Friday, August 10, 2012
St Laurence: thoughts on the diaconate
Everyone knows the story of St Laurence, the great martyr, the only non biblical saint honoured throughout the Latin Church with a feast.
He is a deacon; I had an Irish lady email to complain about "married deacons" who are being introduced into Ireland, she means permanent deacons of course, they were resisted in her country for a long time.
I have a friend who has just taken over a parish and the local clergy (priests) have been advising him to rid of the permanent deacon in the parish he is just about to take over, partly because he is a bit disruptive in the parish, hasn't much grasp of theology and isn't that devout, he seems to have been trained on the cheap, without much regard to his spiritual formation, apparently he turns up Sundays and spends the rest of the time gossiping.
Deacons are a bit of problem for us in the West, our theology of Holy Orders doesn't quite have room for them, it is based too much on priests. Some of the VII Fathers, familiar with the Fathers and the theology of the East, wanted to broaden it but that depended on raising the role of the minor orders within the life of the Church, but that was somewhat dashed by the Council deciding to abolish them whilst restoring the permanent diaconate. In practice we end have ended up with a bishop as a priest plus and a deacon as priest minus. In Ireland, as elsewhere, the new openness to the diaconate is obviously the result of the shortage of priests, they can stand in for a priest, and for all the meaningful words, they are simply a substitute, a stand in.
The story of St Laurence tells us that the deacon was there to care for the poor, and to look after the Church's treasure. Historically, he was one who did the pastoral work, who took care of almsgiving and the Church's administration, he might also have been a catechist but everything he did was in communion with the bishop, in the story of St Laurence he shares in both the death of Christ and of his bishop Pope Sixtus. I cannot help thinking today Diocesan Financial Secretaries, Head Teachers etc. ought to be deacons.
It is entirely praiseworthy that bishops are beginning again to wear the pontifical dalmatic, it should be remembered that Eastern bishops wear the sackos, the dalmatic like garment but not the chasuble, because rather than bishops being priests plus they are both priest and deacon. The deacon shares in the bishop's servant role and hence wears one of his vestments, which signifies his service of the Church.
It is worth considering the seven deacon's of Rome were not the Presbyter's assistants but the servants of the Bishop. In ancient sanctuaries the deacons stood around the bishops cathedra whilst the presbyters sat with him. At a deacons ordination, unlike a priests, the bishop alone lays hands on the new deacon.
One of the stories of St Laurence is that one the treasures he cared for was the Holy Grail which was sent to Valencia, his hometown, there is still an apparently 1st century Palestinian cup in there cathedral treasury there today. Modern theologies of the diaconate seem to want downplay the cultic role of the diaconate, in the Traditional Rite not only does he prepare the chalice but also offers it with bishop or priest, it is his role to prepare and care for holy things, yet he does not take the place of either bishop or priest. In the Ethiopian he doesn't even read the Gospel, the priest does, assisted by the deacon. In the Byzantine liturgy for a great deal of the time he stands at the head of the people leading the Litanies, in the West, now he is supposed to lead the Prayer of the Faithful.
There are several accounts of newly appointed bishops getting rid of the previous regimes troublesome deacons by ordaining them presbyters, thus taking them away from the coffers and separating them from the poor and from immediate contact with the bishop's ministery.
Posted by Fr Ray Blake