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Catholics, Deacons and the Ecumenical Mission

Incorporating the language of fraternity and respect with non-Catholics

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On July 29, 2020, the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, the Vatican Congregation for the Clergy issued an instruction entitled “The pastoral conversion of the Parish community in the service of the evangelizing mission of the Church,” which contains a good summary of the unique role of the Catholic deacon in the Church (cf. Nos. 79-82). One of the points the instruction underscores is what the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the documents of the Second Vatican Council and the Code of Canon Law make clear: Deacons are ordained “not unto the priesthood, but unto the ministry.”

So, what does that diaconal ministry include? One important aspect, which I have lived — and I believe Catholic deacons have a unique opportunity to serve — is authentic ecumenical ministry.

My Experience

I am in my 25th year of service as an ordained minister of the Catholic Church — a deacon. The role of the Catholic deacon does not detract from the vital role of an empowered lay faithful. I served with love, honor and humility as a lay leader for many years before ordination as a deacon. It should enrich, promote and empower it. And the deacon should not be perceived as a threat to the irreplaceable ministry of the priest.

When my bishop asked me to consider the diaconate, he referred to my work as a pro-life, religious-freedom, human-rights, constitutional lawyer and my evangelistic and ecumenical ministry. He saw them as an example of what he called a kind of “anonymous diaconate.” He told me he thought the fathers of the Second Vatican Council asked bishops to look for such men and help them discern whether they were being called to holy orders as a deacon. He did just that with me.

I will always be grateful for his insight, his invitation and the great blessing of his imposition of hands. After ordination, I continued in much of the work I engaged in as a layman. But — and all who have been ordained to the order of deacon know what I mean — everything was different. The theology of the sacrament is correct. There was an ontological difference.

I have spent years praying and working with evangelical Protestants in the trenches of the current devastated culture on the great challenges of our current secularist age, including the right to life, the defense of marriage and the family, defense of religious freedom and a love of preference toward the poor, in all their manifestations. I have also engaged in what the Church calls and encourages as “spiritual ecumenism,” praying with and for one another. And, yes, I have experienced the power of the Holy Spirit in such prayer.

Wounds to Unity’

Deacons can take their ministerial role in pursuing a true ecumenical approach from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, advises Deacon Fournier, which provides a section entitled “Wounds of Unity”:

“In fact, ‘in this one and only Church of God from its very beginnings there arose certain rifts, which the Apostle strongly censures as damnable. But in subsequent centuries much more serious dissensions appeared and large communities became separated from full communion with the Catholic Church — for which, often enough, men of both sides were to blame.” The ruptures that wound the unity of Christ’s Body — here we must distinguish heresy, apostasy, and schism — do not occur without human sin: Where there are sins, there are also divisions, schisms, heresies, and disputes. Where there is virtue, however, there also is harmony and unity, from which arise the one heart and one soul of all believers.

“‘However, one cannot charge with the sin of the separation those who at present are born into these communities [that resulted from such separation] and in them are brought up in the faith of Christ, and the Catholic Church accepts them with respect and affection as brothers. … All who have been justified by faith in Baptism are incorporated into Christ; they therefore have a right to be called Christians, and with good reason are accepted as brothers in the Lord by the children of the Catholic Church.’

“‘Furthermore, many elements of sanctification and of truth’ are found outside the visible confines of the Catholic Church: ‘the written Word of God; the life of grace; faith, hope, and charity, with the other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit, as well as visible elements.’ Christ’s Spirit uses these Churches and ecclesial communities as means of salvation, whose power derives from the fullness of grace and truth that Christ has entrusted to the Catholic Church. All these blessings come from Christ and lead to him and are in themselves calls to ‘Catholic unity.’

“Christ bestowed unity on his Church from the beginning. This unity, we believe, subsists in the Catholic Church as something she can never lose, and we hope that it will continue to increase until the end of time.” Christ always gives his Church the gift of unity, but the Church must always pray and work to maintain, reinforce, and perfect the unity that Christ wills for her. This is why Jesus himself prayed at the hour of his Passion, and does not cease praying to his Father, for the unity of his disciples: ‘That they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be one in us, … so that the world may know that you have sent me.” The desire to recover the unity of all Christians is a gift of Christ and a call of the Holy Spirit’” (Nos. 817-820).


One of my experiences as a clergyman, a deacon, in working with Protestant ministers, is they often “get” the Catholic deacon more than some Catholic priests or lay Catholics. I remember when one of my Protestant minister friends, an older man, and a giant in the evangelical world, asked me, “What do Catholic deacons do?” I explained that we share the Gospel, preach, teach, evangelize, visit the sick, baptize, witness weddings, bury the dead, care for the poor and serve in the broader social order.

He said, “Oh, so you’re a Catholic minister.” I understand his comment, even as he does not understand the sacramental nature of the Church or the gift of the ministerial priesthood. But his response was — and is — an interesting one, one that Catholic deacons should reflect upon. I have done a lot of authentic ecumenical work and believe that the Catholic deacon has a unique role in promoting the work of Christian unity. Christians of other communities have come to respect and recognize the ministry and role of ordained Catholic deacons.

Toward Christian Unity

The Catholic Church proclaims that, in and through Jesus Christ, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, authentic unity with God the Father — and with one another — is the plan of God for the entire human race. That plan began through the redemption brought about by the voluntary offering of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, on the cross. It is sin that separated us from God and one another. The Church birthed from the wounded side of the Savior on Golgotha is the way toward realizing that unity.

The Church is meant to become the home of the whole human race. For the Church to continue the redemptive mission of Jesus most effectively, she must be one. It was not the Lord’s plan that Christians be separated. It is his plan that the Church be restored to full communion. His prayer to the Father, that we may all be one (cf. Jn 17:21), will someday be fully answered. In that priestly prayer, Jesus made it clear that the witness of Christian unity is connected to the world coming to believe. We should want to walk toward that unity and not fear it.

Pope Francis greets Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople outside the Basilica of St. Nicholas in Bari, Italy, July 7, 2018. The pope met leaders of Christian churches in the Middle East for an ecumenical day of prayer for peace in the region. CNS photo/Vatican Media

Catholic teaching in the Church is rooted in an ecclesiology of communion. All who are validly baptized, in accordance with a Trinitarian formula, even if they are not in full communion with the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, already have a form of imperfect communion with the Catholic Church. We who are in full communion with the Catholic Church are invited to make the prayer of Jesus for the restoration of full communion and visible unity our own in the way in which we relate to other Christians.

We properly speak of the impetus toward restoring Christian unity through recovering full communion as ecumenism. But, sadly, the word ecumenism has often been redefined and used in ways that were never intended. In Unitatis Redintegratio (the Decree on Ecumenism) the fathers of the Second Vatican Council warned of a false ecumenism.

Here are words from the very beginning of that document:

“The restoration of unity among all Christians is one of the principal concerns of the Second Vatican Council. Christ the Lord founded one Church and one Church only. However, many Christian communions present themselves to men as the true inheritors of Jesus Christ; all indeed profess to be followers of the Lord but differ in mind and go their different ways, as if Christ Himself were divided. Such division openly contradicts the will of Christ, scandalizes the world, and damages the holy cause of preaching the Gospel to every creature” (No. 1).

Into a world that is fractured, divided, wounded, filled with sides and camps too often with an attitude of enmity toward one another, the Catholic Church is called to proclaim, by both word and deed, the unifying love of a living God. To proclaim the full Gospel of Jesus Christ. To proclaim the necessity of salvation in him, baptism and incorporation into his Mystical Body, the Church.

Yet, the Body of Christ is broken — and that should break our hearts. Of all Christians, Catholics have the highest obligation to work toward healing the divisions and promoting an authentic path toward Christian unity. There is an adage in the Gospels, which has a special application in this arena: “Much will be required of the person entrusted with much” (Lk 12:48). If the fullness of truth subsists in the Catholic Church (cf. Lumen Gentium, No. 8), that should not make us haughty, but rather humble in our relationship with other Christians.

Where to Begin?

How can we pursue true ecumenism? There are many, many things to consider. But, for brevity, I will end with two, our language and our willingness to pray with other Christians. I suggest we heed the wise instructions of Pope St. John Paul II and use the language of communion, which the Catholic Church encourages when we speak of, to and with other Christians. For example, John Paul II wrote in his encyclical letter on Christian unity, Ut Unum Sint:

“It happens for example that, in the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount, Christians of one confession no longer consider other Christians as enemies or strangers but see them as brothers and sisters. Again, the very expression ‘separated brethren’ tends to be replaced today by expressions which more readily evoke the deep communion — linked to the baptismal character — which the Spirit fosters despite historical and canonical divisions. Today we speak of ‘other Christians,’ ‘others who have received Baptism,’ and ‘Christians of other Communities.’ The Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism refers to the Communities to which these Christians belong as ‘Churches and Ecclesial Communities that are not in full communion with the Catholic Church. This broadening of vocabulary is indicative of a significant change in attitudes There is an increased awareness that we all belong to Christ” (No. 42).

He also strongly encouraged cooperation and “spiritual ecumenism,” which includes praying with one another:

“Relations between Christians are not aimed merely at mutual knowledge, common prayer and dialog. They presuppose and from now on call for every possible form of practical cooperation at all levels: pastoral, cultural and social, as well as that of witnessing to the Gospel message.

“Cooperation among all Christians vividly expresses that bond which already unites them, and it sets in clearer relief the features of Christ the Servant. This cooperation based on our common faith is not only filled with fraternal communion but is a manifestation of Christ himself.

“Moreover, ecumenical cooperation is a true school of ecumenism, a dynamic road to unity. Unity of action leads to the full unity of faith: ‘Through such cooperation, all believers in Christ are able to learn easily how they can understand each other better and esteem each other more, and how the road to the unity of Christians may be made smooth.

“In the eyes of the world, cooperation among Christians becomes a form of common Christian witness and a means of evangelization which benefits all involved.” (No. 40)

As deacons, let us use the language of fraternity and mutual respect. Let us learn to pray with other Christians as well. Finally, let us choose to enroll in the true school of ecumenism in our ministry and walk the dynamic road to that unity for which Jesus still prays.

DEACON KEITH FOURNIER currently serves as deacon in the Catholic Diocese of Tyler, Texas, where he serves as general legal counsel, director of deacon formation and dean of Catholic identity at the Bishop Gorman Catholic School.

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