The Deacon and the Eucharist
From the ambo to the altar, the deacon’s duty is a service that communicates God’s truth about his only Son’s life and ministry
Part of the mystery of the diaconal vocation is that the deacon participates in the sanctifying ministry of the bishop, a ministry that calls all to holiness (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1558). The ministry of the deacon can be found at the ambo and the altar, but also at the doorway where he discerns the ways his life as a sacrament might give life to others.
The Deacon at the Ambo
Liturgically, the deacon vocalizes this calling to holiness through his office of scriptural proclamation. It is the deacon who mounts the ambo and, surrounded by song and fire, proclaims the very words of Jesus from the Gospel text. This diaconal duty is a service that communicates God’s truth about his only Son’s life and ministry. This ministry by the deacon, when done from a source of prayer in the Spirit, may stir desire for holiness within the congregation.
All proclamation and preaching of the Scripture aim to leave the congregation with or desiring Jesus. Through this diaconal ministry of the word within the Eucharistic liturgy, both the deacon and his fellow Catholics are established deeper in faith. If those listening to the proclamation are vulnerable to being affected by God, then numerous worshippers will be touched by the deacon’s ministry of the Word.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says the homily “is an exhortation to accept this Word as what it truly is, the Word of God, and to put it into practice” (No. 1349).
This description of the Liturgy of the Word, at which the deacon is an ordinary servant, illumines a diaconal charism. As deacon, a man is to receive the Word into his heart, internalize it and thus have this living Word as the origin of his ministry. In this way, the deacon models the drama of the whole Church receiving the Word and witnessing to it within the secular culture.
Here, the deacon is not only sanctifier, by proclaiming the very words of Christ, but he is also teacher. He teaches when he preaches and when he welcomes the Word to affect him and convert him away from any interest in superficial cultural concerns. Ordination calls the deacon to an ever-deeper appropriation of the Word as his primary interest. He will want the word of God to possess him so he might become a fountain of love, “a source from which rivers of living water flow (cf. Jn 7:37-8)” (Deus Caritas Est, No. 7).
After the Liturgy of the Word, the deacon puts the Word into practice by serving the priest and people at the altar. This move is a powerful but subtle symbol of the effect the Word has upon the deacon’s intellect and will. Notice the servant of the Word does not move to rest upon finishing his task at the pulpit but moves to enact what was proclaimed in Scripture: “I am among you as the one who serves” (Lk 22:27). The altar awaits. What service is accomplished there by the deacon?
The Deacon at the Altar
“Charity is love received and given” (Caritas In Veritate, No. 5). The Eucharistic liturgy is the circulation of divine love flowing to us from the Father, through Christ and in the Spirit. This circulation draws worshippers into the origin of all love, the Holy Trinity, so we might participate in his own love and thus be saved. Such fiery divine love descends to us (epiclesis) as a flood of grace washing through the Church.
This charity is the very reality of Calvary and the Resurrection. Such charity (the very life and love of God) flows to the Church as the will of Christ, whose heart is always turned toward the Father in rapt listening, a listening that unleashes acts of divine love in the Spirit — that is, Christ’s death and resurrection now sacramentalized. It is to this altar of divine generosity that the deacon now turns his focus.
Clothed in the disposition of availability, which is sewn in his heart at ordination, the deacon goes to his place at the altar to ease the burden of the priest. In this role, the deacon attends to the details of lesser service so that all might benefit from the greater service of both the priest and the High Priest, Christ. From the exalted privilege of proclaiming the Word, the deacon now moves to the necessary but common toil of working with vessels, cruets and towels, thus enfleshing “availability,” his true character.
Pope Francis on the work of a servant
Pope Francis, reflecting upon the work of a servant and being healed inwardly, in his homily at the jubilee Mass for deacons on May 29, 2016, said:
“Each of us is very dear to God, who loves us, chooses us and calls us to serve. Yet each of us needs first to be healed inwardly. To be ready to serve, we need a healthy heart: a heart healed by God, one which knows forgiveness and is neither closed nor hardened. We would do well each day to pray trustingly for this, asking to be healed by Jesus, to grow more like him who ‘no longer calls us servants but friends’ (cf. Jn 15:15). Dear deacons, this is a grace you can implore daily in prayer. You can offer the Lord your work, your little inconveniences, your weariness and your hopes in an authentic prayer that brings your life to the Lord and the Lord to your life. When you serve at the table of the Eucharist, there you will find the presence of Jesus, who gives himself to you so that you can give yourselves to others.
“In this way, available in life, meek of heart and in constant dialogue with Jesus, you will not be afraid to be servants of Christ, and to encounter and caress the flesh of the Lord in the poor of our time.”
He proclaims the very words of Christ at the ambo announcing salvation; but at the altar he assists with the chalice, touching the holy and passing the prepared cup to the priest who alone can make salvation truly present. From within an adoring heart in a kneeling position near the altar, the deacon quietly intercedes for the Church, following his more public recitation of the universal prayer earlier in the Liturgy of the Word.
After the consecration, the deacon rises to attend to the chalice again, continuing to circulate the movements of divine love about the altar through prayer and acts of service. This service culminates in his assistance with holy Communion by distributing the Precious Blood.
Moving effortlessly, again, from exalted service (distributing holy Communion) to common toil, he clears the altar and purifies the vessels. As the deacon returns to his chair next to the bishop or priest, we recall the words of St. Lawrence, deacon, who said to his bishop, “Never were you without an attendant as you offered the sacrifice” (“Compendium on the Diaconate” , page 76).
As the deacon serves the work of Christ at the altar, he wishes to be affected by its power and carry the message of Christ’s unconditional love to all from within his subsequent ministry after Mass. He longs to be affected by the liturgy’s power because he knows this ritual is the origin of his very identity as deacon.
In serving at Calvary and gazing at the resurrected Christ, sacramentally, the deacon is ushered further into his own mystery, his own sacrament, as one who “did not come to be served but to serve” (Mt 20:28), one who stands at the Church doorway ready to run to the highways and hedgerows compelling all to come to the banquet of salvation (cf. Lk 14:23).
In the interpenetration between awe and commonplace that is the Eucharist, the deacon attends to his duties cognizant that his participation in the sacred calls him to this same interpenetration. “When [the deacon serves] at the table of the Eucharist, there you will find the presence of Jesus, who gives himself to you so that you can give yourselves to others” (Pope Francis, Homily for the Jubilee of Deacons, May 29, 2016).
The deacon is filled with awe over God enabling him to exercise Christ’s own mission, one embedded within the ordinary places and hours of each day. The deacon wanders the ways of every day, teasing out the awe that is God working within it. This is his ministry, to notice God in the ordinary, and to call people to receive him there. This ministry is sustained by his faithful service in the sanctuary during Mass, a sacrament spanning heaven and earth. The mystery he serves at the Eucharist — God has opened himself to be shared — becomes the deacon’s mystery to be lived deep within the folds of ordinary life.
The Deacon at the Doorway
Since his ordination day, the deacon has desired to remain “open” to God, discerning the ways his life as a sacrament might give life to others. As the deacon pays close attention to his simple yet fitting duties around the altar and at the ambo, he will notice that it is within the Eucharistic mystery itself that such openness is to be secured.
This is so because the “Eucharistic liturgy is simply truth expressed in terms of prayer” as the theologian Romano Guardini once defined it. And to be opened to God is to be opened to the influence of Truth itself. So, to be immersed in the prayer that is truth is to be in communion with him who identified himself with truth itself (cf. Jn 14:16-17). And to be immersed in Christ, the Truth, is to be immersed in reality. Reality … that is a good place to be. And reality is a good place to invite others into as well, especially in an age marked by escapist fantasies and political and economic idolatries all masquerading as culture.
How should we describe reality — or truth? It is Christ coming in power to redeem our weakness and perfect us in his resurrection glory. That is what is happening in the Mass; and the more deacons allow such to affect them, the more they live in reality. The Eucharist makes them natives of reality, and so they can host others who are looking to settle in that land as well. This hosting is a diaconal ministry.
Further, the deacon’s service at Mass deepens his own participation in that aspect of Christ’s ministry: the mystery of being a sent-servant (cf. Lk 14:15-24). In this mystery, Christ the Deacon is configuring contemporary deacons to himself. Through service rendered at the altar a deacon remains in permanent formation, configured to the mission of Christ, the Sent-Servant from the Father.
Welcome into Reality
The deacon stands at the door between Church and culture ready to welcome those who are depleted from fantasy, ideology and idolatry, welcoming them into reality. This welcome is communicated through the deacon’s proclamation of the Word of God and his service of prayer aiming to heal the wounds inflicted by cultural errors. Christ, then, remains present in the world through the sacramentalization of his service embodied as deacons. To be sustained in this service of presence, deacons draw strength from the liturgy as a wellspring of grace.
For the deacon, who is the sent-servant proclaiming the word of salvation, immersion in the healing waters of worship is ongoing human and spiritual formation. As a result, he presents himself to others as a man “refreshed,” spiritually nourished, in the resurrection energy of the Mass. His participation in the liturgy confirms the proper relationship he possesses with God as this participation guards his identity and results in his ministerial behavior being rightly ordered.
The Eucharist is the “story” that we are all “a part of,” and so, participation in its mysteries is essential for the Church (see “After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory,” by Alasdair Macintyre, University of Notre Dame Press, $29). How much more so, even on a daily basis, for the deacon?
DEACON JAMES KEATING, Ph.D., is a professor of spiritual theology at Kenrick Glennon Seminary in St. Louis.
The Diaconal Ministry
“The Basic Norms for the Formation of Permanent Deacons” says, “The Second Vatican Council synthesized the ministry of deacons in the threefold ‘diaconia of the liturgy, the word and of charity.’ In this way diaconal participation through the ordained ministry in the one and triple munus of Christ is expressed. The deacon ‘is teacher in so far as he preaches and bears witness to the word of God; he sanctifies when he administers the Sacrament of Baptism, the Holy Eucharist and the sacramentals, he participates at the celebration of Holy Mass as a ‘minister of the Blood,’ and conserves and distributes the Blessed Eucharist; he is a guide in as much as he animates the community or a section of ecclesial life. Thus deacons assist and serve the bishops and priests who preside at every liturgy, are watchful of doctrine and guide the people of God.
“The ministry of deacons, in the service of the community of the faithful, should ‘collaborate in building up the unity of Christians without prejudice and without inopportune initiatives.’ It should cultivate those ‘human qualities which make a person acceptable to others, credible, vigilant about his language and his capacity to dialogue, so as to acquire a truly ecumenical attitude’” (No. 22).