At the third session of the Second Vatican Council, in October, 1964, the renewal of the diaconate was ratified and the following November the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, declared that deacons, so very necessary for the life of the Church, could be restored as a proper and permanent rank of the hierarchy. The Permanent Diaconate was restored to the Church 50 years ago and today there are over 45,000 Deacons globally.
1965 was also the year of my own birth and so I attended the Jubilee celebrations of the International Diaconal Commission in Rome in fraternity with 436 brother deacons and their wives from 35 countries in a spirit of celebration. We assembled in the Holy City from every continent. The airline deprived me of my bags so a visit to Assisi and the Basilica of Francis wearing the only clothes I possessed imposed a Franciscan spirituality on the trip.
We heard inspiring stories from around the world of the lives of married and working deacons giving their time voluntarily to serve God’s people. Stewards and messengers, witnesses and bridge builders; working with those who have lost or forgotten their faith and with those at the margins of society. I was particularly struck by the work of a team who provided health education to those living in the slums in Mumbai, India. We were reminded of how this ministry of service in a community and at the altar is different from, but complementary to, the separate vocations of priest and bishop. Deacons do not make the Church present in a particular place through the sacrifice of the Mass as the priest does; deacons do not lead the Church as a bishop does – we symbolise in all we do and in who we are the life of Christ the Servant. The deacon commits his life to a public and permanent life of service to others. The deacon’s way of life and spirituality is found in family, employment and in a Church community; each part united by a calling to service at the altar, in preaching and teaching the Word and in various works of charity.
The highlight for me of the whole trip was a Spanish Mass at the Church of San Lorenzo (Saint Laurence), with a procession of hundreds of Deacons, with Priests and five Bishops giving honour to the life and witness of this historical deacon and martyr.
To meet so many committed Christians from different cultures and places each in their own way serving the Church and giving lifelong witness to our Servant King was a privilege and an encouragement. If you know a deacon serving the Church, do wish his ministry a happy 50th birthday.