When Padre German asked me about the diaconate, one of the first concerns I raised was whether this would create or increase a barrier between the people I serve and me.
There will always be some barrier between the people I serve and me. I am white, born in privilege, even if my parents were blue collar workers. I have college degrees. I have a US passport. I have savings. There is much that makes us different, much that could divide us.
The deacon is not a member of the laity.
In a country and a church where there is a strong sense of the difference between clergy and laity, would becoming a deacon, and therefore a member of the “clergy,” put me up on a pedestal and separate me even more from people who are so involved in the church?
I think a lot of this depends on the person. But there is also what I would call the danger of clericalism and a theology that separates, rather than promoting communion.
Some have spoken of the diaconate as a bridge between the hierarchy and the laity; Pope John Paul II noted:
Some saw the permanent diaconate as a bridge between pastors and the faithful.
The image of bridge is appealing to me, especially since my spiritual director once helped me see how my ministry in the US was a type of bridge, connecting people there with the poor of the world.
But a word of caution. Some commentators have seen this image of the deacon as bridge as emphasizing a breech that is not there, according to the theology of Vatican II.
Whatever our ministry in the People of God it flows from the mission and ministry of Jesus. Our call comes, first and foremost, from our baptism and confirmation. In baptism we become members of Christ Jesus, prophet, priest, and king.
I have been reading a book of Kenan Osborne, OFM, The Permanent Diaconate: Its history and place in the Sacrament of Orders, that lays this out in terms of the theology and ecclesiology of Vatican II.
But this temptation to look at our ministry as supremely important is all too real. Yesterday in a meeting with base community leaders, one of them said that his calling came from the ministry he has in the church. I didn’t respond but later suggested that our calling comes first and foremost from Jesus – and is experienced primarily in our baptism.
But it is all too easy to see the differences that separate us than to affirm the unity of our calling by our baptism.
Thus I see the deacon as called to be, as some have written, an agent of communion and solidarity, an animator of participation in mission in the People of God.
I close with this extended quote from Paul McPartlan that has helped me to work through my concern about the danger that a deacon many be a barrier:
The term bridge [as a description of the permanent deacon], however, also has some problems, which are important to identify. The deacon is spoken of as a bridge precisely to stress the connectedness of church and world, liturgy and life, pastors and faithful.… The danger, however, is that the very image itself suggests a gap that needs to be bridged (and, moreover, that is not bridged unless there is a deacon)— that is not our basic view of things. Yes, there was a gap between the church and the world prior to Vatican II, but there should not have been; and if we call the deacon a bridge as a matter of course, we are in danger of implying that there is of course a gap between the church and the world, between the pastors and the faithful, and so on. As the International Theology Commission says, the idea of the diaconate as medius ordo (that is, bridge) “might end up by sanctioning and deepening, through that very function, the gap which it was supposed to fill.” I would suggest that it is truer to the vision of Vatican II, particularly as set forth in Gaudium et Spes, to speak of the seamlessness or solidarity between the church and world, and to speak of the deacon as a splendid and very special sign of that seamlessness and solidarity.
If I am ordained a deacon, may I experience it as another call by God to be a sign and an agent of solidarity who helps us all to see our common calling in Baptism to be prophets, priests, and servant-kings, signs of the Reign of God in our world.
Paul McPartlan's essay, "The Deacon and Gaudium et Spes," can be found in The Deacon Reader.