A Eucharistic Catechesis
The deacon shows how Scripture and service point to and are nourished by Communion
People frequently pay hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars to get front-row seats at sporting events or concerts. Having “the best seat in the house” can come at a high price!
When it comes to the Eucharistic celebration, I would argue that deacons have the “best seat in the house” of God. Kneeling by the altar, they not only have a close-up view of the celebrant as he acts in persona Christi and the body of Christ in the Eucharist, but they can also see the body of Christ in the People of God as they worship from the pews. It is a unique perspective. Similarly, when catechizing about the Eucharist, the deacon can bring a unique perspective to help people more deeply encounter Jesus in the Eucharist.
One might think that, since the deacon does not consecrate the Eucharist, he might not be as effective in catechizing about it as a priest. Not so. The deacon’s role in Eucharistic catechesis can be compared to St. John the Baptist. He performed no miracles. For the Baptist, not being the Messiah was not a deficit in his ministry, but its definition. John was able to exclusively focus on preparing people for the coming of Jesus. Similarly, the role of the deacon in the ministry of the Word and acts of charity is to “prepare the way” and open the eyes of others to the presence of Jesus, especially in the Eucharist.
Word and Eucharist
The Directory for the Permanent Diaconate states that “a characteristic of diaconal spirituality is the Word of God, of which the deacon is called to be an authoritative preacher, believing what he proclaims, teaching what he believes, and living what he teaches” (No. 74). This is why, even if there is a bishop, cardinal or pope celebrating the liturgy, the honor of proclaiming the Gospel goes to the deacon. Obviously, those who become priests or bishops do not wash away their diaconal ordination — graces are added, not subtracted. But part of the Second Vatican Council’s desire in creating the permanent diaconate was to give a greater focus to the significance of that first level of holy orders by inviting men to permanently live out that vocation as had been done in the early Church. Deacons, priests and bishops share in the same grace to undertake the ministry of the Word, but deacons do so exclusively.
One cannot truly understand the Eucharist without having the Word proclaimed effectively, as seen in the story of the road to Emmaus. In his apostolic exhortation Verbum Domini, Pope Benedict XI wrote: “Word and Eucharist are so deeply bound together that we cannot understand one without the other: the word of God sacramentally takes flesh in the event of the Eucharist. The Eucharist opens us to an understanding of Scripture, just as Scripture for its part illumines and explains the mystery of the Eucharist” (No. 55).
The most obvious place for a deacon to make this connection is during a homily, but he must not forget to continue to make this connection in his teaching, even when an altar isn’t immediately to his left. The deacon should approach catechesis in the same way he is called to participate in the liturgy: driven by Scripture, pointing toward the Eucharist.
Most importantly, the deacon must not treat the Word and Sacrament as if they were something, but someone. The Scriptures are not dead letters nor is the Eucharist a piece of a corpse. It is his voice, his body, his blood. He is alive! Jesus can be heard in every verse of the Bible. He can be experienced in every celebration of the Eucharist.
Many lined up by the Jordan the day Jesus came to be baptized. Only John had the grace to point him out and proclaim, “Behold, the Lamb of God” (Jn 1:29). Like the Baptist, we need to point out the voice of Jesus speaking through the Scriptures and the presence of Jesus living in the Eucharist, remembering, as Pope John Paul II wrote in Catechesi Tradendae, that “the definitive aim of catechesis … is intimacy with Christ” (No. 5).
Eucharist and Service
When catechizing on the Eucharist, it is important to continually reference its historical context: the Last Supper. People are more interested in hearing stories and encountering people than learning about a “topic.” The Last Supper comes at the crescendo of the greatest story ever told. That evening, Jesus did two things that made it different from the Passover meal the apostles expected to celebrate.
The first was what we now refer to as “the words of consecration.” As Jesus broke the bread he said, “This is my body.” As he held up the wine he said, “This is my blood.” Then he told his apostles, “Do this in memory of me.”
If that was a surprise, what occurred next was completely unexpected. Jesus rose from supper, tied a towel around his waist and washed the disciples’ feet. He went from the head of the table to the role of the lowliest servant. When he was finished, he told them, “As I have done for you, you should also do” (Jn 13:15).
Both of these actions are summed up in the “new” command to “love one another as I have loved you.” Previously, the command to love your neighbor was based on “as you love yourself.” Now, the love we share with others goes beyond what we are humanly capable of. We are to love with the love of God.
“[The Eucharist] raises us from our comfortable and lazy lifestyle and reminds us that we are not only mouths to be fed, but also his hands to be used to help feed others.”
— Pope Francis, homily on the feast of the Body and Blood of Christ, June 14, 2020
How is this possible? Because of the grace of the Eucharist. In Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict XVI argued against a false dichotomy between sacrament and service. “A Eucharist which does not pass over into the concrete practice of love is intrinsically fragmented. … The ‘commandment’ of love is only possible because it is more than a requirement. Love can be ‘commanded’ because it has first been given” (No. 14).
At the risk of stating the obvious, service is a defining characteristic of the diaconate. The Directory of Catechesis says that deacons are “particularly valuable” for catechesis in acts of charity. Many people can do good deeds. Christian service is different because it loves others with the love of God. It flows from the altar into life.
The deacon is, perhaps, the best symbol of this action. The deacon prepares the altar. The deacon purifies the vessels. The deacon declares at the end of the Mass, “Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life.” The deacon then moves from the sacristy to the secular — places of work, school, community — bringing the grace of the Eucharist with him to love others with a supernatural love.
It was not a coincidence that the washing of the feet happened after the first Eucharist. Jesus gave us an example. In his Eucharistic catechesis, the deacon can show the connection of his service at Mass to his service in life, and in doing so give a powerful witness to supernaturally loving others.
Catholics should receive a lifelong catechesis on the Eucharist from many perspectives: their parents, catechists, priests and religious. In that context, the deacon’s voice in Eucharistic catechesis is an important one. His ministry of the Word leads to the Eucharist and his acts of charity flow from it. He can show how both Scripture and service point to and are nourished by Communion. The deacon’s participation in liturgy and life gives him a unique perspective that can help others more deeply enter into the mystery of the Eucharist and the sacramental grace that can transform our lives.
DR. BOB RICE is a professor of catechetics and the director of the Master of Arts in Catechetics and Evangelization at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio. He is a candidate for the diaconate.
Service as an authentic sign of the Eucharist
In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI spoke of the sacrament of charity, the Eucharist, in the apostolic exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis:
“The Lord Jesus, the bread of eternal life, spurs us to be mindful of the situations of extreme poverty in which a great part of humanity still lives: these are situations for which human beings bear a clear and disquieting responsibility. Indeed, ‘on the basis of available statistical data, it can be said that less than half of the huge sums spent worldwide on armaments would be more than sufficient to liberate the immense masses of the poor from destitution. This challenges humanity’s conscience. To peoples living below the poverty line, more as a result of situations to do with international political, commercial and cultural relations than as a result of circumstances beyond anyone’s control, our common commitment to truth can and must give new hope.’