Given the light but steady rain of the previous night, the early morning humidity was not unexpected. Yet somehow the chapel’s floor maintained its chill. It was nearly nippy. This welcome temperature transition seemed to be mindful of the moment at hand. The Ontological Change of the Sacrament was within reach. The lay bowing to the clerical. I was soon to be a Transitional Deacon of the Roman Catholic Church. Tuesday, the ninth, is the twenty-fifth anniversary of my ordination.
A priest from Peace would soon join me. He would vest me with a stole and Dalmatic over my alb. Next came the well-wishers from the Diaconate class of the previous year who themselves were a week from their priesthood ordinations. The next day, Mother’s Day, found me proclaiming the Gospel for the first time, and preaching. I focused on the final line of the second reading – “Behold, I make all things new.” (Revelation 21:5). So dawned my preference of beginning at the end.
‘Tis ordination season, and today’s first reading from Acts draws us back to the origin of the Diaconate. The original ordination included Stephen, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicholas. These Magnificent Seven were the first to engage in a ministry of leadership service. The spiritual and sacramental needs of the faithful were demanding enough and the bishops needed helpers when the temporal needs came calling. Yet the accounts from Acts remind us that the deacons did and do more than bus tables. Stephen was martyred for proclaiming and witnessing Christ. Philip quantum leapt from sea to shining sea baptizing as he went along.
This permanence of the diaconate, as a ministry in and of itself rather than a pathway to the priesthood, stood until the ninth century. At about the same time the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick shifted its focus solely for the reception of last rites. Both of these concerns were addressed and remedied by the Second Vatican Council, when Pope St. Paul VI issued guidelines in 1967 for the reestablishment of the Permanent Diaconate.
Therefore the transitional diaconate is designed for a man who anticipates a priesthood ordination a year afterwards. It includes the promises of obedience, and chastity. Poverty is not promised but a simple, unadorned lifestyle is encouraged and expected. Seminary studies continue for one final year with a focus on the sacramental duties yet to come – Penance, Anointing, consecration of the Eucharist.
The permanent diaconate is designed for a man who has already established himself in life both professionally and personally. While only he himself will be ordained it is a commitment of his entire immediate family. Studies, retreats, and practicums prepare both him and them for the commitment to which he feels called. The permanent diaconate is a ministry of service that requires a balance of time between family and parish family. It is an invitation to enter into the life story of parishioners, stories to which they themselves can relate and uniquely understand.
The following prayer is raised by the Bishop at Diaconate Ordinations: In the first days of your Church, O Lord, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, your Son’s Apostles appointed seven men of good repute to assist them in the daily ministry, that they might devote themselves more fully to prayer and preaching of the word. By prayer and the laying on of hands they entrusted to these chosen men the ministry of serving at table. We beseech you, Lord: look with favor on these servants of yours who will minister at your holy altar and whom we now humbly dedicate to the Office of Deacon. Send forth upon them, Lord, we pray, the Holy Spirit, that they may be strengthened by the gift of your sevenfold grace for the faithful carrying out of the works of the ministry. May there abound in them every Gospel virtue: unfeigned love, concern for the sick, and poor, unassuming authority, the purity of innocence, and the observance of spiritual discipline. May your commandments shine forth in their conduct, so that by the example of their way of life they may inspire the imitation of your holy people. In offering the witness of a clear conscience, may they remain strong and steadfast in Christ, so that by imitating on earth your Son, who came not to be served but to serve, they may be found worthy to reign in heaven with him.
Information about the diaconate can be found at the Archdiocesan website: archphila.org.
Blessings to our deacons, and to their families!