal participation and serves the assembly.
However, this does not always occur: Bishop John F.
Kinney, addressing the "National Catholic Diaconate
Conference" in New Orleans last year, had some
critical remarks about the liturgical ministry of
deacons: "Deacons need to be excellent in the
liturgy, not second-rate as some of them are
perceived to be. It takes study and practice and
preparation. I know of no other way to be a good
liturgist than study, practice and preparation."
The deacon must strive for excellence in the liturgy
because, as "The General Instruction on the Roman
Missal" has it, he "has first place among the
or in the expression of Aidan Kavanagh, "he is the
assembly's prime minister".
The deacon's role as "butler in God's house, major
domo of its banquet, master of its ceremonies"
demands the excellent liturgical performance that
enables prayerful participation by the entire
assembly, including the other ministers.
This is not ritualism, but service.
A symptom of ritualism
is when a deacon gets upset when someone else usurps
his place in the liturgy, by word or action,
intentionally or unintentionally. Confusion about or
ignorance of the liturgical role of a deacon is
widespread, and should be engaged by more adequate
liturgical education. But the identity of a deacon
should not be so tied to the minutiae of the liturgy
in such a way that he feels diminished when this
confusion or ignorance occurs.
The second dysfunctional
characteristic is clericalism. Clericalism is
defined in The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian
Church as follows: "A term, often used in an
opprobrious sense, for an excessively professional
attitude of outlook, conversation, or conduct on the
part of clergymen, or for the imitation of a
supposedly clerical manner by lay persons..."
Expanding this pejorative definition, Bishop
Melczek describes clericalism as "an ordained
ministry that has grown fat, self-servicing and
A deacon is a cleric. He is in Holy Orders and,
contrary to what some think, he is not a "lay
minister". There are times, it seems to me, when a
deacon should dress clerically in order to signal
his liturgical sacramental role in the community,
and the better to enable his ministerial service.
That is not what is intended by "clericalism".
Clericalism occurs where a deacon is concerned about
his status vis-à-vis the bishop, the priests and the
laity. Clericalism happens when a deacon feels
unaccepted, unappreciated, unaffirmed, especially by
others in Holy Orders, and then compensates for this
relationship deficit by over-emphasizing his
dysfunctional trait is anti-intellectualism.
Sometimes, one hears clergy, both priests and
deacons, playing off the "pastoral" over against the
"theological". The pastoral work, the pastoral
demands of the Church, figure largely in their
perceptions, and rightly so, but not when theology
is seen as marginal to that work. Indeed, sometimes
one hears clergy formally denouncing theology as
irrelevant to ministry and to spirituality.
There is a widespread attitude in
society that "elevates activity at the expense of
thought and disciplined study, which devalues pure
research in favor of applied, which turns the word
'academic' into a word of criticism, a synonym for
'irrelevant', 'impractical' or 'niggling'... And
this mood has invaded the Church."
This is anti-intellectualism, and it is incredible
for a deacon for two reasons.
First, it shows a most naive attitude
to both pastoral work and to prayer and
spirituality. When a deacon is working in the area
of marriage, he is working necessarily with some
understanding of marriage. That is theology. The
presuppositions that he brings to his pastoral work
are theological. Or, if a deacon is working with
preparation for infant baptism, or with the Order
for the Christian Initiation of Adults, an entire
host of theological presuppositions comes into play
here: What is a sacrament? What is the relation
between nature and grace? What is grace? Are people
saved who have no exposure to the Church and the
sacraments? It is impossible to get away from
theology either in pastoral ministry or in one's
prayer life. The question is not whether to interest
oneself in theology or pastoral ministry. Rather,
the question is: "Is my pastoral work informed by
solid and continuing work in theology? Or is my
pastoral work stagnant because I have ceased to
Aidan Nichols gives particular emphasis to the
necessity of ongoing study for one who claims to
have competence in theology: "(Theology) is a solemn
engagement to developing over a lifetime the gift of
Christian wonder or curiosity... As theologians,
then, we commit ourselves to the lifelong study and
reflection which the satisfaction of such curiosity
The second reason why
anti-intellectualism is incredible is because it is
a betrayal of the trust of the people of God. The
ordinary people in the Church put their trust in
clergy, including deacons, to be knowledgeable about
the Christian faith, so as to be able to preach and
teach adequately, in accordance with their
ordination mandate. If an anti-theological or
anti-intellectual attitude is present, there is a
fundamental betrayal of the Church. Frances M. Young
makes the point well when she says: "If the
Christian community is to witness to the reality of
God's presence in the world, it needs ministers and
clergy who will accept the daunting but exciting
task of theological enquiry..."
dysfunctional trait is crusadism. As with the other
traits, this is not exclusive to deacons. Crusadism
occurs when a deacon becomes a "one issue minister";
when a deacon becomes over-enthusiastic about a
particular issue, which, in turn, almost becomes his
exclusive concern. At every opportunity this one
issue gets aired, preach and acted upon, as though
nothing else counted or mattered in the Church. What
issues do I have in mind? One could find examples
ranging from pro-life issues to marian devotions.
There is nothing wrong, of course, with any such
issues. They are all part of the patrimony and the
tradition of the Church. The dysfunctionality occurs
when an issue gets singled out and is identified
with the deacon.
The fifth dysfunctional trait is
negativism, and again it is neither exclusive of
deacons, nor to the Church. Negativism can be found
in many and varied sectors of society. Nevertheless,
it is possible to point to what one might call a
"general clerical malaise". This is a negativism
which finds constant expression in criticism,
carping, finding fault with all manner of things in
the Church. Either the church is too conservative,
or it is too reactionary; or the shortage of priests
bodes the end of the Church as we know it, and so on
and so forth. This kind of negativism is infectious
and it also betrays a lack of faith in the Holy
Spirit guiding the Church into all truth. The most
effective antidote to negativism is a healthy pride
in the Church, a pride that does not prevent the
recognition of human sinfulness but sees also the
manifestations of the divine glory in the Church,
and a pride that enables one to give the Church
one's wholehearted loyalty.
8. Dysfunctional Images of the Diaconate: The Deacon and His Family
The five dysfunctional characteristics discussed above
deal with the deacon as a churchman, one dedicated
to the service of the Church. There are also
dysfunctional traits that may exist in relation to
the deacon's family, two in particular, messianism
The Messiah is God's
agent for a radical renewal and total transformation
of the world, the one who will bring God's purposes
for the world to its fulfillment. Messianism is the
attitude that without me, the deacon wonderful, the
Church will fall apart. The messianic deacon wants
to be involved in everything that is taking place in
his parish or community.
At one level, this
expresses great and highly commendable enthusiasm.
At the level of realism, however, messianism is a
recipe for disaster. No deacon is competent to do
everything that needs to be done in a parish. No
deacon should feel that he needs to compensate for
what is not being done in his parish by others. The
entire parish should exemplify a network of
collaborative ministries, in which the deacon has a
place of leadership. He is not responsible for
everything, nor should he feel guilty about feeling
that he is not responsible for everything.
Messianism translates into the feeling: "If I don't
do it all myself, nothing will get done. There is no
need comment on how such an attitude will impact the
deacon's wife and family.
The second trait is
exemplarism. Exemplarism comes from the Latin word
exemplum, meaning 'example'. Good example is a moral
obligation for all Christians, flowing from their
baptism into Christ. Every Christian has a
responsibility to build up the Body of Christ, not
least by the personal example he or she gives: That
is not what is intended by "exemplarism".
Exemplarism happens when a deacon feels that his
wife and family need to be flagships of familial
propriety and domestic perfection: no harsh words,
no relationship difficulties, attendance at every
parish and diocesan event and celebration,
experiencing no difficulties with the faith.
Exemplarism is grossly unfair both to the deacon's
family and to himself because it imposes unrealistic
expectations, and the failure to realize them
becomes a major source of stress, personal and
familial. The varieties of temperament, character,
stages of intellectual, moral and emotional
development and maturity, which are featured in
every family, are also present in a diaconal family.
The deacon was ordained, not his family, and while
support from his spouse and family is a normal and
just expectation, neither he nor they should have
ideals expected of them nor demands made of them
which, in principle, would not be expected nor made
of any other family in the parish community.
Once again, fiction can be of
assistance to us in our reflections, this time in
the novel of Joanna Trollope, The Rector's Wife.
At one level, Trollope's novel is a story about the
attractions of adultery when a marriage has reached
a dead end. At a deeper level, however, the novel is
about what happens to individuals and their
relationships when public expectations conflict with
the realities and demands of their private lives.
The rector in The Rector's Wife, Peter Bouverie, has
spent his life and defined ministry according to
what other people think, and he expects his family
to do the same. The resulting tension is evident
throughout the entire book. Gossiping village women
become silent, or better fall silent when Anna
Bouverie, Peter's wife joins them. Their daughter is
most unhappy at school, because she is singled out
as the rector's daughter, and is the butt of taunts
and jibes. Peter does not permit his wife to teach -
she is a linguist - because some of his parishioners
might object to the rector's wife working. So, Anna
spends her time working on small translation jobs,
worrying about the family's dismal financial state,
and doing the many parish tasks that are taken for
granted both by her husband and by his parishioners.
Eventually, after Peter is passed over for a
promotion to which he thought he was entitled, his
ministry and his marriage dry up. Anna seeks
liberation in various ways, but her liberation is
seen by Peter only as a series of betrayals. She has
reneged on her proper role as a rector's wife. The
real, root issue of Trollope's novel is that Peter
and Anna Bouverie's sense of identity both as
individuals and as a couple is constantly being
defined by other people and their expectations.
Peter Bouverie has internalized what I described as
"exemplarism", and this drives his
self-understanding, his ministry, and his marriage.
Although the Bouveries' story is an extreme case,
their predicament is one that deacon couples can
understand. "Our special need is not to see
ourselves as others see us, but to retain the
integrity of that part of our lives that others do
By way of summary, the craft of being a permanent
deacon consists in self donation in self knowledge.
The self-donation is to one's wife, family and the
Church. The self knowledge is the prerequisite to
enhance the diaconal virtues implicit in self
donation, and to diminish if not eliminate the
diaconal vices that impede this self gift, the
dysfunctional traits discussed above. The diaconal
self donation in self knowledge to which we are
called as deacons is finely expressed in the "Prayer
of Consecration" which we all heard on the day of
ordination. Let me adjust the pronouns in this
prayer to render it more personal:
"May I excel in every virtue:
in love that is
in concern for the
sick and the poor,
and in holiness of
May my conduct
exemplify your commandments
and lead your people
to imitate my purity of life.
May I remain strong
and steadfast in Christ,
giving to the world
the witness of a pure conscience.
May I in this life
imitate your Son,
who came, not be
served but to serve,
and one day reign with him in
These are re-published, along with some other
helpful contributions in Foundations for the Renewal
of the Diaconate NCCB/USCC, Washington, D.C., 1993.
New York: Alba House, 1971. See also Echlin's
articles: "The Deacon's Golden Age", Worship, 45,
1971, pp. 37-46; "The Origins of the Permanent
Diaconate", The American Ecclesiastical Record,
August, 1970, pp. 92-106.
New York: The Seabury Press, 1979.
New York and Oxford; Oxford University Press, 1990.
The catalyst for much of the contemporary discussion
is George A. Lindbeck, The Nature of doctrine,
London: SPCK, 1984. The influence of Lindbeck on my
own thinking may be found in my "Towards a
Postliberal Religious Education", The Living Light,
28, 1992 and "Cyril of Jerusalem as a Postliberal
Theologian", Worship, 67, 1993.
Austin Flannery, ed., Vatican Council II: The
Conciliar and Postconciliar Documents, Dublin:
Dominican Publications, 1975, p. 387.
The most significant primary texts for an
understanding of Christ and the Church as sacrament
are Edward Schillebeeckx, Christ the Sacrament of
Encounter With God, London: Sheed and Ward, 1963,
and Karl Rahner, The Church and the Sacraments, New
York: Herder and Herder, 1965. William A. Van Roo,
The Christian Sacrament, Rome: Gregorian University
Press, 1992. Helpful secondary literature includes:
Susan A. Ross, "Salvation in and for the World:
Church and Sacraments", in Robert J. Schreiter and
Mary C. Hilkert, ed., The Praxis of Christian
Experience: An lntroduction to the Theology of
Edward Schillebeeckx, San Francisco: Harper and Row,
1989, pp. 101-115; Geoffrey Wainwright, "Sacramental
Theology and the World Church", in Catholic
Theological Society of America: Proceedings of the
Thirty-Ninth Annual Convention, vol. 39, 1984, pp.
69-83; Michael Skelley, The Liturgy of the World:
Karl Rahners Theology of Worship, Collegeville: The
Liturgical Press, 1991.
Aidan Kavanagh, On Liturgical Theology, New York:
Pueblo, 1984. Kavanagh's constant complaint in this
excellent book is the inadequate perception of the
principle, lex orandi, lex credendi, even among
theologians. "Secondary theology even at its best,
seems to approach the liturgical worship of
Christians with a certain condescension and as not
much more than a possible locus theologicus whose
existence is to serve secondary theology and whose
work must, therefore, be closely monitored" (p. 75).
Quotations from the rites of marriage and ordination
to the diaconate are drawn from The Rites of the
Catholic Church, 2 vols., New York: Pueblo
Publishing Co., 1976 and 1980, ad. loc.
Karl Rahner, "The Theology of the Restoration of the
Diaconate", in NCCB/USCC, Foundations for the
Renewal of the Diaconate, Washington, D.C., 1993, p.
This is in no way to deny the negative and
'downside' elements that can exist in marital
sexuality. Many, if not all human experiences
necessarily have some element of ambiguity about
them. For a careful exploratian of Christian
sexuality see Rowan Williams, "Is There a Christian
Sexual Ethic?",in his Open to Judgement: Sermons and
Addresses, London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1994,
Alan Paton, Too Late the Phalarope, London: Jonathan
Cape, 1955. For a fine theological reading of the
novel see Robert McAfee Brown, Persuade Us to
Rejoice: The Liberating Power of Fiction,
Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992, pp.
For standard biblical-theological accounts, see
Robert Butterworth, The Theology of Creation, Cork:
Mercier Press, 1969 pp. 25-43; Edmund Hill, Being
Human, London: 1984, pp. 1-65; Gabriel Daly,
Creation and Redemption, Dublin: Gill and Macmillan,
1988. For a superb Jewish analysis, see Jon D.
Levenson, Creation and the Persistence of Evil, San
Francisco: Harper-Collins, 1988.
Robert McAfee Brown, Spirituality and Liberation,
London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1988, pp. 99-100.
ibid., p. 102.
I owe these most helpful references to the work of
Paton, Kierkegaard and Buber to the most insightful
Spirituality and Liberation of Robert McAfee Brown,
especially chapter 7.
Martin Buber, Between Man and Man, New York:
Macmillan, 1965, p. 52.
The Rites, vol. 2, p. 52.
Standard treatments of the theodicy issue such as
John Hick, Evil and the God of Love, Basingstoke:
The Macmillan Press, 1985, and Barry Whitney, What
Are They saying About God and Evil?, Mahwah: Paulist
Press, 1989, remain useful. However, they seldom if
ever take account of the
worship/liturgical/doxological dimension of
suffering, which I regard as central to any
response. For theological moves in this direction
see Stanley Hauerwas, Naming the Silences, Grand
Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990, pp. 80-84; Cor Traets, "The
Sick and Suffering Person: A Liturgical/Sacramental
Approach," in Jan Lambrecht and Raymond F. Collins,
ed., God and Human Suffering, Louvain: Peeters
Press, 1990, pp. 183-210; Rowan B. Crews, The Praise
of God and the Problem of Evil: A Doxological
Approach to the Problem of Evil and Suffering,
unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Duke University,
tr. Aidan Nichols, Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1990.
For alternative theological articulations see Paul
Fiddes, The Creative Suffering of God, Oxford: The
Clarendon Press, 1988.
Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love, tr.
Clifton Walters, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1966,
ch. 27, p. 103.
Bishop Dale J. Melczek, "Keynote Conference Address
on the Permanent Diaconate", Proceedings of the
National Catholic Diaconate Conference, July 20-23,
1994, p. 9.
New York: Alfred Knopf, 1994.
1 Cor. 1:20-31.
See the remarkable essay of Bishop Mark Santer,
"Diaconate and Discipleship", Theology, 81, 1978,
See Brian Davies, The Thought of Thomas Aquinas,
Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1992, pp. 144-149.
ibid., p. 323.
John Macquarrie, The Humility of God, London: SCM
Press, 1978, pp. 66-67.
Bishop John F. Kinney, "Diaconal Service in Pastoral
Ministry", in Proceedings of the National Catholic
Diaconate Conference, p. 17.
Ralph A. Keifer, To Give Thanks and Praise: General
Instruction of the Roman Missal, Washington, D.C.:
The Pastoral Press, 1980, p. 40.
Aidan Kavanagh, Elements of Rite: A Handbook of
Liturgical Style, New York: Pueblo Publishing Co.,
1982, p. 75.
ibid., p. 76.
F.L. Cross and E.A. Livingstone, ed., The Oxford
Dictionary of the Christian Church, 2 ed., Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 1974, p. 305.
Bishop Dale Melczek, op. cit., p. 12.
Frances M. Young, Can These Dry Bones Live? The
Excitement of Theological Study, London: SCM Press,
1992, p. 2.
The same point is made by Bishop John F. Kinney, op.
cit., p. 16.
Aidan Nichols, The Shape of Catholic Theology,
Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1991, p. 19.
Frances M. Young and Kenneth Wilson, Focus on God,
London: Epworth Press, 1986, "Foreword".
See the interesting essay by John Macquarrie, "Pride
in the Church", in his Theology, Church and
Ministry, London: SCM Press, 1986, pp. 105- 112.
Joanna Trollope, The Rector's Wife, New York: Random
House, 1993. See the excellent review of Victoria J.
Barnett in Christian Century, January 18, 1995, pp.
Victoria J. Barnett, op. cit., p. 62.
For a magisterial understanding of what is involved
in "self-knowledge" see Rowan Williams, "'Know
Thyself': What Kind of An Injunction?", in Michael
McGhee, ed., Philosophy, Religion and the Spiritual
Life, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992,
The Rites, vol. 2, p. 57.
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