Living as a Herald of the Gospel
How do deacons effectively proclaim the Gospel through Word, liturgy and charity?
Some life experiences stay with us forever.
The death of a loved one, our wedding day, the birth of a child — all of these memories endure despite the passage of time. The same is likely true for deacons as we reflect on the day of our diaconal ordination. Although I was ordained a little over six years ago, I can still recall the balmy heat of the day, the smell of Holy Name Cathedral, redolent with incense and the slightly musty scent of old wood, and the supportive, loving presence of my wife beside me as we processed in.
In the midst of these powerful recollections, one memory stands above the others: kneeling before the bishop as a newly ordained deacon holding the Book of the Gospels as he proclaimed, “Receive the Gospel of Christ, whose herald you have become. Believe what you read, teach what you believe, and practice what you teach.”
I knew that at the moment of my ordination I had become a herald of the Gospel in a particular diaconal context. However, as I have reflected over the past six years on that important moment, I find myself asking the same fundamental question: What does that really mean? What does it mean to live as a herald of the Gospel, particularly as a deacon?
In common usage, a herald is one who announces, proclaims or delivers news. A person or a thing can also herald an upcoming event, functioning as a kind of sign that something is going to occur. Bringing both those common definitions together, we can arrive at a foundational understanding of what it means to be a diaconal herald. Configured to Christ the Servant at his ordination, the deacon stands as a sign, proclaiming something through his words, actions and very existence.
That still leaves us with an important question to reflect on: What is it that deacons herald? In other words, What is the Gospel? That might seem like an easy question to answer. Since the bishop places the Book of the Gospels in our hands, this must refer specifically to the reality that deacons proclaim the Gospel at Mass and pass on the Church’s teaching, right? That conclusion, however, reveals a fundamentally truncated and reductive understanding of one of the most critical and richest aspects of our faith. In fact, several years ago, I wrote a book entitled “Jesus: The Story You Thought You Knew” (OSV, $15.95), so that more Catholics might encounter, wrestle with, surrender to and share the Gospel from an experience of its richness.
That same experience is necessary for the diaconal community as a whole!
In the Basic Norms for the Formation of Permanent Deacons, the Church writes “that the ministry of deacons is nothing other than ‘the ministry of Jesus Christ, who was with the Father before time began and who appeared at the end of time.’”
Since Jesus’ humanity and divinity were completely integrated within himself, there must be an essential unity to the life and ministry of the deacon. The triple munera (teaching, sanctifying and governing) expressed within the context of diakonia as service to Word, liturgy and charity have within them an integral dynamism that can be challenging to express within the life of a deacon.
Early on in my own ministry, I tried feverishly to balance my participation in service to Word, liturgy and charity, making sure I didn’t spend too much time operating in any one munus. Without meaning to, I had introduced a level of frustration, anxiety and artificiality that only served to set each area of diaconal service against the other, rather than express their fundamental unity.
When we function out of a limited understanding of the Gospel and reduce the reality of being a herald of the Gospel to the deacon’s ministry of the Word, we risk contributing to the siloing of this essentially linked munera in our diaconal life. However, if we can excavate the richness of the reality of the Gospel and then view the life and ministry of the deacon through a Gospel-focused lens, the unified nature of our ministry comes into clearer focus.
Power of the Gospel
Simply put, the Gospel is the Good News or the great story of our salvation recounting what we were created for, what we lost through disobedience, and what the Father has done in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ to set us free from bondage and restore us with his very life. Though we recognize that all good stories have the power to move us, change our perspective and widen our perspective, the Gospel story — because it is primarily about what God has done for us and centers around the person of Jesus — contains particular power to open our hearts to the love, mercy and power of God.
The heart of the Gospel story is called the kerygma, which in Greek means to preach or to proclaim. When we share this proclamation with others, God’s Spirit moves. This is why Paul writes that the Gospel is “the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes” (Rom 1:16). Intentional proclamation of the kerygma is always already a supernatural act whose purpose is to awaken the faith of those who hear through the power of God. Paul again acknowledges the necessity of this proclamation in Romans 10:13, as he talks about how “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
He then goes on to lament that no one can call on God for salvation if they don’t believe in him, nor can they believe in him if no one shares the reality of God with them. He concludes this section of his letter with the following affirmation: “Thus faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ” (v. 17).
Rather than being a loose summary of the good things God has done, the kerygma contains essential content that is critical to hear and wrestle with. Although there are many ways to present the kerygma, the heart of the Gospel proclamation includes the following:
1. We were created for an eternal life of union with God and one another.
2. The original sin of our first parents, along with our subsequent personal sin, separates us from the reality of communion with God.
3. The Father makes a way for us to return to him through the life, death, resurrection and ascension of his Son, Jesus.
4. Jesus invites every human person to turn from sin, surrender their life to him and follow him as a disciple.
5. Through baptism, Jesus fills us with the resurrected life of the Kingdom by giving us the Holy Spirit, and he incorporates us into his body, the Church, which he sends out to manifest the reality of God’s kingdom on earth and live as the herald of his Gospel.
The heart of the Gospel message, then, could be summarized like this: what Jesus is by nature (Son of God) he invites us to become through grace. In other words, the Gospel is about healing, restoration and transformation. Jesus offers himself for us so that we might be freed from the power of sin and its effects, and filled with his divine life, becoming more fully what we were created to be — daughters and sons of God.
Because the entire reality of the Gospel is contained in the very person of Jesus, it suffuses and grounds the life and ministry of the ordained. In a diaconal context, therefore, service to Word, liturgy and charity is fundamentally rooted in Jesus and his Gospel (Good News).
Service to the Word
“The principal function of the deacon, therefore, is to collaborate with the bishop and the priests in the exercise of a ministry which is not of their own wisdom but of the word of God, calling all to conversion and holiness” (Basic Norms for the Formation of Permanent Deacons, No. 23).
Though we have spoken of this briefly in the introduction to this article, the Church herself declares that a deacon’s service to the Word must be oriented to conversion and holiness — in other words, an intentional surrender to the person of Jesus in the midst of his Church, and a commitment to an ever-deepening relationship with him that transforms one interiorly and bears fruit — rather than simply an assent to doctrinal norms.
In both theory and practice, it would be a mistake to pit proclamation of the Gospel against formative catechesis, though this often happens “on the ground” within parishes when doctrine and revelation are transmitted without reference to the fundamental Gospel message. Explicitly connecting the Gospel to preaching and the catechetical and instructional activity of deacons helps ensure both that initial proclamation of the Good News occurs, and that the essential activity of catechesis is approached in the context of discipleship and personal relationship with Jesus, becoming more of an “apprenticeship” in the life of a disciple.
“So we are ambassadors for Christ, as if God were appealing through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” — 2 Cor 5:20.
Service to Liturgy
We know that the work and ministry of the deacon, especially around assistance at the altar, is distinct from the ministry of the priest, but it can be easy to become myopically fixated on the functional duties of the deacon. If we take some time to look at our service to liturgy through the lens of the Gospel something powerful comes into focus. At the holy sacrifice of the Mass, “… he [the deacon] effectively represents on the one hand, the people of God and, specifically, helps them to unite their lives to the offering of Christ; while on the other, in the name of Christ himself, he helps the Church to participate in the fruits of that sacrifice” (No. 28).
Since the Eucharistic celebration is the source and summit of our faith, we can also say that it is the fullest way that the People of God can live out and experience the reality of the Gospel message. It is partially through the life and ministry of the deacon that the fruits of the Good News, especially the Paschal Mystery (which sits at the heart of the kerygma), can be received and cooperated with by the People of God. Participating in service to liturgy with this intentionality can allow deacons to be a more effective channel through which the fruit of grace can flow.
Service to Charity
The reality of diaconal service to charity goes beyond direct service to the poor and those suffering from systems of injustice. Rather, a deacon “seeks to help and foster all members of a particular Church, so that they may participate, in a spirit of communion and according to their proper charisms, in the life and mission of the Church” (No. 37).
It is quite possible, concerning the charitable and transformative work of the Church in areas of justice, to become implicitly or explicitly disconnected from the life, mission, work and person of Jesus. It is possible to feed the hungry and never encounter Jesus in them, and it is entirely possible for them to never encounter Jesus within us. However, a deacon who lives intentionally as a kerygmatic witness (herald) can, through his person and life, help anchor the apostolic work of laymen and women in the heart of the Gospel.
The kerygma is fundamentally kenotic; it is about Christ’s emptying of himself for our sake. Jesus tells his disciples, “Without cost you have received; without cost you are to give” (Mt 10:8). The Word of God forsook the glory of heaven to dwell with us as man so that we might receive the abundance of heavenly life. So, too, Jesus calls his body, the Church, to give out of our abundance without counting the cost because we have received from the One who never counted the cost for our sake.
Unity Bears Fruit
Seeing our diaconal ministry through the lens of the Gospel can make it easier for us to live out the unity which such ministry entails. When that happens more frequently, we begin to experience a cycle of fruitfulness. Service to Word, liturgy and charity “represent a unity in service at the level of divine Revelation: the ministry of the word leads to ministry at the altar, which in turn prompts the transformation of life by the liturgy, resulting in charity” (No. 39).
In other words, living as a herald of the Gospel both enlivens and empowers the ministry of deacons, placing them in fruitful service to the Church and the world.
DEACON KEITH STROHM is a deacon for the Archdiocese of Chicago and executive director of M3 Ministries
The Diakonia of Charity
“In virtue of the Sacrament of Orders, deacons, in communion with the bishop and the diocesan presbyterate, participate in the same pastoral functions, but exercise them differently in serving and assisting the bishop and his priests. Since this participation is brought about by the sacrament, they serve God’s people in the name of Christ. For this reason, they exercise it in humility and charity, and, according to the words of St. Polycarp, they must always be ‘merciful, zealous and let them walk according to the truth of the Lord who became servant of all’” (Directory for the Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons, No. 37).