On June 19, Pope Francis met with the permanent deacons of the Diocese of Rome, along with their families. His words are a good meditation for deacons and for all of us.
After greeting everyone, the pope said that he was “delighted that the Diocese of Rome has resumed the ancient custom of entrusting a church to a deacon to become a diaconate, as it did with you, dear Andrea [this is the Italian version of “Andrew”], in a working-class neighborhood of the city. I greet you and your wife Laura with affection. I hope you do not end up like St. Lawrence, but keep going!”
The Holy Father said, for the deacon, “the main path to follow is the one indicated by Vatican Council II, which understood the diaconate as a ‘proper and permanent rank of the hierarchy.’ Lumen Gentium illustrates the ministry of deacons, ‘upon whom,’ it says, ‘hands are imposed not unto the priesthood, but unto a ministry of service’ (LG 29). This difference [from the priesthood] is not insignificant. The diaconate, which in the previous conception was reduced to an order of passage to the priesthood, thus regains its place and its specificity. The mere fact of emphasizing this difference helps to overcome the scourge of clericalism, which places a caste of priests ‘above’ the People of God. Deacons, precisely because they are dedicated to the service of this People, remember that in the ecclesial body no one can elevate himself above others.”
Pope Francis said, “in the Church, the opposite logic must apply, the logic of lowering oneself. We are all called to lower ourselves, because Jesus stooped to us, He made Himself the servant of all. If there is one great person in the Church, it is the one who made him- or herself the smallest, and servant of all. Let us remember, please, that for the disciples of Jesus, to love is to serve and to serve is to reign. Deacons are the custodians of service in the Church, so we can say that they are the custodians of true ‘power’ in the Church, so that no one goes beyond the power of service. Think about this.
“The diaconate,” the pope continued, “leads us to the center of the mystery of the Church. Just as I have spoken of a ‘constitutively missionary Church’ and a ‘constitutively synodal Church,’ so I add that we should speak of a ‘constitutively diaconal Church.’ Indeed, if we do not live this dimension of service, every ministry is emptied from within, it becomes sterile, it does not bear fruit. And little by little it becomes worldly. Deacons remind the Church that what St. Therese discovered is true: the Church has a heart enflamed by love. Yes, a humble heart throbbing with service. Deacons remind us of this when, like the deacon St. Francis, they bring God’s closeness to others without imposing themselves, serving with humility and joy. The generosity of a deacon who gives of himself without seeking the front ranks has about him the perfume of the Gospel, he tells of the greatness of God’s humility in taking the first step — always, God always takes the first step — to meet even those who have turned their backs on Him.”
Discussing the decline in the number of priests, the pontiff mentioned that deacons have been filling in for priests in various ministries. He said that these “tasks, however important, do not constitute the specific nature of the diaconate. They are substitute tasks. The Council, after speaking of service to the People of God ‘in the diaconate of the Liturgy, of the word and of charity,’ emphasizes that deacons are above all — above all — ‘dedicated to duties of charity and of administration’ (LG 29). We can also draw on the roots of the Church of Rome. I am not only thinking of St. Lawrence, but also of the decision to give life to the diaconate. In the great imperial metropolis seven places were organized, distinct from the parishes and distributed throughout the city’s municipalities, in which deacons carried out grass-roots work on behalf of the entire Christian community, especially the ‘least of these,’ so that, as the Acts of the Apostles say, none among them would be in need (cf. 4:34).
“That is why in Rome we have tried to recover this ancient tradition with the diaconate in the church of St. Stanislaus [where Deacon Andrea Sartori lives with his wife and four children]. I know that you are also present in Caritas and in other bodies that are close to the poor. Deacons will not be ‘half-priests’ or second-rate priests, nor will they be ‘special altar boys,’ no, that is not the path to follow; they will be caring servants who do their best to ensure that no one is excluded and the love of the Lord touches people’s lives in a tangible way. One could summarize diaconal Spirituality [as] the Spirituality of service: Willingness on the inside, from the heart, ready to say ‘yes,’ docile, without making life revolve around one’s own agenda; and open on the outside, looking at everyone, especially those who are left out, those who feel excluded — those who have pain. Helping these people is important. I entrust this to you.” That is a tall order, but God is always ready to help. Are we ready to help in His name?
The pope then added three other expectations for deacons. First, that they be humble. “It is sad to see a bishop and a priest showing off, but it is even sadder to see a deacon wanting to put himself at the center of the world, or at the center of the Liturgy, or at the center of the Church. Be humble. Let all the good you do be a secret between you and God. And so it will bear fruit.”
Next, the pope spoke of their family life. “I expect you to be good spouses and good fathers. And good grandparents. This will give hope and consolation to couples who are going through difficult times and who will find in your genuine simplicity an outstretched hand. They will be able to think: ‘Look at our deacon! He is happy to be with the poor, but also with the parish priest and even with his children and his wife!’ Even with his mother-in-law, that’s very important! Doing everything with joy, without complaining: it is a testimony that is worth more than many sermons. And without complaints. ‘I had so much work, so much.’ Send these things away.”
“Finally, thirdly, I expect you to be sentinels: not only to know how to spot the poor and the distant — this is not so difficult — but to help the Christian community to recognize Jesus in the poor and the distant, as He knocks on our doors through them. It is also a catechetical and prophetic dimension of the sentinel-prophet-catechist who knows how to see beyond and help others to see beyond, and to see the poor who are far away. Make your own the beautiful image at the end of the Gospels when Jesus asks His disciples from afar: ‘Have you nothing to eat?’ And the beloved disciple recognizes Him and says: ‘It is the Lord!’ (Jn 21:5,7). Whatever the need, see the Lord. So you, too, recognize the Lord when, in so many of His smaller brothers and sisters, He asks to be fed, to be welcomed and loved. I would like this to be the profile of the deacons of Rome and of the whole world. Work on this.”