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The Character of Diaconal Ordination | Deacon James Keating, Ph.D. | Ignatius Insight | August 17, 2010

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For such a "simple" station in the Church's hierarchy, the vocation of the deacon is complex. The complexity arises from the net of relationships in which the deacon finds himself upon ordination, a net that is not to be escaped but embraced. Unfortunately, the intricacy of the relationships of the diaconate can tempt a man to despair as he makes efforts to please all of his constituencies: wife, children, bishop, pastor, employer, parishioners, diocesan officials, fellow deacons, and more. Along with these relationships and the various calls they carry, the deacon also feels pressed to "perform" well in his ministries, which can be various and often emotionally consuming; however, looking at the vocation of deacon from the perspective of what Christ is sharing with him, the deacon can receive clarity on a vital truth: it is not the quantity of acts of service that matter to Christ but simply one's fidelity to the character of ordination. Excessive activity and neurotic hand-wringing about whether "I am doing enough to help others" gives birth only to stress, not holiness. Most deacons of the Western world will go to purgatory because they were too busy exerting themselves, not because their ministry was measured. Jesus will meet them at Purgatory's gate with one question: "Why did you try to do so much?"

The key to living the diaconate in a simple yet effective way is found within one's fidelity to the character received at ordination. The reception of this character allows the deacon to minister in a profound way by letting Christ do the work. As one meditates upon the meaning of diaconal character, one realizes that Holy Orders mediates a gift to be received and not simply tasks to accomplish. If a deacon receives this gift subjectively, the various and complex relationships that make up his life will become a support to him in his ministry and will no longer be rivals for his time and emotional capital.

What Is This Gift, the Character of Holy Orders?
Insofar as it is a grade of holy orders [sic], the diaconate imprints a character and communicates a specific sacramental grace. The diaconal character is the configurative and distinguishing sign, indelibly impressed in the soul, that configures the one ordained to Christ, who made himself the deacon—the servant—of all. It brings with it a specific sacramental grace: a gift for living the new reality wrought by the sacrament. With regard to deacons, "strengthened by sacramental grace they are dedicated to the People of God, in conjunction with the bishop and his body of priests, in the service (diakonia) of the liturgy, of the Gospel and of works of charity." Just as in all sacraments which imprint character, grace has a permanent virtuality. It flowers again and again in the same measure in which it is received and accepted again and again in faith.... The Church further teaches that: By a special sacramental gift, Holy Order confers on the deacon a particular participation in the consecration and mission of Him who became servant of the Father for the redemption of mankind, and inserts him in a new and specific way in the mystery of Christ, of his Church and the salvation of all mankind. [1]
The character received at ordination has been likened to a brand or wound that signifies "ownership." Then-Cardinal Ratzinger noted that this wound or brand "calls out to its owner." [2] In this way, the cleric stands in relationship to the one who has placed his mark upon him. "From now on, let no one make troubles for me; for I bear the marks of Jesus on my body" (Gal 6:17). A further scriptural understanding of character might be summed up in this Pauline teaching: "Yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me" (Gal 2:20). Here, Scripture underscores the interior self-surrender of the cleric. He is the one who eagerly hosts the mystery of Christ's public service of charity as his own, as his new life. One man, called to be priest, makes himself permanently available to the sacrificial mystery of Christ; and another man, called to be deacon, makes himself permanently available to the servant mystery of Christ.

This servant mystery and this sacrificial mystery coincide at the Eucharist, wherein Christ offers His body and blood in sacrifice and also "gives example" of what communion with this sacrifice can do to impel self-effacing service (John 13:12ff). Guy Mansini, OSB, notes the following about this diaconal character of service:
The deacon disappears into the action he undertakes at Mass. His service is more purely instrumental, more purely a serving, and if he is an icon of anything, he is an icon of precisely that, self-effacing service. The deacon's function is to keep the circle of charitable receiving and giving turning, both sacramentally and within community. [3]
To become permanently available to Christ is an objective reality imparted upon ordination, but it needs to be ever-personally appropriated anew so its grace "flowers again and again in the same measure in which it is received ... in faith." [4] A further witness to this diaconal character in Scripture is the following: "Let the greatest among you be as the youngest, and the leader as the servant.... I am among you as the one who serves" (Luke 22:26–27). This service, however, does not simply originate in a man's feelings of empathy toward those in need. Ordained "service" flows from communion with Christ, particularly as it relates to Christ's capacity to listen to His Father. As Psalm 40 notes, "Sacrifice and offering you do not want; but ears open to obedience you gave me" (vs. 6).

Obedience is the virtue/gift that orders a man to raptly listen to God out of love. One way to better understand obedience would be to meditate upon the story of Mary's attentiveness to Christ in Luke 10:38-42. It is an attentiveness that carries the desire to give the self. It is a listening unto surrender. The Martha figure in the story is a kind and hospitable woman who is serving, but she, unlike Mary, has not chosen the better part. "The better part" indicates a depth of communion with Christ that readies one to give and serve out of that precise communion. The deacon's subjective appropriation to live in communion with Christ is his full response to the objective action of Christ within him that happened at ordination. The deacon is called not to the priesthood, not to offer sacrifice, but to diakonia, service. To serve faithfully, the deacon needs to hear what God desires. This listening or obedience is, of course, one of the most powerful elements, if not the most powerful element, of Jesus' own ministry. "I cannot do anything on my own; ... I do not seek my own will but the will of the one who sent me" (John 5:30).

When Christ inflicts the "wound" of diaconal ordination upon a man, it is to make him vulnerable to the mystery of this obedient service. The desire to serve the Father's will defines the heart of Christ. Is the deacon aware that Christ is now speaking to him about this desire, about the love of the Father He wishes to dispense upon His church? Did the deacon allow the wound of ordination to open the ears of his heart so that he could hear the movement of Christ's own Spirit? Does the deacon wish to obey the Spirit so that he does not work in vain (Ps 127:1)?

There are few virtues more necessary to a deacon than the capacity to listen to Christ in prayer, within the context of listening both to the bishop and to the needs of the diocese. Listening for the needs of the people and then discerning with God what needs can be served by his ministry is a prayer emblematic of the deacon. He, with the bishop, is called to prayerfully imagine approaches to service that do not yet exist in the diocese or approaches that can be better equipped.

The diaconal sacramental character can be summarized in this way: It is a grace that permanently orders a man toward participation in Christ's own simple self-giving, as one who came to serve and not be served. This is the crux of the character: the deacon has become permanently open, unceasingly available to the mystery of this charitable service as it flows from the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. This participation in the mystery of Christ's own service establishes the deacon, by right, to facilitate the circulation of Christ's own charity in the Church and beyond. The deacon is an envoy of the Paschal Mystery to the laity, in the hope of serving them in their mission to transform culture for Christ. In this way, the deacon takes what grace he receives when assisting at the altar and gives it to the laity, and then takes what he receives from the laity (their love, suffering, and hardships) and gives it to the priest. The priest, in turn, then offers it to the Father, in and with the sacrifice of Christ. All of this service by the deacon is accomplished in obedience to the pastoral vision of the bishop. [5] When ministering, the deacon embodies the spiritual discernment of the bishop, who has identified or confirmed the needs of the Church and the appropriate response his deacons should take to serve these needs.

Diaconal Life That Flows from This Character

Receiving the gift of Holy Orders, which is in communion with Christ's own pastoral charity, establishes the deacon in freedom. It is not the deacon's "job" to do a lot of "work." It is the deacon's call to stay in a posture of receptivity to the gift Christ gives, in this case, communion with His own servant-love. Specifically, Christ is inviting the deacon to be available in Him to the needs of the diocese, to incarnate the eternal availability of Christ's own heart to the poor (Luke 22:27). What the Lord asks of the deacon is clear: Will you say "yes" to My sharing My availability in you until you die? Will you let Me act in you, through you, so that I might call many to the "banquet" (Luke 14:15–24)? [6] The deacon's call is to be faithful to the character received at ordination so that the people he serves can recognize and come to know Christ. This fidelity is expressed through the unceasing prayer of the deacon within his heart, a conversation that continually places the deacon in a posture of surrender, since he knows that Christ can do more through grace than he, the deacon, can do through action. Christ is the love that bears all things—the deacon must let Him! [7]

The diaconal ministry involves activity, of course, but the key to living in Holy Orders is for the deacon to let the holy order him. In being so ordered, the deacon lets Christ use his natural and acquired gifts as doorways for grace to enter and increase the spiritual potency of his presence to those whom he serves. When he allows the holy to order him, the deacon allows for an effective ministry but not one that depends upon any "bag of tricks" that might have been used in business or in a secular career. Here is where some deacons run afoul and become emotionally exhausted or suffer a form of insecurity or self-doubt. They may ask themselves: "Why aren't people responding to me? I'm a successful businessman, a professional. I'm effective at my job; why not at my ministry?" The transition that needs to be made is one that takes a man from relying on his pool of natural talents and years of professional experience to becoming a man who relies on the depth of his communion with Christ, one who relies on his permanent availability to the servant identity of Jesus. How does a man come to rely on this depth of communion? How, in other words, does one live the character of his ordination?

Participation in the Actions of Christ the Servant

First, this communion is secured by the very actions of the deacon in the course of his ministry of the Word. The deacon is given the privilege and right to proclaim the Gospel. By virtue of his ordination, only he and the priest can utter the very words of Christ in the midst of liturgy. Here, we have a wellspring of intimacy for the deacon and Christ. As the deacon meditates upon the Gospel, Christ draws him into His heart. There, in the heart, Christ speaks to the deacon about His own servant heart, sharing with the deacon Jesus' own will for him regarding ministry and service. The Gospel becomes a point of securing communion with Christ so that ministry flows from an interior place for the good of the people served. Ministry begins and ends in communion with Christ.

Second, the simple service around the altar that assists the priest and keeps the movements of liturgical prayer flowing smoothly becomes a point of secured communion with Christ for the deacon. These movements are so modest that they become effortless over time, thus freeing the heart to be with Christ in the everydayness of Nazareth. Here in the "hidden" simplicity of what are common or ordinary duties—arranging vessels, placing books, pouring wine, reading petitions—the deacon intercedes for the people of the diocese, who may find it hard to discover Christ in ordinary daily circumstances, where love may be void and only duty and suffering are present.

Third, communion with Christ is secured in and through the specific diocesan ministry of each deacon. Here, in the myriad ways deacons witness to the Paschal Mystery in the secular world, the altar is brought to the culture by the grace of Holy Orders. In a way, the deacon continues his ministry at the altar by "enthroning the Word of God" in the matrix of culture. [8] Hopefully, through his diaconal formation, the deacon learned how not only to minister Christ to the people but also to carry Him in prayerful consciousness within the depths of his own heart right in the midst of ministering.

Through these three foundational realities in the deacon's life, he remains available to the "owner" who branded him. Christ calls out to the deacon from within the brand mark, from within the wound that divine love imparted upon him on his ordination day. There is no separation between the mysteries of the altar at which the deacon assists and the effect these mysteries have upon his will and conscience as he embeds himself within culture to serve the laity. This service flows from the deacon's intimacy with the servant love of Christ. This intimacy is the result of Christ's actions upon the deacon and the deacon's subjective openness to Christ at the point of the wound. Unlike a physical wound, this spiritual wound is to remain open so that the deacon can receive from there the love that Christ is pouring into his soul. By desiring for Christ to configure him to a life of self-emptying, the deacon supports and serves the laity in their call to transform culture along the lines of the Eucharistic Mystery—that is, to give witness to the love-infused Body of Christ in public.

If it is true that the deacon "presides at the Liturgy of Charity" [9] and the priest, at the Liturgy of the Eucharist, then it is also true that the deacon gives Christ the freedom to place oil and wine (i.e., divine charity, Luke 10:34) into the needs of the Church as She labors to give witness to the love of Christ in public. In his ministry to the laity, he empties himself of social standing so that Christ can act in him to encourage the Church to give witness. The deacon makes himself available to Christ so that He can configure himself to the suffering of those who feel the cost of standing up for the Gospel in public. The deacon remains empty with them, depending solely on the power of grace. This emptiness is full because it flows from the sacramental character that defines the deacon and from the mutual participation of deacon and the laity at the altar.

If the deacon is faithful to his call in all its complexity, he will be able to encourage the laity to give rise to their greatest gift in this or any age: to become the Church in public. This witness flows from the altar, from the sacrificial service of Christ, a reality the Church consumes in love at the Eucharist. Fidelity to Holy Orders flows from a communion with Christ that is expressed in two different but complementary directions: priestly sacrifice (priesthood) and service to those who suffer (diaconate), so that in the end, Christ will be all in all (the mission of the laity). Christ brings us all to His Mystery so He can accomplish it in us. [10] Having communion with the sacrifice will compel us to service, not by force but by the singular beauty of the One who has come and loved us to the end. The deacon's sacramental character, if he stays open to its transforming grace, communicates to him a reality that enlivens and purifies his own conscience and will redound to the benefit of the Church.

This reality is clear: among the members of the Church is a rank of clergy living a lay life so as to give witness to the servant mystery of Christ. This mystery is united to and flows from the altar but also reaches into the very fabric of ordinary life. This reach, by virtue of Holy Orders, touches the culture by way of the gift of a man who remains permanently open at the point of one of Christ's greatest mysteries: the divine is ordered toward self-forgetfulness, service, self-emptying, and self-effacing charity. It is the deacon who is charged to keep this facet of the mystery before the Church's eyes and heart so that the laity may know by way of his ministry how close Christ is to them in their courageous witness to the Gospel, and so that priests may know that their sacrifices for the Gospel are not without fruit. It is a fruit so tangible that he can see it before his eyes every Sunday as the laity process forward to the altar with the gifts of bread and wine, symbols of the transformed culture for which they labor in Christ. And ready to receive these gifts from the laity in order to give them to the priest is the deacon, the one who facilitates charity, who, in the Spirit, circulates the divine self-giving by his ministry. May this divine self-giving, this wound upon the heart of the deacon, this brand mark of love always be the site of deepest intimacy between the deacon and the Lord.


[1] Congregation for Clergy, Directory for the Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons (Vatican City: Libraria Editrice Vaticane, 1998), nos. 7 and 46.

[2] See David Toups, Reclaiming our Priestly Character (Omaha: IPF Publications, 2008), 82.

[3] Father Guy Mansini OSB, private correspondence with author, June 2010.

[4] Congregation for Clergy, Directory for the Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons (Vatican City: Libraria Editrice Vaticane, 1998), nos. 7 and 46.

[5] Richard Gaillardetz's emphasis on the deacon's relationship to the bishop is crucial here. In practice, many have placed too much of an emphasis upon the parish work of the deacon and thus, his relationship to a pastor. Once ordained to the diaconate, a man is sent forth by Christ in a permanent relationship to the one who oversees the Church. This deacon is called to serve him, the bishop, in his ministry of oversight. Richard Gaillardetz, "On the Theological Integrity of the Diaconate," in O. Cummings et al., ed., Theology of the Diaconate (New Jersey: Paulist Press, 2005), 87ff. I would add that at its spiritual core, ordination establishes a man in an unbreakable openness to the mysteries of Christ in a public way—i.e., as one sent from the bishop.

[6] This Scripture story throws much light on the dynamism of the diaconal character, especially his moving freely in Christ from altar to evangelize the culture and back again to the altar. See my A Deacon's Retreat (New Jersey: Paulist Press, 2009).

[7] See Hans Urs von Balthasar, Love Alone is Credible (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004), 116.

[8] Pope Benedict XVI, Meeting with the Clergy of the Diocese of Rome, "The Importance of the Permanent Diaconate" (February 7, 2008), http://www.catholic.org/international/international_story.php?id=26825.

[9] See Keating, A Deacon's Retreat, 66–67: "We deacons do not preside at the Eucharistic liturgy; rather, we intone, in its dismissal rite, the initiation of the liturgy of charity, charging all to 'go in the peace of Christ to love and serve the Lord.' This presidency is not a juridical one, but rather one of moral and spiritual collaboration with the mission of the laity. Unlike the priest, our words do not bring about the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. In fact, the deacon utters no words in the 'liturgy' he presides over, except in the silence of his heart as it communes with the mystery that has claimed his life, '[I] came not to be served but to serve' (Mt 20:28). At the dismissal rite, the Eucharist 'processes' out of the church in the hearts of parishioners not as an inert memory ... but as a living call from Christ to go and transform culture. We preside by distributing the fruit of the Mass—the divine life within us. This service is our form of being in personae Christi: Christ acting in us. We do not share in the priesthood. Since we share in Orders, however, we receive a portion of the mystery of Christ's own actions. The priest shares in Christ's sacrificial self-offering in priestly thanksgiving "as head"—whereas we who are deacons receive that portion of Christ's own action which insures that the love of many will not grow cold (Mt 24:12)."

[10] Jean Corbon, The Wellspring of Worship (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2005), 151.

Related Ignatius Insight Articles and Excerpts:

• The Seminary as Nazareth: Formation in a School of Prayer | Dn. James Keating, Ph.D.
• Surrendering to the Healing Power of Christ's Own Chastity | Dn. James Keating, Ph.D.
• St. John Vianney's Pastoral Plan | Fr. John Cihak
The Blessed Virgin Mary's Role in the Celibate Priest's Spousal and Paternal Love | Fr. John Cihak
The Priest as Man, Husband, and Father | Fr. John Cihak
• Holy Christians Guarantee Holy Priests | Bishop Fulton J. Sheen
• Priest as Pastor, Servant and Shepherd | Fr. James McCarthy
The Religion of Jesus | Blessed Columba Marmion | From Christ, The Ideal of the Priest • Why Preaching | Peter John Cameron, O.P.
Satan and the Saint | The Feast Day of St. John Vianney | Carl E. Olson
• The Ingredient for Priestly Vocations | Rev. Jacek Stefanski
• Becoming a Man of God | An interview with Fr. Larry Richards
• The Year for Priests and Its Patron | Sandra Miesel

Rev. Mr. James Keating, Ph.D., is Director of Theological Formation at the Institute of Priestly Formation at Creighton University, Omaha. Before joining the staff of the IPF Deacon Keating taught moral and spiritual theology for 13 years in the School of Theology at the Pontifical College Josephinum in Ohio. He has given over 400 workshops, retreats and days of reflection on the Catholic spiritual/moral life. In the field of his professional research, the interpenetration of the spiritual and moral life, Deacon Keating has authored or edited ten books and dozens of essays for theological journals.

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