At the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Portland, Maine, from left, Deacon Denis Mailhot, Deacon John Murphy, Portland Bishop Robert P. Deeley, Msgr. Marc Caron and two altar servers await the procession of the urns April 12, 2022, during the annual chrism Mass. (CNS photo/courtesy Diocese of Portland)

Embracing the Hiddenness of the Diaconate

How deacons are the Delta Force, yet often undercover


Deacon Joseph MichalakAt the NET Ministries annual vocations Mass for 1,500 high-energy high school students, the emcee was introducing the vocational representatives to speak afterward: “Welcome Archbishop Hebda!” (thunderous applause). “Here we have the Benedictine monks!” (loud cheers). “Here are the Handmaids of the Heart of Jesus!” (louder cheers). “And the Franciscan Sisters, the School Sisters of Notre Dame, the Franciscan Brothers of Peace … .! (sustained cheers). “And 60 seminarians from the Saint Paul Seminary!” (riotous roof-shaking cheers). As for the vested deacons flanking the archbishop under the spotlights? Not a word. Invisible. Cricket silence. Likewise in the intercessions “for an increase of vocations to the priesthood, consecrated life, sacramental marriage.”

We’ve all been there. The hidden-vocation-right-in-front-of-you.

After the Mass, I had the distinctive task of describing the vocation of a deacon in an allotted five minutes. Last, of course. Golly, listening to the sales pitches for all the others, I wanted to be a priest, brother, monk, even sister! How in the world was I going to describe the already forgotten diaconate? “Holy Spirit, speak!”

“In the Church, the monks are a logistic lifeline. Laity? Front-line troops. The priests and consecrated? Marines. But the diaconate? We are the Delta Force. Behind enemy lines. Infiltrators. Going where no one else can go. We are everywhere, and we’re so invisible you don’t know we’re there — even when we’re standing right next to the archbishop and the emcee is looking right at us!” The Holy Spirit put those 700-plus young men in the palm of my hand: “The deacon is on the street, in the boardroom, in the lecture hall, in the nursing home, on the building site, always at the altar, back and forth, in and out, undercover. The diaconate is the hidden vocation — and that is what makes him effective.”

Like Jesus. Hidden from the world, disguised from the Evil One (though that one probed for an identity), so cloaked in normalcy and impoverishment — “Isn’t he the carpenter’s son?” — he was not to be accepted. God pitched his tent among us, yet unseen. “He was in the world, / and the world was made through him, / but the world did not know him” (Jn 1:10). Jesus is the hidden wisdom (cf. 1 Cor 2:7), only revealed as God sees fit. The glory of divinity is revealed in the face of the Suffering One “beyond that of human beings” (Is 52:14). And so he remains: the Word through whom all things come to be and who sustains all things that remain hidden, the presence always present, he who accompanies our suffering by being in the suffering, content to be truly present under the veil of the Blessed Sacrament.

But where one hides makes all the difference. Jesus reveals that the only hiddenness that is fruitful is hiddenness in the embrace of the Father. Remaining there is not only restful but paradoxically becomes dynamically fruitful:

“I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to the childlike. … No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son wishes to reveal him. Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest … learn from me ( Mt 11:25-29). Also, “Remain in me, as I remain in you. … Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing” (Jn 15:4-5).

To be a deacon is to embrace this hiddenness. To be a deacon is to remain with Jesus, undercover, in the Father, and so to bear all suffering, all ignominy, all being unknown — even within the Church. It is to bear all interior pruning and hidden conversion (cf. Jn 15:2). It is to be commended “through glory and dishonor, insult and praise. We are treated as deceivers and yet are truthful; as unrecognized and yet acknowledged” (2 Cor 6:8-9).

To be a deacon is to let the seed of my ego fall to the ground and die. Only then is there fruit that abides. TD

DEACON JOSEPH MICHALAK is the director of the Institute for Diaconate Formation, the Seminaries of Saint Paul in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

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