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Deacons Are Called to a Life of Holiness

General Audience — October 20, 1993

Among the catechetical topics on the diaconate the one about the spirit of the diaconate is especially important and attractive, for it concerns and involves all who receive this sacrament in order to carry out its functions in a Gospel perspective. This is the way that leads its ministers to Christian perfection and allows them to give truly effective service (diakonia) in the Church, so as "to build up the body of Christ" (Eph 4:12).

Here is the source of diaconal spirituality, which is rooted in what the Second Vatican Council calls the "sacramental grace of the diaconate" (AG 16). In addition to being a valuable help in carrying out various tasks, it deeply affects the deacon's heart, spurring him to offer his whole self to serving the kingdom of God in the Church. As the very word "diaconate" indicates, the spirit of service characterizes the interior mind and will of the one who receives the sacrament. In the diaconate an effort is made to carry out what Jesus stated about his mission: "The Son of Man has not come to be served but to serve--to give his life in ransom for many" (Mk 10:45; Mt 20:28).

Doubtless Jesus addressed these words to the Twelve whom he chose for the priesthood, to make them understand that, although endowed with authority conferred by him, they should act as he did, as servants. The advice applies to all ministers of Christ; however, it has particular meaning for deacons. For them, the aspect of service is stressed by virtue of their ordination. Although they do not exercise the pastoral authority of priests, in carrying out all their functions their particular aim is to show an intention to serve. If their ministry is consistent with this spirit, they shed greater light on that identifying feature of Christ's face--service. They are not only "servants of God," but also of their brothers and sisters.

This teaching of the spiritual life is of Gospel origin and entered the earliest Christian Tradition, as that ancient third-century text called the Didascalia Apostolorum confirms. It encourages deacons to take their inspiration from the Gospel incident of the washing of feet. "If the Lord did this," it says, "then you deacons should not hesitate to do it for the sick and infirm, since you are workers of the truth, who have put on Christ" (XVI, 36). The diaconate commits one to following Jesus with this attitude of humble service, which is expressed not only in works of charity, but shapes and embraces one's whole way of thinking and acting.

This perspective explains the condition set by the document Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem for admitting young men to formation as deacons: "Only those young men should be enrolled to train for the diaconate who have shown a natural inclination for service to the hierarchy and the Christian community" [1] . The "natural inclination" should not be understood in the sense of a simple spontaneity of natural dispositions, although this too is a presupposition to be considered. It is rather an inclination of nature inspired by grace, with a spirit of service that conforms human behavior to Christ's. The sacrament of the diaconate develops this inclination. It makes the subject share more closely in Christ's spirit of service and imbues the will with a special grace, so that in all his actions he will be motivated by a new inclination to serve his brothers and sisters.

This service should first of all take the form of helping the bishop and the priest, both in liturgical worship and the apostolate. It scarcely needs remarking here that anyone whose dominant attitude was one of challenging or opposing authority could not properly carry out the functions of a deacon. The diaconate can only be conferred on those who believe in the value of the bishop's and priest's pastoral mission and in the Holy Spirit's assistance guiding them in their actions and their decisions. In particular, it must again be said that the deacon should "profess reverence and obedience to the bishop" [2] .

However, the deacon's service is also directed to his own Christian community and to the whole Church, to which he must foster a deep attachment, because of her mission and divine institution.

The Second Vatican Council also speaks of the duties and the obligations that deacons assume by virtue of their own sharing in the mission and grace of the high priesthood: "Inasmuch as they are dispensers of Christ's mysteries and servants of the Church, [deacons] should keep themselves free from every vice and stand before men as personifications of goodness and friends of God (cf. 1 Tim 3:8-10 and 12-13)" (LG 41). Theirs, then, is a duty of witness, which embraces not only their service and apostolate but also their whole life.

In the document cited above, Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem, Paul VI called attention to this responsibility and the obligations it entails: "Deacons serve the mysteries of Christ and the Church, and must abstain from any vice, strive to please God, and be 'ready for any good work' for the salvation of men. Therefore, because of their reception of this Order, they should far excel others in their liturgical lives, in devotion to prayer, in the divine ministry, in obedience, charity and chastity" (n. 25: Ench. Vat., II, 1395).

With particular regard to chastity, young men who are ordained deacons commit themselves to observing celibacy and to leading a life of more intense union with Christ. Here too, even those who are older and "have received ordination...may not, in accordance with traditional Church discipline, enter into marriage" (SDO 16: Ench. Vat., II, 1386).

In order to fulfill these obligations and, even more deeply, to respond to the spiritual demands of the diaconate with the help of sacramental grace, the exercises of the spiritual life must be practiced, as described in Paul VI's Apostolic Letter. Deacons should: 1) apply themselves to reading carefully and to meditating attentively on the Word of God; 2) attend Mass frequently, even daily if possible, receive the Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist and visit it out of devotion; 3) purify their souls frequently through the sacrament of Penance, having prepared for it worthily through a daily examination of conscience; 4) show a deep, filial love and veneration for the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God [3] .

Moreover, Pope Paul VI adds: "It is very fitting for permanent deacons to recite daily at least some part of the Divine Office--to be specified by the episcopal conference" [4] . The episcopal conferences are also responsible for establishing more detailed norms for the lives of deacons in accordance with the circumstances of time and place.

Lastly, whoever receives the diaconate is obliged to ongoing doctrinal formation, which continually improves and updates the formation required before ordination: "Deacons should not slacken in their studies, especially of sacred doctrine; they should carefully read the Scriptures; they should devote themselves to ecclesiastical studies in such a way that they can correctly explain Catholic doctrine to others and day by day become better fitted to train and strengthen the souls of the faithful. With this in mind, deacons should be called to regular meetings at which matters concerning their life and sacred ministry will be treated" [5] .

The catechesis I have given on the diaconate, to complete the picture of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, highlights what is most important in this order, as in those of the presbyterate and the episcopate: a specific spiritual participation in the priesthood of Christ and the commitment to a life in conformity to him by the action of the Holy Spirit. I cannot conclude without recalling that deacons, like priests and bishops, who are committed to following Christ in the way of service, share most especially in his redeeming sacrifice. This is according to the principle Jesus formulated when speaking to the Twelve about the Son of Man, who came "to serve--to give his life in ransom for many" (Mk 10:45). Therefore, deacons are called to participate in the mystery of the cross, to share in the Church's sufferings, and to endure the hostility she encounters, in union with Christ the Redeemer. This painful aspect of the deacon's service makes it most fruitful.

[1]   SDO 8: Ench. Vat., II, 1378

[2]   SDO 30: Ench. Vat., II, 1400

[3]   cf. SDO 26: Ench. Vat., II, 1396

[4]   SDO 27; Ench. Vat., II, 1397

[5]   SDO 29; Ench. Vat., II, 1399