What is a Deacon?
I am delighted to welcome Deacon Kevin O'Connor who will be assisting me at Mass regularly from this weekend, Sunday 15 July at 9am and 7pm while still keeping his commitment to assist at Mass in Lutterworth at 10.15am. I am very grateful to Deacon Kevin who will be looking after weddings, baptisms, and funerals along with the pastoral oversight involved when he is able.
Some of you have already asked me: What is a Deacon, and what does he do? So as part of our welcome to Deacon Kevin, I thought I should write down my thoughts.
From the earliest times in the Church, deacons and priests were considered to be assistants to the Bishop, to help him to carry out his duties for the Christian faithful. The duties of a priest were largely to lead communities who were outside the cities where the bishops lived; so the priest would preach the Word of God, celebrate Mass and the sacraments, and look after the people on behalf of the Bishop, who could only visit them occasionally. The duties of the deacon were to assist the bishop or the priest in three areas: charity, liturgy, and the gospel.
In regard to charity, it was the role of the deacon to collect donations to be distributed to the poor and the needy. It was very important that the deacon should not only distribute these worldy goods to those in need, but also should dispense kindness, compassion, and dedication to the poor and the afflicted. Deacons were to ensure that the hungry and thehomeless were given hospitality – food and shelter – and to do so as the bishop’s eyes and ears, mouth, heart and soul.
In regard to the liturgy, the deacon was often entrusted with preparing candidates for baptism, and took part in the celebration of baptism. He would often keep contact with those who were baptized to assist them in becoming a full part of the Christian community. He would assist the bishop (or the priest) in celebrating Mass, preparing the altar, and taking Holy Communion to the housebound, especially to those who were dying.
In regard to the gospel, the deacon was usually charged with instructing the people, and he would proclaim the gospel and preach. Bishops were often accompanied by their deacons when they attended the early Councils of the Church, and Pope Leo the Great was represented at one Synod by Deacon Hilary. In modern times, the deacon carries the book of the gospels into the celebration of Mass, proclaims the gospel, and may preach at Mass.
The deacon’s role later grew to include administration on behalf of the bishop. The Pope used to be assisted by seven deacons, who between them administered the Diocese of Rome. The idea is maintained in the Church of England, where the principal assistants to the Bishop are called ‘Archdeacons’.
The purpose of all the sacraments, including the sacrament of Holy Orders (bishop, priest, deacon), is to build up the Church, the body of Christ, and to carry out the Church’s mission. Reflecting on this, Bishop Malcolm says that we can look at it in terms of two movements: there is a movement into the Church, building up the community; and there is a movement out, taking the Gospel message to the world. We can see that in the life of Our Lord. He calls disciples to him, and from them he chose twelve to be his apostles; these disciples were foremd into his own community. Then he sent them out into the world, as we hear in today’s Gospel (15 July 2012: Mark 6: 7-13). To be the Church,it is necessary to have both movements. If we only have the movement inwards – building up the community, looking to our own life and our own needs – then we can scarcely be called ‘Christian’, since our Lord himself came to preach salvation to all, and to die for all people. But if we do not have this movment in, there will not be any Christian community to go out to the world, to be a witness to christ, to proclaim the Good News of salvation.
Bishops, priest, and deacons are ordained to lead the community, to ensure that both of these movements are properly maintained and are in a good relationship, that neither dominates the other. The purpose of their sacramental Ordination is for the good of the Church, to ensure proper leadership, and to ensure that the Christian community is maintained appropriately as the body of Christ, and that the mission of the Church is maintained, lively and effective. But this leadership, as Our Lord himself makes very clear, is always to be a service, for Our Lord himself came ‘not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’.
The Bishop is entrusted with gathering the whole Christian community in the Diocese; for ensuring that the Word of God is proclaimed fully and clearly, that the sacraments are celebrated worthily, that the people are cared for, especially those who are ill, poor, in trouble, and that the People of God is a People of prayer. He cannot do all of this by himself! So during the Ordination of a priest, the bishop prays to God to grant him helpers ‘for we are weak and our need is greater’. Priests and deacons are to help the Bishop in his role as leader of the community.
The priest’s role is principally to gather the community together. The priest proclaims the Word of God, preaches the gospel, teaches the faithful, celebrates Mass and the other sacraments, looks after the faithful people, welcomes new members. It is the priest who leads the community in looking after the community property, safeguarding the patrimony of the parish, ensuring that the needs of the people are heard and addressed.
The deacon’s role is principally to send the community out to do the Lord’s work. This can be seen in the celebration of Mass, when the priest and the deacon are together. The priest stands in the middle, gathers the community, presides at the altar, consecrates the holy food and drink, the Body and Blood of Our Lord and Saviour. But at the end of Mass, after the priest has given God’s blessing to the people, it is the deacon who
sends them out of the Church building. The deacon sends the people out from the sacred space called the Church into the world, to show to the world that all spaces are holy. It is the deacon who proclaims the Gospel, and then send out the people of God to proclaim the Gospel of Christ by the way that theylive and work among all the other people in our world. It is the deacon who sends out the Body of Christ, formed by the sacred food and drink, with the task of showing to the world that all food and drink is holy, God-given. It is the deacon who, during the celebration of the Mass, invites the people of God to offer to one another the sign of peace; and then sends out the people to bring the peace of Christ – the peace that the world cannot give – into our world of conflict and strife.
If there is no deacon, then the priest has to try to do both – to gather the people together and to send them out. Because the priest spends most (all?) of his time in and around the Church, worrying about the community, he may well fail to address properly the needs of the community to be more missionary and outward-looking. If we have a deacon, then both movements – inward and outward – will have their own appropriate leadership.
So we welcome Deacon Kevin today, and we look forward to him becoming part of our parish life, and encouraging us in the mission of the Church. One of the things which I hope Kevin will do is to inspire our community to consider whether there is someone among us who is called to be trained and ordained as a deacon, to attend as a minister of the gospel, prayer, and charity to the mission of the Church at St. Pius X, Narborough.