By Andrew Hamilton SJ
Each month, Pope Francis sets a prayer intention. It is an invitation to the world, to pray with him for a particular purpose. May's prayer intention is: We pray that deacons, faithful in their service to the Word and the poor, may be an invigorating symbol for the entire Church.
In most of the history of the Catholic Church deacons have been mainly symbolic. Their distinctive mission was largely taken over by priests, with the result that people approved to be ordained as priests were made deacons a short time before their priestly ordination. Their role in church life was confined to ritual, in which they had a minor part. They effectively were symbols of the higher rank of priests in the church.
When Pope Francis prays that deacons may be an invigorating symbol for the Church, he may have in mind reversing the past emphasis on what deacons could not do, and so focusing on what in a healthy church they might do and be. In this hope he builds on the work of Vatican II, which reintroduced deacons as a life-long ministry with a responsibility for leading prayer, preaching and taking responsibility for church communities where there was no priest. The Council had in mind particularly remote communities, prisons, hospitals and similar congregations of people on the edge of church organisation.
This approach to deacons takes us back to the appointment of the first deacons in the early church. The preaching of the apostles attracted people to follow Jesus as Christians and to become part of the Church. As a result the apostles carried a double responsibility for preaching and for caring for the poor and needy among the new converts. They appointed deacons to take care of the practical needs and commitment to the needs of the poor in the local congregations. Stephen, soon to be the first recorded Christian martyr, was one of the first deacons.
The care of the poor was the first responsibility of the early deacons, and remained so. The Christian congregations were distinctive in helping both their own and other poor people. In time they took on some of the responsibilities of welfare agencies today. The deacons’ role necessarily expanded beyond personal charity to require administrative and financial skills. These roles became centralised under bishops and clergy, with the result that in the Western church deacons became a relic with a purely liturgical role.
Pope Francis does not explain what he means by saying that deacons should be an invigorating symbol for the church. But from his priorities as Pope we can imagine that he wants service to the Word and the poor to be responsibilities taken up by all Catholics and not reserved to Bishops and priests. He wants to bring together in the Church the care for the poor and the prayer life of the church’ The church will be like a field hospital on the battlefield and not a place to find quiet from the struggles of the world.
In this vision lay people would have much larger role with a deeper sense of their own mission modelled on the deacons in the early church. Deacons themselves would embody this role. They would not be seen as an add-on to the ministry of the Church. They would lie at its centre, which is to preach the Gospel to the poor. In the Church, bishops, priests and deacons would have their own distinctive place, united in their service to Word and the poor.