Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Celibacy and Holy Orders I

1. Some misunderstandings of the celibate deacon.

In light of the current controversy of a book by Cardinal Sarah with contributions from Benedict XVI on priestly celibacy, I’ll be bold enough to write something. This may be the first of several blog posts.

I have been thinking about this for a few months since a friend in South Africa has asked me to send him some thoughts for a book on the diaconate that he is preparing for the church there. He had been searching for something on the spirituality of the celibate deacon and so, when I reconnected with him, he asked me to write something.

First of all, it’s important to know that I am an ordained permanent deacon in the diocese of Santa Rosa de Copán, Honduras. I was ordained on July 15, 2016.

I have been celibate all my life and so on the day of my ordination, I was asked by the bishop:
¿Quieres, ante Dios y ante la Iglesia, en señal de su entrega a Cristo, el Señor, guardar perpetuamente el celibato por el reino de los cielos y para el servicio de Dios y de los hombres?
I responded, Sí, quiero.

The English translation is:
In the presence of God and the Church, are you resolved, as a sign of your interior dedication to Christ, to remain celibate for the sake of the kingdom and in lifelong service to God and mankind?
The response is, “I am.”

Introducing this query, the bishop says:
By your own free choice you seek to enter the order of deacons. You shall exercise this ministry in the celibate state for celibacy is both a sign and a motive of pastoral charity, and a special source of spiritual fruitfulness in the world. By living in this state with total dedication, moved by a sincere love for Christ the Lord, you are consecrated to him in a new and special way. By this consecration you will adhere more easily to Christ with an undivided heart; you will be more freely at the service of God and mankind, and you will be more untrammeled in the ministry of Christian conversion and rebirth. By your life and character you will give witness to your brothers and sisters.

We celibate permanent deacons are a minority. Indeed, there are some who would deny that a celibate could have a vocation to the permanent diaconate. This is not only the response I have heard from a few priests here in Honduras, but even Padre José Antonio Fortea, in a book on the diaconate,  seems to undermine the possibility of such a vocation, though he admits it as an exception. He writes, in La luz de la diaconía, p. 161:

De manera que, el diaconado permanente como norma general será una vocación para aquellos hombres casados que por la ley del celibato no pueden acceder al presbiterado.

The permanent diaconate as a general norm will be the vocation of those married men who, because of the law of celibacy, cannot have access to the priesthood.

He even asks,

¿Para qué quesdarse en el diaconado si uno puede seguir hasta el presbiteriado? Por cierto, ¿porqué quedarse en ese grado de sacerdocio, cuando uno podría conseguir otro grado y la  postestas?

Why stay in the diaconate if one can continue on to the priesthood? Indeed, why stay in this grade of priesthood when one could obtain the other grade and the power?

I was amazed when I first read this question, not only because I am a celibate permanent deacon and, with God’s grace, intend to stay one, but also because it seems to misunderstand what is the diaconate. He seems to imply that the diaconate is a grade of the priesthood. Yet The Catechism of the Catholic Church notes that the diaconate is a grade of Holy Orders, but it is not a grade of priesthood.

“At a lower level of the hierarchy are to be found deacons, who receive the imposition of hands ‘not unto the priesthood, but unto the ministry.’” (Catechism, 1569)

“Catholic doctrine, expressed in the liturgy, the Magisterium, and the constant practice of the Church, recognizes that there are two degrees of ministerial participation in the priesthood of Christ: the episcopacy and the presbyterate. The diaconate is intended to help and serve them. For this reason, the term sacerdos in current usage denotes bishops and priests but not deacons. Yet Catholic doctrine teaches that the degrees of priestly participation (episcopate and presbyterate) and the degree of service (diaconate) are all three conferred by a sacramental act called “ordination,” that is, by the sacrament of Holy Orders…” (Catechism, 1554)

Often the diaconate is spoken of as a grade of the priesthood and the sacrament of Holy Orders is spoken of as the sacrament of priestly ordination. I see this as a misunderstanding of the sacramental diaconate, even though there are any number of statements and documents that state or imply this.

What is important is to consider the actual vocation of the deacon.

The permanent is not something for married men who want to serve in the church. The permanent deacon has a special vocation, a special ordination, in the church – a call to sacramentalize the diakonia of all the people of God, as Pope Saint John Paul II said at a meeting of US deacons in 1987.

Thus a celibate can have a vocation to the permanent diaconate. I pray that I may be worthy to be a sign, a sacrament of Christ’s diakonia and the diakonia of the Church, the Body of Christ.

Listening to someone showing me where the Amigas brigade was going to serve.

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