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Priesthood and the Deacon By Msgr. Paul McPartlan, S.T.L., D.Phil. During the half-century or so since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) decided “to restore the diaconate as a proper and permanent rank of the hierarchy,”1 the Catholic Church has been rediscovering this important ordained ministry that was an integral part of the life of the early Church.2 Given that the diaconate in the West had been in decline and largely transitional for approximately fifteen hundred years prior to the council,3 it is only reasonable to expect that appreciating the true nature and value of this ministry and realizing its potential for the life and mission of the Church today will take some time. Like the council itself,4 the diaconate is a gift from the Holy Spirit to the Church that is still being unpacked. Part of that unpacking is consideration of whether women might be ordained to the diaconate. This is a live issue in both the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, particularly given the establishment by Pope Francis on 2 August 2016 of a commission to study the question of the female diaconate, and the consecration of five deaconesses in the Democratic Republic of Congo by the Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria on 17 February 2017. This paper will not directly consider the issue of the female diaconate, about which there is a large literature reflecting a wide spectrum of opinions.5 I will focus rather on the meaning and purpose of the diaconate, while certainly acknowledging that discerning who is called to this ministry and seeking a deeper understanding of the ministry are closely interlinked. In particular, since it may surely be presumed that by the guidance of the Spirit the various teachings and decisions of Vatican II fit together in a harmonious program, I propose to relate the restoration of the permanent diaconate to some other key aspects of the council’s program and so to reflect more deeply on the theology of the diaconate. Making connections will be a recurrent motif. In 1993, Pope John Paul II identified two particular historical and pastoral reasons that prompted the restoration of the permanent diaconate. First, as Vatican II itself noted in its decree on the Church’s missionary activity, there were laymen already exercising a diaconal ministry, especially in mission territories, by “preaching the word of God as catechists, governing scattered Christian communities in the name of the bishop or parish priest, or exercising charity,” and it would help and strengthen them if they actually received diaconal ordination. “They would be more closely bound to the altar and their ministry would be made more fruitful through the sacramental grace of the diaconate” (AG 16). Mention of the altar is significant here. Deacons are “dedicated to the People of God” in the threefold service “of the liturgy, of the Gospel and of works of charity” (LG 29), and in a sense, as we shall see, liturgical service at the altar anchors the deacon’s ministry of the word and of charity. It was thought that those already exercising two of the deacon’s three ministries, of the word and of charity, would be energized by diaconal ordination, through which those ministries would be complemented and completed by ministry at the altar. Pope John Paul spoke of the value of laymen involved in “certain charitable services” who were “conscious of being called to the Church’s Gospel mission” receiving “an official consecration.”6 The second reason identified by Pope John Paul for the restoration was that it was “necessary to provide for the scarcity of priests.” However, he saw both of those reasons as factors through which the Holy Spirit was “mysteriously working” for a broader purpose, namely to revitalize the Church by restoring the full complement of the ordained ministry, “traditionally

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Chicago Studies Winter 2017  
Chicago Studies Winter 2017  

Volume 56:2