By Deacon Joseph R. Ferrari, Ph.D.
My sacramental theology class during formation included so much information about the matter, form, minister and recipient of each sacrament. It was wonderful for someone like me, a “cradle Catholic” who does not recall learning all these essential facts.
As the class was ending, however, I began to wonder: Is a deacon needed for the sacraments? Consider the following:
Baptism – Any person may perform a Catholic baptism, if the intent (and holy water) is there. Deacons may perform the rite, but then, so may the laity if they have the form and matter.
Confirmation – We need a bishop for this sacrament, or a priest in extreme cases, but not a deacon.
Eucharist – Only a priest or bishop may consecrate the bread and wine. Deacons are present on the altar, but they do not say any of the words for consecration (more on this below).
Penance – Only a priest or bishop may give absolution, never a deacon.
Marriage – A deacon may be present, but couples marry themselves before God with a public vow.
Anointing of the Sick – Deacons can pray or bless a sick person, but anointing with healing oil and penance for the forgiveness of sins often accompanying this sacrament are the sole validity of the priest (or bishop).
Holy Orders – Deacons, priests and bishops are the only ones to receive this sacrament. However, in the Roman Catholic Church only the bishop performs the rite of ordination.
I am comfortable with all these ministerial rites; they make sense to me now. But, again, they beg the question: Do we need deacons?
At a men’s day of reflection several years ago, a priest sat at a table with a bunch of us guys during lunch and I mentioned I was studying for the diaconate. He said that it is nice that I am committing my life to this ministry, but he wondered if “Rome” reinstated the permanent diaconate at Vatican II just to make some men who were very active in their parish feel more committed and connected. He said something like, “overdressed altar boys.”
A very close friend of mine recently asked me what I could do differently from what he can do in parish ministries. After all, service to the community is something we all perform.
I admit, they all have a point.
Why, then, did Vatican II reinstate – after almost 400 years since the Council of Trent – the permanent diaconate? I think the answer about our needed presence is to be “on the altar” and “in the pews.” We are to be Christ, the suffering servant.
On the Altar
At the Liturgy of the Word, deacons proclaim the Gospel on the altar. We proclaim the words of God, and we may share a homily about how, when and why we must live the Gospel in our daily lives.
Unfortunately, too much happens from the altar to the door. No sooner do we rise from our knees, having asked for forgiveness, than we turn to leave church and return to our previous ways.
At the Liturgy of the Eucharist, the deacon stands beside the priest at consecration. The deacon does not speak, but he witnesses for us all the presence of Christ. He lifts the chalice of suffering for all to witness as the priest tells us to behold the real presence of Christ. The deacon brings the suffering Christ to the altar, sacrificing self for others. Thus, liturgically, we have a unique role.
Recently, on the college campus where I work, I arrived at the chapel for the daily noon Mass. It was 11:52 a.m. and I was the only person present. Just me. The priest arrived at 11:54. By 11:56 a.m., we were still alone, and I thought, “What if no one else shows?” What came to mind next was this: “Whenever two or more are gathered, there I am.” Christ will be present even if we are the only ones there.
A deacon’s presence, along with the priest, brings all people to the altar of the sacrifice. Sure, I know we are present with all the saints and souls of the faithfully departed at every Mass. But the only “carbon-based life forms” – as we scientists like to call “people” – in that sacred space for noon Mass would be the priest and me. Our presence at the altar brings everyone present to the sacrifice.
In the Pews
Besides being present on the altar, the deacon lives the daily life of Christ as a servant among the laity. We “come always to serve.” As noted on the altar, we give of ourselves for others, even if it means we suffer and sacrifice. Gee, that is a tall order to be called to follow. When the celebration of the Mass is over, the deacon returns to live among the laity – he walks out the church doors, lives in the pews of life. He is a servant to and for the people.
On the Monday before Easter, in my diocese like many others, is the annual Chrism Mass. I attended for the first time in 2012. It was beautiful, wonderful and so faith-filled. My parish was seated on the side, but I could see. Opposite me, after they processed in, sat the many deacons of the diocese on the side of the altar. The priests processed in and sat behind the altar with the bishop and auxiliary bishops.
At one point, I thought, “Why are the deacons in the pews off to the side of the altar?” I wonder if the people see this as if deacons are second-class to the priests. What message does it send the laity?
Then it hit me: It sends the right message. Deacons belong in the pews – right there with the people. In the pews, in the “trenches” of life, deacons stand with and among people to show Christ as a living servant. It is right and just that they be with the people.
After the chrism oil was blessed by the bishop, the deacons were the ones who collected the baskets of oils that would be disseminated to the parishes. I thought, the Apostles collected the loaves and fish that Jesus then broke and blessed for the hungry crowds, and His Apostles disseminated them to the people. Now the deacons must take the baskets of comforting oil to the people. It is right and just that they are there in the pews.
In the Mass, when the people bring the gifts of bread and wine (“made of human hands”) to the table of the sacrifice, the deacon collects those baskets and presents them for consecration. The baskets of oil are collected and presented to the people by the deacons. It is right and just.
This returns me to my original question: “Do we really need deacons?”
The answer is yes. They are needed on the altar to represent the laity at Eucharist, and in the pews for the Church as people to model Christ. Deacons are the sacrament of Christ to the people, as they live the suffering servant. The Church is sanctified by their visible sign of invisible grace. Deacons offer something more than can be filled by an “overdressed altar boy.”
Deacon Ferrari, Ph.D., a permanent deacon in the Diocese of Joliet, Ill., since 2013, is a St. Vincent dePaul Professor of psychology at DePaul University, Chicago, Ill., and the brother of Msgr. Steven Ferrari, pastor, St. Teresa, Woodside.