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Fr. Francesco Moraglia

Professor of Dogmatic Theology



The history of the Church has transmitted to us several accounts of the great Bishops and Priests who have illuminated the profound mystery of the Ordained ministry at a pastoral and theological level. Among the Bishop we remember Ireneus of Lyons, Augustine Winfried, Boniface, Barolomeo Las Casas and Ildefonso Schuster. In the present age priests such as Philip Neri, John Mary Vianney, Don Bosco, Peter Chanel and Maximillian Kolbe have been significant figures. The ministry of Deacons also becomes more clear when seen in the light of the great deacons of the Church's history. An example is St Lawrence, Martyr and Porto-Deacon of the Roman Church. Together with St Stephen and St Philip, Lawrence must certainly be one of the most renowned Deacons of antiquity.

In the West, the diaconate, considered as a permanent ministry in itself, and not just oriented towards the Priesthood, was less frequent by the fifth century. Up to that time it had been a flourishing institution but by the beginning of the fifth century, largely because of greater involvement of priests in the pastoral ministry, the first grade of Holy Orders was largely reduced to the role of an access to the successive grade of the Priesthood. It is therefore easy to understand why the Diaconate became restricted, indeed almost fossilized at the level of theological reflection and pastoral practice.

In the sixteenth century, the Council of Trent attempted to respond to this situation but we had to await the Second Vatican Council and the middle of the twentieth century to see the restoration of the diaconate "as a proper and permanent grade of the hierarchy...". Immediately following this affirmation article 29 of the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium states "Should the roman Pontiff think fit, it will be possible to confer this diaconal order even upon married men, provided thy be of more mature age, and also on suitable young men, for whom, however, the law of celibacy must remain in force." In his Apostolic Letter Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem (8 June 1967) Pope Paul VI reiterates that the diaconate "is not to be considered as a mere step towards the priesthood, but it is so adorned with its own indelible character and its own special grace so that those who are called to it 'can permanently serve the mysteries of Christ and the Church'" (EV, 2/1369).

The fact also that the diaconate in the Latin Church did not have a permanent form for some fifteen centuries would suggest a certain need to make up for lost time on the level of theological reflection and pastoral practice by means of a wide ranging reflection on the part of the entire ecclesial community. The permanent Diaconate indeed constitutes an important enrichment for the Church's mission.

Clearly, the restoration of the permanent Diaconate, desired authoritatively by the last Council, can only come about in harmony with the Church's venerable tradition. Particularly important in this respect is the joint declaration of 22 February 1988 made by the Congregation for the Catholic Education and the Congregation for the Clergy which prefaces the Basic norms for the formation of permanent deacons and the Directory on the Ministry and Life of Priests. This declaration serves as a clarification and can be taken as an orientation for the future. It says: "The total reality of the Diaconate — embracing its fundamental doctrinal vision, discernment of vocation, as well as the life, ministry, spirituality and formation of deacons — calls for a review of the journey thus far made, so as to arrive at a global vision of this grade of Sacred Orders corresponding to the desire and intention of the Second Vatican Council" (Basic norms for the formation of permanent deacons - Directory for the ministry and life of permanent deacons. Vatican City 1998, pg. 7).

Returning to what we have said about the great Bishops, Priests and Deacons who have illustrated and marked the ordained ministry, thereby winning for it a profound understanding, it is logical that we should turn the figure of Lawrence, whose personal experience forces us to re-examine the first grade of the ordained ministry, which, because of the aforementioned historical factors, still awaits full appreciation and acceptance. New emphasis is required to be given to the re-discovery of the diaconal ministry understood as a permanent ministry which can express itself with greater fruitfulness in the life of the Church.

The personal adventures of Lawrence, Proto Deacon of the Roman Church, come down to us trough an ancient tradition, already widely known by the fourth century. This tradition, accepted by the Church, is also to be found in the liturgical texts. The most notable events of Lawrence's life are described particularly well in the Passio Polychromi of which we have three version (dating from the fifth to the seventh centuries). It is a fact that this account of Lawrence contains elements of legend, although some of the information contained in the Passio were known to earlier writers such as St Ambrose, which is clear from his De Officiis (cf PL XVL, 89-92).

In our efforts to amplify the few details of Lawrence's life, let us begin with those preserved for the feast of his Martyrdom (10 August) in the Depositio Martyrm which dates from 354 A.D.. According to the Roman Missal "Lawrence, the renowned Deacon of the Roman Church, confirmed his service of charity by martyrdom under Valerian (258), four days after the decapitation of Pope Sixtus II. According to a tradition widely diffused by the fourth century, he patiently sustained a terrible martyrdom on the grid-iron, having distributed the goods of the community to the poor whom he regarded as the true treasure of the Church". These notes end by recalling that Lawrence's martyrdom is also mentioned in the Roman Canon. Thus the Church in her official liturgical texts takes to herself what tradition, even in its differing internal versions, hands down concerning Lawrence. It is not our intention to enter into the merits of a number of contemporary hypotheses advanced by recent historical criticism which tend to place the martyrdom of Lawrence at the beginning of the third century and which present a figure substantially different from the traditional one. For example, Lawrence was Spanish rather than Roman. On this specific point it should be recalled that the Praefatio Mensae of the twelfth century Leonine Sacramentary tells us that Lawrence was a civis Romanus. Paolo Toschi, however, notes with regard to these recent studies that they "do not a priori eliminate the possibility of a true and proper tradition existing in Rome. St Ambrose, with obvious rhetorical embellishments, retells the tragic capture and death by fire of Lawrence. We know this sentence was inflicted on Fruttoso and on the deacons Eulogius and Augurius of Tarragona during the reign of Valerian. Moreover, the word "animadvertere" used in the decree of presentation in the redaction of Cyprian can also refer to forms of capital execution other than "decollation" (cf Bibliotheca Sanctorum, 1539). Here we shall accept the traditional date for the Martyrdom of Lawrence as transmitted to us in the liturgical texts, and limit ourselves to stating it in a more articulate manner.

Lawrence is believed to have been born in Spain, at Osca, a town in Aragon, near the foot of the Pyrenees. As a youth he was sent to Saragoza to complete his humanistic and theological studies. It was here that he first encountered the future Pope Sixtus II, who was of Greek origin. He was a teacher in what was then one of the most renowned centres of learning. The future Pope was one of the most famous and esteemed teachers.

Lawrence, who would subsequently become the head of the deacons of the Roman Church, was remarkable for his human qualities, his subtlety of mind and for his intelligence. Between master and disciple a communion of life and friendship grew. With the passage of time a love for Rome, the centre of Christianity and seat of the Vicar of Christ was consolidated and grew stronger in both. Eventually, following a migratory wave which was then very pronounced, both left Spain for the City where the Apostle Peter had established his See and given supreme witness. Thus Master and disciple were able to realize their ideal of evangelization and missionary activity to the point of shedding their blood, in Rome, the heart of Christianity. Sixtus was raised to the Chair of Peter and began a pontificate that would last for less than a year. Without hesitation, he desired to have Lawrence, his friend and disciple, at his side so as to entrust to him the important office of proto-deacon. Both sealed their life of communion and friendship by dying at the hands of the same persecutor, a few days apart from each other. St Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, preserves an account of the death of St Sixtus in one of his letters. Commenting on the situation of great uncertainty and unease in which the Church found herself because of increasing hostility towards Christians, he notes: "The Emperor Valerian has consigned to the Senate a decree by which he has determined that all Bishops, Priests and Deacons will be immediately put to death". Cyprian then continues: "I communicate to you that Sixtus suffered martyrdom on 6 August together with four Deacons while they were in a cemetery. The Roman authorities have established a norm according to which all Christians who have been denounced must be executed and their goods confiscated by the Imperial treasury" (CSEL 3, 839-840).

The cemetery to which the holy Bishop of Carthage alludes is that of St Callixtus. Sixtus was captured here while celebrating the Sacred Liturgy. His remains were entered in the cemetery of St. Calixtus after his martyrdom.

In his De Officiis (1, 41, 205-207) we have Ambrose's particularly eloquent account of the martyrdom of St Lawrence. It was subsequently taken up by Prudentius and by St Augustine. Hence it passes to Maximus of Turin, St Peter Chrisologus and to Leo the Great before emerging again in some of the formularies of the Roman Sacramentals, the Missale Gothicumm and in the Caerimoniale Visigoticum (Bibliotheca Sanctorum, .....1538-1539).

Ambrose dwells, firstly, on the encounter and dialogue of Lawrence and Sixtus. He alludes to the distribution of the Church's goods to the poor and ends by mentioning the grid-iron, the instrument of Lawrence's torture, and remarks on the phrase which the proto-Deacon of the Roman Church addresses to his torturers: "assum est...versa et manduca" (cf. Bibliotheca Sanctorum ...., col 1538-1539).

We shall dwell on the Ambrosian text of the De Officiis (Cap. 41,nn. 205-206-207), which is very moving in its intensity and strength of expression. Thus writes St Ambrose:

"St Lawrence wept when he saw his Bishop, Sixtus, led out to his martyrdom. He wept not because he was being let out to die but because he would survive Sixtus. He cried out to him in a loud voice: 'Where are you going Father, without your son? Where do you hasten to, holy Bishop, without your Deacon? You cannot offer sacrifice without a minister. Father, are you displeased with something in me? Do you think me unworthy? Show us a sign that you have found a worthy minister. Do you not wish that he to whom you gave the Lord's blood and with whom you have shared the sacred mysteries should spill his own blood with you? Beware that in your praise your own judgment should not falter. Despise the pupil and shame the Master. Do not forget that great and famous men are victorious more in the deeds of their disciples than in their own. Abraham made sacrifice of his own son, Peter instead sent Stephen. Father, show us your own strength in your sons; sacrifice him whom you have raised, to attain eternal reward in that glorious company, secure in your judgment".

In reply Sixtus says: "I will not leave you, I will not abandon you my son. More difficult trials are kept for you. A shorter race is set for us who are older. For you who are young a more glorious triumph over tyranny is reserved. Soon, you will see, cry no more, after three days you will follow me. It is fitting that such an interval should be set between Bishop and Levite. It would not have been fitting for you to die under the guidance of a martyr, as though you needed help from him. Why do want to share in my martyrdom? I leave its entire inheritance to you. Why do need me present? The weak pupil precedes the master, the strong, who have no further need of instruction, follow and conquer without him. Thus Elijah left Elisha. I entrust the success of my strength to you".

This was the contest between them which was worthy of a Bishop and of a Deacon: who would be the first to die for Christ (It is said that in tragedy, the spectators would burst into applause when Pilade said he was Orestes and when Orestes himself declared that he was Orestes) the one who would be killed instead of Orestes, and when Orestes prevented Pilades from being killed in place of himself. Neither of these deserved to live for both were guilty of patricide. One because he had killed his father, the other because he had been an accomplice in patricide.) In the case of Lawrence, nothing urged him to offer himself as a victim but the desire to be a holocaust for Christ. Three days after the death of Sixtus, while the terror raged, Lawrence would be burned on the grid-iron: "This side is done, turn and eat". With such strength of soul he conquered the flames of the fire" (Ambrose, De Officiis).

According to Ambrose, the Deacon is one who:

1. having been sacramentally constituted in the service of offering (diakonia), lives his diaconal ministry giving supreme witness to Christ in martyrdom - the theological meaning of the service of charity by acceptance of that greater love or charity which is martyrdom;

2. in virtue of the structural link which binds him to the Bishop (the first stage of Orders), lives "ecclesial communion" by specific service to the Bishop, beginning with the Eucharist and in reference to the Eucharist;

3. in virtue of the Sacrament (that is, to the extent tat he is rooted in the first grade of Orders), devotes himself totally to the service of an integral charity and not merely to a human or social solidarity, and thereby manifests the most characteristic element of the diaconia.

Let us now examine these characteristics starting with:

1. The Deacon is one who having been sacramentally constituted in the service of offering (diakonia), lives his diaconal ministry giving supreme witness to Christ in martyrdom - the theological meaning of the service of charity by acceptance of that greater love or charity which is martyrdom.

The principle characteristic defining the Deacon in se, and his ministry, is that he is ordained for the service of charity. Martyrdom, which is a witness to the point of shedding one's blood, must be considered an expression of greater love or charity. It is service to a charity that knows no limits. The ministry of charity in which the Deacon is deputed by ordination is not limited to service at table, or indeed to what former catechetical terminology called corporal works of mercy, nor to the spiritual works of mercy. The diaconal service of charity must include imitation of Christ by means of unconditional self-giving since he is the fruitful witness ...... (cf Ap 1, 5:13; 14).

In the case of Lawrence, as St Ambrose explains, "no other desire urged him but that of offering himself to the Lord as a holocaust" (de Officiis, 1,41, n. 207). By means of the witness borne before his persecutors, it is evident that the diaconal ministry is not to be equated with that of service to one's neighbour, understood or reduced solely to their material needs. Lawrence, in that act which expresses a greater love for Christ and which leads to his giving up his own life, also permits his tormentors, in a certain sense, to experience the Incarnate Word who, in the end, is the personal and common destiny of all mankind. This is a theological service of charity to which every Deacon must tend or, at least, be disposed to accept.

This does not mean that in his ministry the Deacon gives exhaustive witness to charity which is, and always remains, the vocation and mission of the Church. Rather it means that, in virtue of Ordination, the Deacon in a specific sacramental way, bears in himself the "forma Christi" for the service of charity. It implies a "ministerial exercise" of charity which is done for Christ and the brethren. It can reach the point of demanding the complete giving of self...the point of sacrificing one's life. Thus the words addressed to Sixtus by Lawrence are perfectly clear: "Abraham made sacrifice of his own son, Peter instead sent Stephen. Father, show us your own strength in your sons; sacrifice him whom you have raised, to attain eternal reward in that glorious company, secure in your judgment" (De Officiis 1, 41, n. 205.

It should be mentioned however, that this witness to greater charity/love by those ordained for the service of charity does not exempt the Church as Spouse from giving herself to Christ in the gift of martyrdom through which is made manifest the absolute value and the unbreakable union of truth and charity in the Lord's disciples. In martyrdom this is made manifest beyond any form of ambiguity or reticence (cf I Cor 13, 4-5; Phil 4, 15). Here it is useful to recall article 42 of Lumen Gentium: "Martyrdom makes the disciple like his master, who willingly accepted death for the salvation of the world, and through it he is conformed to him by the shedding of blood. Therefore the Church considers it the highest gift and supreme test of love. And while it is given to few, all however must be prepared to confess Christ before men and to follow him along the way of the cross amidst the persecutions which the Church never lacks".

Notwithstanding the universal call to heroic charity, one fact is incontrovertible: there is a specific "ordained ministry" in the Church which is an ordained ministry of men who are sacramentally constituted for the service of charity.

2. The Deacon, in virtue of the structural link which binds him to the Bishop (the first stage of Orders), lives "ecclesial communion" by specific service to the Bishop, beginning with the Eucharist and in reference to the Eucharist.

This is another characteristic which emerges from the exchange between Sixtus and Lawrence in the cemetery of St Calixtus. It clearly emphasises that it is the sacramental bond which unites the Deacon with the Bishop. It underlines that the Deacon is a "man of communion", precisely through a specific service to the Bishop. This service, then, is realized concretely in faithfully discharging what is required of him, in ecclesial needs and urgencies, by the Bishop, in virtue of the fullness of the priesthood and the government of the Church, in communion with the Bishop of Rome, which is entrusted to him.

In the diaconal ministry, everything revolves around the altar, since in the Church, everything, beginning with charity, has its origin in the Most Holy Eucharist. This point is especially important for Ambrose's account of the martyrdom of Lawrence. ... (De Officiis 1,41, n.205).

The communion and affection between Bishop and Deacon which are manifest in a common dependence and in a common link with the Eucharist, expresses a profoundly theological vision of the Church, surpassing concepts which abuse or reduce the Church as Spouse to the merely political or sociological or which equiparate her to one of many human institutions. It is therefore necessary to free oneself of every secular or secularizing outlook which leads ultimately to loss or compromise of the meaning and regenerating power of the Mystery. There is a risk of seeing in the Pope and the Bishops, as well as in Priests and Deacons as just so many steps in an infinite bureaucracy, similar in many respects to the civil service, whose only competence is to oversee a not too clearly defined general public order.

The encounter between Sixtus and Lawrence invites us, should such be necessary, to reject such a vision and to re-discover in the heart of the institutional Church -which is always indispensable- and in ecclesial structures -which are necessary instruments, the living and infinite reality of grace which animates them and which invites us to re-discover the theological link which binds them to Christ, the One, True, Bishop, Priest and Deacon. Paul in his letter to the Philippians (Phil 1,1) and in his first letter to Timothy (3, 1-3) already associates Bishop and Deacon. This close bond is subsequently attested to in the "Traditio Apostolica" (beginning of the third century, Hippolytus of Rome ?) which defines the grace given to the Deacon at Ordination as "a simple service to the Bishop", without the priesthood. The mid-third century "Didascalia Apostolorum" describes the Deacon as the "servant of the Bishop and of the poor".

Finally, the structural relationship between Deacon and Bishop is clearly expressed in to-day's liturgy of Ordination. The ceremony, in contrast with that for the Ordination of Bishops and Priests, reserves the imposition of hands to the Ordaining Bishop alone, precisely to highlight this characteristic, singular bond linking Bishop and Deacon.

3. The Deacon, in virtue of the Sacrament (that is, to the extent that he is rooted in the first grade of Orders), devotes himself totally to the service of an integral charity and not merely to a human or social solidarity, and thereby manifests the most characteristic element of the diaconia.

Ambrose's account of the martyrdom of Lawrence portrays Lawrence as one who, in virtue of the Sacrament received, is totally dedicated to the service of charity in the specific context of third century Imperial Rome, in the throws of violent persecution. In this situation, Lawrence is called to concrete action before the ecclesial community and before the world. These actions would be transformed into signs of God's love and charity, from which all things derive and to which all things return. By this service the Deacon expresses the characteristic ministry of his diaconia which consists in the service of charity, in accord with a sacramental mandate. His is an animation which affects the Church or areas of Catholic life which is truly catholic in character (katalon= the totality without exclusion). His service aspires to the totality of mankind without exception. Its content is a good which responds to all the expectations of man's soul, mind and body (cf 1Thes 5, 23). It eschews all partiality and interest groups.

The Ambrosian account of Lawrence's martyrdom also contains a useful allusion for our reflection: Sixtus, already a prisoner, entrusts the entire Church to the first of his Deacons, Lawrence, for a period that would last for three days. "A shorter race is set for us who are older. For you who are young a more glorious triumph over tyranny is reserved. Soon, you will see, cry no more, after three days you will follow me. It is fitting that such an interval should be set between Bishop and Levite" (De Officiis, n.206).

In a spirit of service and obedience to his Bishop - who had been definitively taken from his people - Lawrence, as Deacon, would guide the Church for three days, and for the last time would administer the goods of the Bride of Christ. This he would do in a manner which, in itself, would have significance. It would show how , in the Church, everything is oriented and consummated by values which begin with charity and with realities which are destined to remain, even when this world has passed away (cf Cor 13,8).

For those who look on this reality from the outside or merely superficially, all this seems exclusively bound up with material needs and with the present. It would appear solely to be no more than the distribution of material goods to the poor. In reality, however, Lawrence's act, done in a spirit of fidelity to the office entrusted to him by the Bishop and by ecclesial ministry, propels him and the entire Church entrusted to him until his own martyrdom, beyond history into an eschatological dimension - the "time" and "space" in which God manifests the fullness of his charity and love.

Thus Lawrence, an ordained minister of charity, brings to completion the task given to him. This he does not only by following his Bishop in the shedding of his own blood in martyrdom, but also in his act of distributing the communities resources (as expressed in material goods) to the poor. His gesture shows how, in the Church, all things have a value once oriented towards charity, or when placed at the service of charity or when they can be transformed into charity.

As the letter to the Thessalonians reminds, this service extends not only to the "body" but also to the "mind" and to the "soul". This is perfectly clear from the prayer which, according to the acts of the martyrdom of Lawrence contained in the Passio Polychromi, was recited by Lawrence for the City of Rome before being exposed on the grid-iron. The city accorded him ultimate victory over paganism and chose him as its third patron. From the fourth century, Rome celebrates his feast as next in importance after that of Peter and Paul. In honour of the holy Deacon some thirty-four chapels and churches would be dedicated to the holy Deacon in ancient and medieval Rome. This would be a visible sign of gratitude to him who, in fidelity to his ministry, was a true minister of charity in midst of Rome.

At the end of our reflection on the ministry of deacons, understood in a "permanent" form, we can say the following:

1. It is necessary to look critically on those positions- which in reality have been superseded - which interpret or present the diaconate as a ministry leading to the clericalisation of the laity and to the laicization of the clergy, thereby weakening the identity of both.

2. The Deacon, who is distinguished from Bishops and Priests in that he is not ordained "ad sacerdotium sed ad ministerium", is constituted in an authentic grade of the hierarchy and cannot be regarded merely as an accessory to the priesthood.

3. The Deacon is destined for the service of charity in close dependence on the Eucharist and to the privileged service of the poor. He is destined both to the service of the table (corporal works of mercy) and to the service of the word (spiritual works of mercy). He also remains open to that service of a greater love or charity which is martyrdom.

Finally, the institution of the permanent diaconate represents, and is a sign of an important enrichment for the Church and her mission, especially in the light of the Holy Father's continued appeals for new evangelization at the dawn of the third Christian Millennium. The beauty, power and the heroism of Deacons such as Lawrence help us to discover and come to a deeper meaning of the special nature of the diaconal ministry.