Essays, Practice

The Deacon and the Family: Mercy’s Presence

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Through Baptism, the Family of the Church is missionary by nature and increases her faith in the act of sharing that faith with others, above all, with her children. The very act of living a life of communion as a family is the primary form of proclamation. In fact, evangelization begins in the family, which transmits corporeal as well as spiritual life. . . . The family is thus an agent of pastoral activity specifically through proclaiming the Gospel and through its legacy of varied forms of witness, namely: solidarity with the poor; openness to a diversity of people; the protection of creation; moral and material solidarity with other families, especially the most needy; . . . and putting into practice the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.[1]

If this is what the family is, then the deacon, as he emerges from and remains within this communion of love, is to be recognized as organic to its nature. In its inherent evangelical core, it is not surprising that the family would give birth to diaconal vocations. It is the deacon who is sent from Christ to invite others to participate in the Gospel’s power, a power he has participated in himself, possibly from birth, and presently within his own family. The Gospel, as that message which announces God dwelling among us in order to elevate us to holiness, nourishes the diaconal vocation from within the family’s own communion of love. The family, which is the cell of society (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC], §2207) and ecclesially, the cell of each parish, gives birth to deacons and confirms their vocation under a wife’s consent. The deacon, then, is inextricably related to the family and, as such, is positioned well to minister to them in their spiritual needs through the power of the Gospel.

Each deacon is formed in the Word of God, desires to pray his life through the Scriptures until death, and longs to have the Gospel be the heart of his—and all people’s—imagination. The deacon derives his ministerial grace from the Sacrament of Holy Orders, as Christ configures the deacon’s heart to his own mysteries of mission and service. As the deacon subjectively maintains union with Christ through prayer and ministry, he continues through the grace of ordination to be objectively affected by Christ’s own servant mysteries. It is this same deacon who also identifies himself as spouse and father.[2] As such, the deacon is a man submerged in relationships of love, of self-gift, through spousal love, fatherhood, and Holy Orders. These relationships of love bestow upon him an identity, one that he is charged by virtue to protect and develop.

Communion as Proclamation

The mission of the deacon in relation to the family is profoundly cyclical: the deacon is raised in a family as a boy and, statistically, will fall in love and begin his own family before the call to diaconate is discerned; and then after ordination, other families will call out to him to have his ministry bless their communion in many ways. The deacon is in communion with the Gospel and from this communion is sent to strengthen the communion others have with their loved ones and God. Since the Gospel has holy communion at its core (cf. Jn 14:18–21; Jn 15:5), deacons serve familial communion by proclaiming the Gospel to them. The origin and fulfillment of all communion of persons is found in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—a communion humans can participate in by way of the Incarnation of the second Person of the Blessed Trinity. Christ communicates his life among us (cf. Lk 22:27) and within us (cf. Jn 7:38). It is this communion with Christ’s divine life that the sacred minister stirs into flame within families and between spouses as he labors to announce the Gospel to the domestic Church.

The family, however, is not simply a community to be served by ecclesial ministers; it is “a manifestation of the Church” itself.[3] At its deepest level, through the many sacraments entered into by family members, the familial community finds its identity in Christ and, hence, reveals itself to be Church. The family is a gathering of believers and, as such, is called by and sent from Christ to those hungering for the Good News. The first proclamation of the Gospel by a family is simply its witness to a love that is promised and sustained until death. This promise is possible only when the spouses are taken up into the supernatural grace of Christ loving his Bride, the Church. In the family, it is not simply the “will power” of the spouses that secures communion with one another and the children; it is the mystery of Christ’s own spousal love which empowers the permanence of familial communion. It is here in this mystery that the deacon can enter simply, but powerfully, as one who bears in his body the grace of being permanently available to the servant mysteries of Christ (cf. Lk 22:27; Jn 13:14–15; Lk 14: 15-23; Lk 10:29ff).[4]

As an effect of the grace of Holy Orders, a man becomes “useful” to families by his own character conversion through diaconal formation and in the post-ordination gift of being a man who participates in the servant mysteries of Christ, the sent-servant. Since his ordination day, the deacon has been lacerated by Christ’s own mission to “find the lost.” Ordination has opened the man to being affected by Christ’s own compassionate gaze as it rests upon those in pain. It is from this “opened” altered man, one wounded by Divine Love, that a deeper communion with God may be mediated to the family. This communion may be attained and sustained by way of a deacon praying with them, serving their familial needs through the works of mercy, and guiding them through their difficulties out of his own Word-saturated mind and heart.

Such a man is powerful in one respect; he bears the brand marks of Christ’s own longing to serve (cf. Lk 22:27). In this longing, a deacon is configured to Christ’s own compassion to pour “oil and wine” into the wounds of families, a mixture known to flow when the agent of healing, mediated by the deacon, is the Gospel (cf. Lk 10:33–34).

For the deacon himself, in his own family, spousal and paternal love are taken up into Christ’s own servant mysteries. Diaconate is not bestowed upon an entire family but upon a man who receives Holy Orders and now loves and governs his home as one so configured. His spousal, paternal mind and heart are now affected by the diaconal imagination, a mind opened to the mystery of Christ’s own mission to serve the suffering. This is why, if the deacon participated in sound clerical formation, a wife will fall more in love with her husband after ordination. In a real way, this “sent-servant” has become even more “spousal” to her, even more available to serve her. Unfortunately, men whose diaconal formation has been reduced only to academic studies leave themselves un-scorched by Christ’s own love; thus, their character and behavior may still reflect a cultural identity rather than intimate discipleship. Such a state instills deep insecurity within the wife as her husband tries to build his diaconate, not upon any communion of relationships, but upon activities, busy-ness, and achievements. This knowledgeable but unformed, unhealed husband now attempts to possess an identity through accomplishments.

Alternatively, the man who risked all and entered formation so it could enter him possesses the capacity to integrate—that is, to suffer—all of his sacraments into his own body. He understands clearly that Christ normally gives fruit to ministry only when a deacon is first open to his own healing. The clear mark that a man has been configured to Christ’s own servant mysteries after ordination is that he bears the suffering of his full life within himself and does not lay it upon his wife or children. In order for this to have happened, the deacon has to have been converted from self-centeredness, individualism, and ministerial careerism to living life as a “sincere gift.”[5]

The deacon has to have been converted from self-centeredness, individualism, and ministerial careerism to living life as a ‘sincere gift.’

The well-formed deacon realizes that the demands placed upon him as spouse, father, and deacon are fully capable of integration because it is not his ministry he is executing; it is Christ’s actions inhabiting him. The paradoxical complexity of the simple diaconal life is unlivable only by men who are unhealed emotionally or spiritually, ones using ministry to “discover” themselves or “move on to the next achievement” of their lives.

Jacopo Confortini (1602–1672), Figure of a Cleric in Half-Length (17th c.); courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art Open Access for Scholarly Content (OASC).

Jacopo Confortini (1602–1672), Figure of a Cleric in Half-Length (17th c.); courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art Open Access for Scholarly Content (OASC).

Let me clarify what I mean by the paradox of a deacon living a complexly simple life. By complexity, I refer to the many relationships to which a married deacon is beholden—wife, children, extended family, bishop, parish priest, fellow deacons, persons to whom he ministers, neighbors, co-workers, etc. This is quite a web of communion within which the deacon dwells. The simplicity part enters when we consider the ministerial requirements of a deacon. Within the collaborative ministerial web that is diaconal service, a man coordinates his ministry with the bishop, priests, religious, and laity of the diocese. There is no reason to presume that any one particular man’s presence is essential in responding to the needs of the Church. We know this is true by evidence of the speed in which diaconal duties are continued by a successive deacon after a ministerial transfer. Of course, as individual persons, each is irreplaceable, but the ministry goes on. The Body of Christ, the Church, assists the deacon in exercising his ministry as surely as the deacon assists others when necessary.

If the volume of a deacon’s ministry threatens his family communion, it is normally due to an emotional or spiritual issue within the deacon himself (or perhaps within his ecclesial superiors). Spiritual and emotional health dictates that Christ is the only essential ministerial presence, and his grace transcends any one deacon or any one ministerial program or commitment. One of the most common emotional and spiritual maladies that occurs within deacons is when they say “yes” to ministries demanding disproportionate time away from families in a vain hope of assuaging emotional insecurity about identity. Truth-secured personal identity for those in Holy Orders flows from relationships, not ministry; relationships with the Trinity, one’s family, and the bishop constitute his priority. When one has union with these persons, then the ministry, the actions that one does in the name of Christ, will not be unduly heavy or time-consuming since their effect is brought about by the “holy” communion maintained with these persons and not the time spent away from home. Saints heal with a word . . . not a speech. Holy people heal with a blessing, not an indefinite association with a person in need, albeit the standard of ministry for saints. Nevertheless, the saint’s example is good for us to pray with: it is God’s power—not our efforts—that “makes things happen.” His power occupies the core effectiveness of a deacon’s mission.

Missionary

Under the theme of mission, let me explore further the common evangelical core between family life and diaconal identity and ministry. “The very act of living a life of communion as a family is the primary form of proclamation.” This statement is quite profound in its implications and cries out for us to trust that fidelity to vows and virtue in Christ reaches the hearts of those who have fallen away from him or have yet to hear his voice. But this method of evangelization by way of fidelity to communion will not satisfy the impatient and restless because this method trusts in witness, not feverish activity or winning arguments. Convincing others of the truth of Christ through words and argument has its proper place and at some point in personal witness it is vital to speak truth to the heart; but here, we are emphasizing a communion that bears witness. This witness can be dramatic, like the bloody martyrs of recent times, or it can be a quiet exhibition of fidelity and love in the midst of the ordinariness of our days. It is this witnessing that reaches the hearts of others by observation. When we faithfully live family life as Christians, Christ as Lord is proclaimed.

Similarly, in faithfully living all the aspects of diaconal life, especially those aspects that are the fulfillment of one’s everyday “rounds,” the deacon proclaims that Christ is Lord. To be missionary is to be sent from the heart of holy communion, even as one still abides within this communion in the midst of ministry by affective and spiritual internalization. While abiding in this communion, one comes to hear the cries of those who suffer isolation and loneliness. Communion, as a school, sensitizes a soul to the other, be it the needs of one’s spouse, the needs of one’s child, the needs of the poor, or the voice of God. In being so schooled, one develops a character that listens to the other, beholds the other, and is moved by the needs of the other. One has become a person who dwells in communion and, therefore, is sensitized to the weaknesses at the core of being human: self-centeredness and emotional isolation. In response to these weaknesses, both the mature deacon and the emotionally healthy family order their actions toward healing by way of, and from, communion. It is, then, holy communion that gives birth to and sustains familial hospitality and diaconal acts of mercy.

Works of Mercy

From this holy communion among family members and between them and God springs the ministry of hospitality, acts that make one a victim of love. For the deacon, also, such communion between himself and God and among the members of the Church is situated the origin of his ministry and provides the consoling sustenance that enables him to continue to minister mercy to all in need.

Believing in the crucified Son means “seeing the Father,” means believing that love is present in the world and that this love is more powerful than any kind of evil. . . . Believing in this love means believing in mercy. For mercy is an indispensable dimension of love; it is as it were love’s second name. . . . [It is] the specific manner in which love is revealed and effected vis-a-vis the reality of the evil . . .[6]

Master of the Sonnenberg-Künigl Altar, St. Lawrence Presenting the Poor as the Wealth of the Church (15th c.); courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art Open Access for Scholarly Content

Master of the Sonnenberg-Künigl Altar, St. Lawrence Presenting the Poor as the Wealth of the Church (15th c.); courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art Open Access for Scholarly Content (OASC).

Mercy, then, is the form God’s love takes in the presence of evil. From our experience, such love does not spring from our own hearts but only from the holy communion that is established between ourselves and the indwelling Spirit. Mercy is God’s love as he beholds the human in the prison of evil. Since this Spirit dwells within Christian families, they can have their hearts ignited with compassion as well. Faith, hope, and love tutor the Christian family and deacons prayerfully to notice physical, spiritual, or moral evil, thus evoking mercy from them as God’s instruments. The Church is missionary by nature, meaning that all the members of the Church receive a divine viewpoint, in a sense, rendering them porous to the grace of seeing the poor. This “seeing” places each family, and the deacon who serves them, in a position to express compassion toward those in need, either physically or spiritually. The Works of Mercy are simply a focused expression of the myriad ways Catholics can respond to human misery out of their communion with God’s own merciful heart. Christ himself blessed the family by becoming a member of one. It is necessary, therefore, that deacons see service rendered to families as a paramount activity within their execution of the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy.

The witness of the family in their fidelity to vows and love of one another is a type of worship.

Finally, the witness of the family in their fidelity to vows and love of one another is a type of worship. It opens the world to wonder about their example and hopefully moves citizens to inquire as to the origin of such a beautiful family. For the deacon, his service flows from his assisting at the altar of worship. Both he and the family meet in the secular culture, bearing in their bodies and expressing in their actions the effects of worshiping the Body and Blood of Christ. It is precisely the Eucharist that forms in us the capacity for self-gift, for Paschal Love. Such holy communion with the mystery of Christ only deepens through the service of the deacon to the family and the witness of the family contemplated by the deacon. As noted in the beginning of this essay, “The very act of living a life of communion as a family is the primary form of proclamation.” This communion is to be served by deacons through their own ministry of proclaiming the Gospel, praying with family members, and pouring evangelical balm into the wounds of families. In the mutually interpenetrating relationship that is the family and the deacon’s ministry to them, each comes to recognize the gift that is Christ to one another. Here, we are at the deepest level where such communion and cooperation is seen in all its concentric circles as a gift. In faith, we know that we never simply start with what is “just there,” as if by accident. Instead, with eyes open, we always receive what is being given. To paraphrase St. John Paul II: families, be who you are; deacons, be who you are—gifts given to the culture from the depths of your communion with Christ.

Featured Image: Giovanni Serodine (1600–1630); Saint Lawrence Distributing Alms (1625–26); courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

[1] Synod 15, Final Relatio of the Synod of Bishops to the Holy Father: The Vocation and Mission of the Family in the Church and in the Contemporary World (October 2015), §93.

[2] There are, of course, celibate deacons either by response to an initial call from Christ or by the sublation of the diaconal life into a share of Christ’s own celibacy after the death of a spouse.

[3] Marc Ouellet, Divine Likeness (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), 42.

[4] See also James Keating, The Heart of the Diaconate (NJ: Paulist, 2015), 46, 62.

[5] Mary Shivanandan, Crossing the Threshold of Love: A New Vision of Marriage in Light of John Paul II’s Anthropology (Washington, D.C: Catholic University of America Press, 1999) 156; see also, Joseph Atkinson, Biblical and Theological Foundations of the Family (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2014).

[6] John Paul II, Dives in Misericordia (1980), §7.

James Keating

Deacon James Keating is director of theological formation for the Institute for Priestly Formation at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska.