Deacon John Horn blesses Carol Rizzotti following his ordination May 19 at St. Agnes Cathedral in Rockville Centre, N.Y. More than 1,300 deacons, along with their wives and children, are expected to attend the 2018 National Diaconate Congress in New Orleans July 22-26. There are 18,000 deacons in ministry in the United States, and about 30,000 serve the church worldwide. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

How Intellectual Formation Influences Everything

Growing in knowledge is key to the ministry of deacons


The goal of the Christian life is nothing other than union with God. As is so often asserted, God became man so that man might become God. Our lord Jesus Christ made this union possible by his incarnation, life, death and resurrection. The primary means of receiving such a gift are the sacraments, and therefore everything we do to prepare for them, to receive them worthily and to live them out with courage and fidelity touches on our union with him. This is our spirituality, and we are enjoined to make this the center and foundation of our personal and ministerial lives.

The life of the mind also is invited into this saving union. On every conceivable subject, what we think and how we think it affects not only how well and thoroughly we “put on the mind of Christ,” but also how in practice we carry out our ministry of assisting others to deeper union with God. How can we carry out as ministers, much less as individual believers, the universal and unchanging divine intention for which Christ instituted the Church and its sacraments unless we know, love and follow Christ intellectually, spiritually and vocationally? Doctrine matters, and it matters pastorally!

This is, in fact, part of the meaning of the handing over of the Book of the Gospels in the ordination rite for deacons. “Believe what you read, preach what you believe, practice what you preach” (Roman Pontifical, No. 188). As damaging as it certainly is to our ministry and vocation to believe, preach or practice hypocritically, the formative depth of this moment in the ritual is not moral but ontological. Our minds and hearts are being penetrated by this grace, to be one with Christ and the universal Church in believing (rooted in our baptismal vocation) and, therefore, in preaching and practicing the Faith wholly and faithfully. Only in this way may we live out our diaconal vocation authentically.

Why Formation Matters

Believing, preaching and practicing faithfully, in union with Christ and the whole Church, is precisely the deacon’s participation in the apostolic triplex munera, which is the ministry of bishops (see Basic Norms for the Formation of Permanent Deacons, No. 9). We teach by proclaiming the Gospel, by preaching and catechizing, and most especially by the witness of our lives. We sanctify by the sacraments we are privileged to offer or distribute and by prayers and blessings. We govern by our pursuit of personal holiness, by modeling Christ’s perfect charity and by sharing in many pastoral and administrative duties in the Church. None of this ministry is our own; all of it belongs to the bishop and is entrusted to us. We have, therefore, the most fundamental obligation to cherish the gift of the diaconate, to keep it (as far as humanly possible) unspoiled by our failings and to stand always ready to give to others what we have received. Lumen Gentium quotes the saying of St. Polycarp to this effect: “Be merciful, diligent, walking according to the truth of the Lord, who became the servant of all” (No. 29).

A stained-glass window in a church in Leuven, Belgium, depicts St. Augustine and St. Benedict. jorisvo /

In both initial and ongoing formation, the foundation of this process of coming to know and love Christ and his Church ever more deeply is our human and spiritual transformation for “conformity to Christ (the Servant)” (see Basic Norms, Nos. 5-7). On this foundation must also be built an adequate intellectual pillar. Pope St. John Paul II reflected upon this in his 1992 exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis: “Intellectual formation has its own characteristics, but it is also deeply connected with, and indeed can be seen as a necessary expression of, both human and spiritual formation: It is a fundamental demand of the human intelligence by which one ‘participates in the light of God’s mind’ and seeks to acquire a wisdom which in turn opens to and is directed toward knowing and adhering to God.” Furthermore, according to the Basic Norms, “Intellectual formation is a necessary dimension of diaconal formation, insofar as it offers the deacon a substantial nourishment for his spiritual life and a precious instrument for his ministry” (No. 79).

This is perhaps a surprising recommendation. For many reasons, we tend to think of our spirituality as quite separate from our knowledge of the content of faith. Authentic spirituality, we imagine, is an interior, emotional response to God, a (hopefully) continuous experience of divine consolation. This is why we struggle so much with desolation, disappointment and dryness in spiritual life. But intellectual life, we often find, is dry — even desolate. It does not lead to practical utility for ministry immediately, nor does it seem to nourish that interior emotional expectation of consolation.

Pope St. John Paul II incisively identified the sources of this trend as (hyper-)rationalism, materialism and (hyper-)individualism, the bases of the 18th-century Enlightenment, along with more recent (and corrosive) ideas such as utilitarianism, relativism, subjectivity, hedonism, atheism and all the hallmarks of cultural Marxism, especially attacks on the family, sexual mores and other inherent aspects of personal dignity and value. Within the Church, too, he notes failures of catechesis, a false idea of theological pluralism, individualistic soteriology, a false understanding of the autonomy of conscience and a rejection of apostolic magisterium (see Pastores Dabo Vobis, No. 7).

Our postmodern culture teaches us to separate the human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral experiences of God and the Church, and even to oppose them rather than integrate them into the unity of the desired conformity to Christ the Servant.

Models of Formation

Over against this cultural baggage, we have the opportunity to reappropriate key aspects of the two great models of integral formation. For the Church’s first millennium, the most successful model of clergy formation came from monastic life. Both monks and canons aspired to live the evangelical counsels as codified by one of the well-known “rules of life” (St. Basil’s, St. Augustine’s, St. Benedict’s, etc.), successfully integrating the four pillars into a single vision of following Christ. The rise of medieval universities shifted the balance of formation among the four pillars, but it maintained an integrity of conformity to Jesus Christ, as the great university saints (Albert, Thomas, Bonaventure, Blessed Duns Scotus, John of the Cross, etc.) show. After the Council of Trent, the priestly seminary was an attempt to fuse the best of both the monastic and the university models.

Josephinum Diaconal Review
An important resource for the intellectual
formation of deacons, the Josephinum Diaconal
Review, states its goal as “addressing a range of
topics of interest to those in the Order of Deacons
and diaconal ministry. The vision of the Institute
positions the JDR as a significant resource for the
formation of deacons and an essential component
in the continuing formation for deacons.


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The formation of permanent deacons today calls for human formation to retain the central and fundamental place, and for intellectual formation to serve this and to serve ministry. Neither the monastic nor the university/seminary model is entirely appropriate to the lives of (mostly married) candidates and deacons with predominantly secular employment. Yet perhaps we can retrieve something of the integrating vision of each.

From the monastic model, one of the most important and influential aspects to be gleaned is the understanding of daily liturgy as the Church’s service. This is present in principle — hence the requirement that permanent deacons pray at least morning prayer and evening prayer — but rarely adverted to in practice, in my experience. We tend to approach this as an obligation rather than as a means of fulfilling our mission as deacons. Greater attention to reverence and intentionality in praying the Liturgy of the Hours could enhance its community-building and intercessory aspects, but also its human, spiritual and intellectual formative richness. In the same way, some mode of appropriating interior silence in living our diaconal vocation, in liturgy as in the witness of life, would greatly enrich and integrate our experience.

Likewise, the university model suggests how intellectual formation and doctrinal study integrally can support our human and spiritual formation — and our ministry — as it ought. One of the enduring greatest hits of scholastic theology is St. Bonaventure’s “Journey of the Mind to God.”

St. Bonaventure describes a ladder of contemplative ascent toward full, personal union with God, beginning from the created, material order and moving through human interiority, means of grace in the Church, the Incarnation and so on until full union with the Trinity is reached. The mind here cannot be isolated intellect, but carries with it the body, the emotions and passions, personal experience — in short, the fullness of the human person, created and loved by God. The key to unity is contemplation — that is, putting the rational faculties not at the apex of the person (as did the Enlightenment, which leads to radical individualism, relativism and atheism), but under obedience to revealed spiritual truths, especially Christ himself, whom by knowing, loving and following we may be saved. This necessarily links intellectual pursuits to human and spiritual growth, and makes it relevant to pastoral ministry.

Formation: ‘A Process of Continual Conversion’

Regarding the importance of ongoing formation for deacons, the Directory for the Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons, issued by the Congregation for the Clergy, states:

From the perspective of the deacon, primary protagonist and primary subject of the obligation, ongoing formation is first and foremost a process of continual conversion. It embraces every aspect of his person as deacon, that is to say, consecrated by the Sacrament of Order and placed at the service of the Church, and seeks to develop all of his potential. This enables him to live to the full the ministerial gifts that he has received in diverse circumstances of time and place and in the tasks assigned to him by the bishop. The solicitude of the Church for the permanent formation of deacons would, however, be ineffective without their cooperation and commitment. Thus formation cannot be reduced merely to participating at courses or study days or other such activities: it calls for every deacon to be aware of the need for ongoing formation and to cultivate it with interest and in a spirit of healthy initiative. Books approved by ecclesiastical authority should be chosen as material for reading; periodicals known for their fidelity to the Magisterium should be followed; time should be set aside for daily meditation. Constant self-formation which helps him to serve the Church ever better is an important part of the service asked of every deacon (No. 65).


The Work of Our Lives

For both initial and ongoing formation, the Church envisions steady, incremental growth through continual practice, prayer, study and reflection. It is the work of our whole lives — never fully accomplished until we see Christ face to face in the life to come. Just as we always must be working to overcome our human failings so as to be better servants to Christ and his Church, so, too, must we always be working to deepen our knowledge and love of Christ’s teachings in the Church so as to better communicate them in ministry. What we choose to study is, therefore, a critical decision.

To speak bluntly, there is much in the Church today that is dross. For the sake of those to whom we minister, we must learn to separate the wheat from the chaff. Here again, human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral formation all intersect. The more we feed on what is authentically Catholic, the more we will recognize and desire it, interiorly and intellectually, and the better prepared we will be for ministry because of it.

DEACON DAVID A. LOPEZ, Ph.D., is the director of diaconate formation in the Diocese of Sioux City, Iowa, and editor of the Josephinum Diaconal Review.

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