Deacons serve the many hungers, corporal and spiritual, of God’s children
By Bishop Richard F. Stika
“The cup of salvation I will raise; I will call on the name of the Lord. My vows to the Lord I will fulfill before all His people!” — Psalm 116:13-14
Answering the call. One of the great blessings of a bishop and successor to the Apostles is that of ordaining men called by God to the priesthood and permanent diaconate. And in just the past several weeks, 26 men have been elevated to the dignity of the altar—23 as permanent deacons, and three transitional deacons who, God willing, will be ordained to the priesthood next year.
And as the priesthood exists for the Eucharist, the diaconate exists to help bring Jesus to all of God’s children in their many hungers, corporal and spiritual. What the priest makes present upon the altar of the Mass, the deacon is called to make present upon the many altars of the hearts of those he is called to serve.
Called to serve. We find the diaconate at the very beginning of the Church when the Apostles selected “seven reputable men… [and] laid their hands on them” for the ministry of service—”to serve at table” (Acts 6: 1-6).
Deacons are ordained, “not unto the priesthood, but unto the ministry” of the Word, altar, and charity. Deacons serve at the tables of the Word and of Christ’s Body so that they might unite them with the table of the poor—so that Jesus might truly “recline at table” with all whom He came to save. The table of the Church and the table of the poor must always be one table.
The strength to serve. Through the laying on of hands of a bishop, a successor to the Apostles, deacons are configured to Christ, who made Himself the “deacon” or “servant of all.” And through the sacramental grace of holy orders, they are “strengthened” to serve as Jesus did, as one who came “not to be served but to serve” (Matthew 20:28).
The deacon’s ministry is “a service to the bishop” as his helper and as his arms of charity within a community. They serve the priests in helping with the discipleship of God’s people, with administration, and the needs of the parish community.
Not by bread alone. To serve as Christ did, Pope Benedict XVI reminds us that “He who does not give God gives too little. We always give too little when we only give material things.” And this is because we are not just corporal beings but something far more—we are a composite of body and soul.
And particularly in our day, people are not just hungering for bodily nourishment and care but especially for spiritual help and nourishment. Pope Benedict XVI says to separate one from the other in our service of charity is “an impoverishment of love.”
For “often, the deepest cause of suffering is the very absence of God.” Therefore, we who feast at the table of the Word and of Christ’s Body have special responsibility to provide not only for the corporal needs of the poor, but also their spiritual needs. For we are not a Church of “either/or,” but of “both/and.” That is why the Church’s “works of mercy” are both corporal and spiritual.
Feeding the hungers of body and soul. To give food of both earth and of heaven, the works of mercy, corporal and spiritual, must be treated and paired as a unity.
For there is a need for bread, and the Bread of Life; for water and Living Water; for clothing and to be clothed in Christ; for shelter and the Father’s House; to comfort the sick and for God’s merciful love; to visit the imprisoned and to bear crosses with love; and to pray for the living and for the souls in purgatory. This is how “the deacon brings the Church to the poor and the poor to the Church.” As St. Teresa of Kolkata (Calcutta) emphasized, “Never separate Jesus in the Eucharist and Jesus in the poor.”
Pray and work. But to be the face, the hands, and the heart of Jesus in their ministry of charity, deacons especially need to be continually renewed in the strength of Christ through a strong prayer life and Eucharistic devotion.
That is why, among the promises they make in their ordination, they “resolve to guard and increase the spirit of prayer … [and] to celebrate faithfully the Liturgy of the Hours with and for the people of God and indeed for the whole world.”
This is why I stressed in my homily at the ordination of our new deacons that their life is best guided by the motto of St. Benedict and his order—”Pray and Work.” As Pope Benedict XVI says, “Prayer, as a means of drawing ever new strength from Christ, is concretely and urgently needed…. Time devoted to God in prayer not only does not detract from effective and loving service to our neighbor but is in fact the inexhaustible source of that service” (God is Love, 36).
Ministry of the Word. A deacon’s daily prayer should prepare and lead them to serve at the table of the Word. And because, when the Gospel is proclaimed, it is the very voice of Christ our Bridegroom that we hear, it is proper that those who have been ordained and configured to Christ the Head lend their voice in proclaiming His Gospel to His bride: the Church and all the baptized.
And since a deacon, in a special way, is a “sacramental sign of Christ the servant,” his ministry of the Word also extends to being the voice of Christ to those he serves. Though deacons cherish the opportunity to offer a homily as a part of their ministry of the Word, their most important homily is that which they give as the face, the hands, and the heart of Jesus in their works of mercy.
Ministry of the altar. During the Mass, the Church teaches that though a deacon does not celebrate the mystery of the eucharistic sacrifice as the priest does, he does represent the people of God at the altar and helps the faithful “to unite their lives to the offering of Christ.”
And additionally, “in the name of Christ Himself, he helps the Church to participate in the fruits of the Sacrifice” (Congregation for Clergy, Directory for the Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons, 28).
This is an extremely important part of a deacon’s ministry at the altar, and one that requires on his part an ever-deeper immersion into the mystery of the holy sacrifice of the Mass. It also requires a deeper appreciation of how the faithful are to exercise their baptismal priesthood in the offering they should make of themselves in the Mass.
A drop of water. When a deacon assists the priest during Mass as the “Deacon of the Cup,” his is no small part. For in his person, he represents the faithful at the altar and, in a sense, gathers the offering they make of themselves during the offertory.
And within the tiny drop of water that he adds to the wine in the chalice, the offering of all the faithful is contained—their life, vocation and work, their prayers and blessings, sufferings and crosses, joy and sorrows.
And in anticipation of the great mystery of transformation that is about to occur during the consecration, the deacon (or the priest in his absence) silently prays, “By the mystery of this water and wine, may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled Himself to share in our humanity.” Oh, that all the faithful would reflect on what this means! But that is especially what deacons should help the faithful to understand.
The Great Doxology. This is why, when the gifts and the altar are incensed by the deacon, the faithful are also incensed! For each of us, by virtue of our baptism, are a holy temple and our heart a spiritual altar upon which we offer ourselves to God. And during the consecration, our poor offering, through the Holy Spirit, is united with Christ’s sacrifice and offered to the Father with the glorious words of praise, “Through Him, and with Him, and in Him, O God, almighty Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honor is yours, for ever and ever. Amen!”
Go forth! Having received Christ, the Bread of Life, in Holy Communion, the deacon dismisses us with one of several formulas that all begin with the word “Go….” Now we must go out into the world and live our Mass!
We must obey the command of Jesus, whose “heart was moved with pity” for the “vast crowd” of those hungering for what only God can satisfy, saying, “Give them some food yourselves” (Matthew 14:14,16).
Like the life and ministry of the deacon, we, too, must go to the table of the poor, and from the “pyx” of our heart, like that which contains the consecrated hosts, give Christ to others in all that we do.