Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Breaking ground in the theology of the permanent diaconate.

Review of Tim O’Donnell on the Diaconate 

Tim O’ Donnell, The Deacon: Icon of Christ the Servant, Minister of the Threshold. New York: Paulist Press, 2020. 

This is a most welcome book, clarifying the nature of the permanent diaconate and bringing to the fore much of what have not been at the center of most of the discussions I have read. As a permanent deacon in rural Honduras, I am glad to read someone articulating a deeper vision than some other writers. (I must exclude the great work of Deacon Greg Kandra, Deacon Bill Ditewig, Deacon James Keating, Monsignor Paul McPartland, Bishop W/ Shawn McKnight, and Michael J. Tkacik – among others.)


 O’Donnell’s approach, emphasizing the deacon as the Icon of Christ the Servant and the Minister of the Threshold, analyses each model in terms of Christ, the Church, the disciple, and the deacon, as well as in terms of the functional, relational, and sacramental aspects of diaconal ministry. This is a very rich approach. As he explains:
“Each model begins with a metaphor (servant or threshold) that offers a perspective on the person and activity of Christ, and then extends to a parallel dimension of the Church and of Christian discipleship. Only from this broad perspective is it possible to see how the office of deacon is uniquely structured to represent and to put into action each model of ministry.” (p. 131)
This approach roots the diaconate in Christ, the Church, and the role of the baptized as disciples. The diaconate is not an isolated ministry, nor is his ordination separated from his baptism. The ordained deacon has his roots first of all in Chris, and thus in his service to the People of God, and in the deacon’s baptismal identity. But what I found most refreshing is what I believe is central to his reflection. He seeks an integral vision of the identity of the permanent deacon, not content with a reductionist approach nor denying the centrality of the diakonia of charity. AS he writes:
“the foundational understanding of the diaconal tasks as integrating word, liturgy, and charity, with a center of gravity in charity.” (p. 134)
I am also very grateful for his critique of the work of Collins. I have long felt that Collins has become an alternate magisterium on the permanent diaconate, undermining the servant aspect of the diaconate ministry. 


Living the three-part ministry of baptism is central in my understanding and practice of the diaconate. For this, I am indebted to the theology of the base communities here in Honduras. Our pastoral work and the identity of the disciple are founded in our baptismal anointing in Christ – prophet, priest, and king – and are expressed in the prophetic, liturgical, and social ministries of the diocese, the parish, and the base communities. 

Defining the deacon in terms of the diakonia of Word, Liturgy, and Charity, with its center in charity, reflects the importance of seeing the diaconate in terms of its foundation in baptism.

The deacon’s ministry of service is also connected with the call to the church to be servant of humankind, as noted by Pope Saint Paul VI. O’Donnell notes the relational aspect of the diaconate. No deacon can be the servant alone but is servant with the whole church.

I would have liked some in-depth discussion of the deacon as the animator, driving force of the diakonia of the church, as noted by Pope Saint Paul VI and Pope Saint John Paul II. I’ll reflect on this later in this review. 


In reflection on my diaconate, I have seen that it includes serving as a bridge or being at the crossroads of the church and the world. O’Donnell’s emphasis on the deacon as a minister of the threshold is one of the most significant parts of this work, clarifying aspects of the diaconate that have not been fully developed.

Many have written about the diaconate as “a bridge or mediating ministry.” But the concept of threshold provides a richer understanding of our ministry. 

As O’Donnell notes, “A threshold, as a place of meeting and passage between different places or realities, suggests the ideas of bridge, borderland, and mediation…” (p. 113). Thus, the deacon is “…an ordained minister embedded in the world outside the Church.” (p. 122). 

Being ‘between,” in one sense, identifies us sociologically and theologically. But our ministry is more. 

As O’Donnell writes, “It is in crossing the Church threshold into the broader world that diaconal ministry is at its most characteristic.” (p. 122). 

For me, the permanent deacon who has his employment outside the church is in a unique and important place. In his life he can be a sign of the intersection of faith and work. He can bring his experiences in the workplace and the family, into the life of the church, formally and institutionally. In addition, he can bring the values of the Kingdom of God into the workplace. 

As I see it, the permanent deacon is one who ought to be able to see the reality of the world around him, the joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties” of our age (Gaudium et Spes, 1). He can then bring them to the attention of the church. 

The image of the deacon as” the eyes and ears of the bishop” might be developed to reflect this aspect of being a minister of the threshold. I will make several comments on this below. 


I would further develop O’Donnell’s portrait of the deacon as minister of the threshold in several ways.

First of all, I would suggest that the description the Seven in Acts 6-8 can be read partly in terms of being ministers of the threshold. 

The Seven are chosen to respond to the needs of those who have been neglected, those who have been, in a sense, marginalized, outside of the attention of the whole church, especially the apostles.

It is also important to note the ministry of Philip the deacon. He opens the faith to the outsiders – the Samaritans and the Ethiopian eunuch are beyond the community, but Philip evangelizes them, welcoming them into communion with the community.

I also think it might be helpful to think of the diaconate call as a pull or a push toward the edges, to those who are beyond the church, the alienated, the marginalized, the abandoned members of our world. Pope Francis’s call to go to the peripheries is a diaconal calling all disciples to be ministers of the threshold. 

This call has been taken up in a monthly on-line publication of Latin American deacons entitled, appropriately, Servir en las peripherias – Serve in the margins. 

It might be helpful to look at the Latin American emphasis on mission and discipleship, which can be found in the document of the Latin American Bishops Conference of 2007 in Aparecida, Brazil. 

This is reflected in much of the teaching of Pope Francis. 

Furthermore, looking at the deacon as a minister of the threshold, I would have liked a discussion of the deacon as the eyes and ears of the bishop – especially in relation to the discussions in the priest barracks at Dachau on the failure of the Church to respond to Nazism. 

The deacon can be, by being involved in the world, not just the eyes and ears of the bishop but as one who can make the connection with the world and the needs of the world for the whole church. I will offer a few initial thoughts below. 


Deacon Tim O’Donnell has opened a space for a deeper understanding of the deacon’s identity. I would suggest that there are at least four aspects of the diaconate that merit further discussion. 

1) The deacon as animator of diakonia:

The deacon is, as several popes have mentioned, an animator, a driving force for diakonia of the whole church. This opens a space for the deacon that is more than the one who does diaconal ministry.

As animator, the deacon is a leader, but a leader who promotes the baptismal ministry of every disciple. O’Donnell mentions the deacon as animator. “The task of ministers is not to take on this goal of full discipleship as a specialized one for themselves. Their task, rather, is to support and animate the people of God in stretching toward it.” (p. 120). 

This model has several advantages. 

First of all, it recognizes that the deacon has a mission to promote the baptismal mission of every believer. As Deacon James Keating has written in “The Spiritual Apex of Diaconal Formation” in Forming Deacons:
“The deacon possesses no unique power by virtue of ordination but possesses a mission in being sent by the bishop; he evokes from others the power that is theirs by baptism.” (Kindle location 2366)
In a work not specifically related to the diaconate, Yves Congar, OP, points to ordained ministry as animating the Body of Christ:
“St. Paul expressly says that ordained ministers organize the ministry of the saints, that is, of Christians (Eph 4:12). They organize it, but they also invigorate and animate it and drive it forward. They are the drivers and the governors of the Body in that condition of responsibility and universal service that is the Christian condition itself.” (Power and Poverty in the Church, p. 45)
Second, viewing the deacon as the animator of diakonia can help us see how the deacon leads in the diakonia of charity. This may help flesh out the role of leadership of the deacon that O’Donnell notes in chapter seven. 

Personally, this image of being a driving force has been central to my pastoral style. I wrote about this is a blog post a year ago, just before the pandemic hit.

2) The deacon at the threshold of work and the church 

There is an element of the deacon as bridge which O’Donnell mentions but could be further explored – the deacons involved in the world in "secular" professions. 

I work full time in the parish where I serve. Before I was ordained, I served in the diocese as a volunteer. This is one way of serving as a deacon.

But I think that the deacon with outside employment can really be at the threshold of the world and the church, bringing his experience to the Church and bringing the faith to his work experience. He also can bring his understanding of the reality of the world, as experienced in work, in politics, and in family life to the church.

I find it very interesting that the promotion of the diaconate in the mid-twentieth century occurred about the same time as the worker-priest movement which sought to connect with the working class, which was considered “lost” to the church, especially in France. 

3) The Deacon as the eyes and ears of the bishop 

O’Donnell mentions the ancient description of the deacon as “the eyes and ears of the bishop” in a footnote, but I think reflection on this image can help us understand better what the deacon as “minister of the threshold” could be. Take note of this passage from Pseudo-Clement, from his letter to James, chapter 12:
“Moreover, let the deacons of the Church, going about with intelligence, be as eyes to the bishop, carefully inquiring into the doings of each member of the Church, ascertaining who is about to sin, in order that, being arrested with admonition by the president, he may happily not accomplish the sin. Let them check the disorderly, that they may not desist from assembling to hear the discourses, so that they may be able to counteract by the word of truth those anxieties that fall upon the heart from every side, by means of worldly casualties and evil communications; for if they long remain fallow, they become fuel for the fire. And let them learn those who are suffering under bodily disease, and let them bring them to the notice of the multitude who do not know of them, that they may visit them and supply their wants according to the judgment of the president. Yea, though they do this without his knowledge, they do nothing amiss. These things, then, and things like to this, let the deacons attend to.” (Found in the Compendium of the Diaconate: Kindle Location 1849 ff.)
Some might find this description problematic, evoking the image of a spy, reporting to the bishop. But that is to misunderstand the scope of the deacon as the bishops’ eyes and ears. Cardinal Walter Kasper notes that “the deacons served as “the bishop’s eyes and ears” — informing the community about the concerns and desires of the bishop and reporting to the bishop the needs and situation of his people.” (p. 185, The Deacon Reader In another place Cardinal Kasper wrote:
“I am thinking here of hospitals, homes for the elderly, spiritual care in places of work, in prisons, in refugee shelters, etc. I also include co-operation in the leadership of a diocese in those regions, where the main question is that of diaconal leadership. In this context, I would like to point out that for the bishop the community of deacons of a diocese can be a welcome panel of advisors. The deacons can act as the eyes and ears of the bishop in identifying areas of need and can help him in his task of being father to the poor.” (pp. 274-275).
At an International Diaconate Center conference in 1997, he noted: 
“The deacons can act as the eyes and ears of the bishop in identifying areas of need and can help him in his task of being father to the poor.”
The deacon could also serve as the eyes and ears of the church, not just the bishops, making real the first paragraph of Gaudium et Spes, by opening the eyes and ears of all the baptized to the reality of the world around them: 
The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts. 
I think it is important to note that part of the discussions that arose in the priests’ block at Dachau addressed a concern that the Church had not responded adequately to Nazism. As William Ditewig noted in a June 2014 article in US Catholic, the priests were, in effect, asking: “why wasn’t the church able to somehow influence society to prevent all of this from happening? What can we do in the future, so this doesn’t happen again?”

One of those imprisoned, Father Wilhelm Schamoni, later wrote in his advocacy of a permanent diaconate:
3. The preaching of these deacons, who would be involved in the work-a-day world, would be particularly persuasive and down-to-earth. One perceives in current preaching that it is being done by individuals who are “segregate a populo” [“separated from the people”]. 
4. The Church has largely become a Church of authorities and officials. The feudal state and the civil servant state have rubbed off on her. The diaconate would be an effective means to return Holy Mother the Church to a Church of the people. 
5. The Church has not succeeded in holding its ground among either the leading intellectual classes nor among those classes most easily led astray, the proletariat. In their own milieu, deacons from these classes for these classes could gain influence incomparably deeper than could any priest, since priests would never develop within this milieu the kind of rapport that deacons would have already established. One could develop the diaconate into a means to win back the de-Christianized milieu. An intelligent deacon from the working-class would, without any special theological training, be able to touch the heart of his worker colleagues with just the right words.
In addition to this dimension, the deacon can be one who lets the voice of the faithful be heard by bishops and pastors. As Deacon Greg Kandra notes in ”The Catholic Deacon Today”:
“He can serve as the eyes and ears for the bishop or pastor—and as a voice for the people.”
I believe that this aspect of the diaconate needs to be developed.

First of all, are deacons sharing what they see and hear with the bishop and with their pastors? In particular, are they sharing the injustices they see around them, the racism, the injustice, the poverty? Are there deacons bold enough to denounce the racism and clericalism that they may see around them? Are there deacons who advocate for the victims of abuse – in the church and in the world? Are there bishops and pastors who welcome such advocacy?

Secondly, are deacons being prepared to listen to the cries of the poor? Are they being prepared for critical social analysis of the social reality they encounter?

Thirdly, are we deacons speaking in our homilies of the reality of this world, reflecting an incarnational spirituality that opens the Church to the presence of Christ not only in the Eucharist but in the poor, as well as in the daily life of families? 

4) The deacon at the intersection of Eucharist and the poor

There are as many the dangers of reducing the diaconate to the liturgy as of reducing its mission to social service. O’Donnell’s work opens a way to address this, but I would suggest that we need profound reflection on the intersection of the three aspects of diaconal ministry in the Eucharist.

In July 2020, the Vatican Council on the Clergy released an instruction on parish life, "The pastoral conversion of the Parish community in the service of the evangelizing mission of the Church", which included significant paragraphs on the deacon. It notes that, in Canon Law, “there is no indication of any particular office in which the deacon's ministry can find specific expression” (81). But it begins to probe this. In paragraph 82, the instruction offers one way to look at the relation of the three ministries of the deacon:
… the history of the diaconate recalls that it was established within the framework of a ministerial vision of the Church, as an ordained ministry at the service of the Word and of charity; this latter context includes the administration of goods. The twofold mission of the deacon is expressed in the liturgical sphere, where he is called to proclaim the Gospel and to serve at the Eucharistic table. These references can help identify the specific tasks of a deacon, adding value to that which is proper to the diaconate, with a view to promoting the diaconal ministry.
In this document, the deacon’s ministry is considered largely in terms of “evangelization and charity” (81), but these, according to the Instruction, as “expressed” in the liturgical dimension of his ministry. I think this needs to be explored to further the work that O’Donnell has begun. 

We can also explore the relation between charity and the Eucharist in many ways. It might be helpful to begin with what Monsignor Paul Mc Partland wrote in an article on “The Deacon and Gaudium et Spes”:
“The deacon stands at the altar and prepares the gifts with clean hands, but he stands also where the practical need is greatest, getting his hands very dirty.”
We might also begin to reflect on the responsibilities of the deacon at the Eucharist and how these bring together some aspects of the other dimensions of the diaconal ministry. I offer my blog post on cleansing the sacred vessels as a starting point for this. It can be found here.


I hope that all deacons (as well as priests and bishops) will read this important work on the diaconate and use it as the basis of discussions and further theological reflection on the ministry of the deacon. 

I am grateful to Deacon Tim O’Donnell for this important work.

Friday, May 14, 2021

Learning from the catechists

This year, as the pandemic appears to be coming under a bit of control and we are able to have more meetings, I have tried to meet with the catechists in the parish. 

This is not as easy as it might appear. I am trying to meet with them in small groups, by sectors.

The parish has about fifty towns, villages, and hamlets; it is divided into four zones and eleven sectors. So far I have had nine meetings.

 I was meeting with the catechists in one of the sectors of the parish. As part of our discussion on the sacraments, I shared the advice of Pope Francis, “The sacraments are not rewards for the justified but are medicine for the sick.” 

One catechist, reflecting on this, noted that in the public schools the teachers give prizes for the students who do really well, as rewards. In our religious education, we should not be doing the same, she said. We should pay attention to all, especially those who are most in need. What a great insight. 

She realizes that our work with children in faith formation is not the same as classes in the schools.
catechists' training in 2017 in Delicias Concepción

Saturday, May 08, 2021

Come over to Honduras and help us.

Fifteen years ago, after a moving experience volunteering in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, I visited Sister Nancy Meyerhofer in Honduras as part of a discernment process. 

After working in New Orleans, I felt that God was calling me to do something different, moving from my work in campus ministry and social ministry at St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Ames. 

Nancy and I were going to meet the bishop to talk about possibilities. Before that, I spent a few days with Nancy, observing her work and going with her to some of the communities where she served.
Saturday, as is my daily custom, I read the lectionary readings. The first reading, which this year is read today, is from the Acts of the Apostles 16: 1-10. This verse stood out for me: A Macedonian stood before him and implored him with these words, 
“Come over to Macedonia and help us.”
Paul had been planning to go to Bithynia but “the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them.” 
At this time, I was also considering a paid position in El Salvador. 
I had my first Latin American pastoral experiences in El Salvador and the people still have an important place in my heart. It is a holy land, graced with the blood of many martyrs. 
But, reading this passage from the experience of St. Paul, I began to wonder if my call was to Honduras. 
When I had crossed the border from El Salvador into Honduras, I noted a difference – most notably the infrastructure. The roads were terrible. (They still are in many places, though there have been improvements in the last fifteen years.) 
The next week I went with Nancy and met with the bishop. He was willing to accept my offer of help but warned me that they have no money.
I returned to the US with a greater sense that my call was probably to Honduras. There was greater poverty in Honduras than in El Salvador and there was less international solidarity with the people of Honduras.
In June 2007, I arrived and began serving here. I do not regret my decision. It’s where God has opened many paths for me to serve God’s people. And, God willing, it’s where I will be able to serve God and the people of God until I die.