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The Triple Liturgical Formation of a Deacon

Exploring the bodily, intellectual and interior faculties

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Since this issue is devoted to diaconal formation, I needn’t go beyond my assigned perimeter of liturgical formation. This relieves my burden, somewhat, but I wouldn’t want any deacon to think he can segregate his formation into pieces the way we’re separating it in print. Diaconal ministry consists of word, liturgy and charity, and “they 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” (Directory for the Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons, No. 39). The emphasis on unity of service should counterbalance any temptation to detach and isolate them from one another, as if a deacon does word on Monday, liturgy on Tuesday, charity on Wednesday, rinse and repeat. Naming them is less like cutting a pie into three slices and more like identifying three ingredients in the stew: diaconal ministry consists of their unbroken unity.

Turning my attention to the second specifically, liturgy is the oxygen of the Mystical Body of Christ. Liturgy flows through the veins of the mystical body. It gives the People of God vitality (force, life). Liturgy is our trysting place with God: a rendezvous between lover and beloved. Pope Pius XII said that the sacred liturgy is “the public worship which our Redeemer as Head of the Church renders to the Father, as well as the worship which the community of the faithful renders to its Founder, and through him to the heavenly Father” (Mediator Dei, No. 20). We join a liturgy already in progress. It is not our invention, it is done in cooperation with the persons of the Holy Trinity. Where does liturgy come from? Dom Virgil Michel, OSB, answered in “The Liturgy of the Church” (Arouca Press, $23.95), “The liturgy, through Christ, comes from the Father, the eternal source of the divine life in the Trinity.”

Now, I am going to suggest that a person participates in that liturgy in three ways, according to three human faculties, and that the deacon should be formed in all three, and the deacon serves the Church by all three. (It will be easier here to concentrate on the Mass, although we should be thinking of liturgy in its entirety, including other sacraments, sacramentals, the Divine Office, the liturgical year, etc.)

Bodily Faculties

First, human beings have bodily faculties. I put the word in the plural because by our bodies we perceive the art we see, the processions we witness, the aroma of incense we smell, the kneeling we do and gestures we make, the Eucharistic accidents we taste, the holy water we touch, the music and homily we hear, and so forth. The field of liturgical studies has been focused on the bodily faculties because it is the realm of symbol and ritual, and the liturgical movement has tried to make the symbolic actions authentic, clear and personal.

The deacon participates in the liturgy with his bodily faculties, and the reader can go through his own checklist, from processing the Book of the Gospels and preaching upon it, to preparing the altar, to censing, to distributing Communion. The deacon’s formation at this level is the easiest of the three: practice, practice, practice. Train. Rehearse. Read the rubrics. Learn by experience and repetition. I hope this is not the only sort of liturgical formation a deacon receives, but it is an essential part. A man should learn to serve liturgy gracefully.

Intellectual Faculty

Second, human beings have an intellectual faculty. The spiritual tradition has distinguished vocal prayer (done with the bodily faculty described above) from mental prayer (done with a higher part of the soul). Mental prayer comes from the three supreme faculties of memory, understanding and will. The intellect is involved in liturgy. This does not mean constant consciousness of everything, to a point of distraction. It means liturgy should never be done mindlessly. Our memory feeds on sacred history, our understanding reaches out to a Paschal Mystery we will never completely comprehend, and we willfully love and worship God.

The deacon’s formation is most challenging at this level. The deacon should be able to explain his faith, give attention to specific duties, be able to read a situation, adequately interpret the Gospel, know all sorts of branches of theology (among them, I highlight liturgical theology). The deacon should serve mindfully, knowledgeably, alertly; he should commit to continued education about the liturgy; he should know something about its historical development; and he should have knowledge about the depth of the mystery he is serving.

Interior Faculty

Third, human beings have an interior faculty. This faculty for liturgy isn’t in the body (like the first), or in the mind (like the second), it is in the soul, which is a place for liturgical spirituality. It is the dimension from which we grow to imitate Christ. J.J. Olier, in “Catechism of an Interior Life” (Murphy and Company, $15), said the interior life of Jesus consisted “in his interior dispositions and sentiments with regard to everything; for example, in his perfect union with his Father, his love for the neighbor, his humility in regard to himself, his horror for sin, and his condemnation of the world and its maxims.” The interior faculty of the deacon is where the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity are infused so that he can become more “Christoform.” This is the place for mystery. That mystery will be ritualized and pondered, but it cannot be reduced to ritual or understanding. It must be apprehended by a deeper, interior faculty of the soul.

This level is the most challenging and arduous formation for a deacon, but we hope never neglected. Having a liturgical heart is different from having a ritual skill set or a full library shelf, and it is harder to attain. “Permanent formation cannot be reduced merely to complementary education or to a form of training in better techniques. Ongoing formation cannot be confined simply to updating, but should seek to facilitate a practical configuration of the deacon’s entire life to Christ who loves all and serves all” (Directory for the Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons, No. 67).

The formation of the deacon’s interior faculty has the purpose of aiding and serving his interior life as it serves both the altar and the world. His diakonia at the altar is his time of closest contact with the Crucified Christ, whose spilled blood rescues and redeems our lives. From that liturgical tryst, the deacon comes away with the power of the Gospel in order to preach changed lives to the people he serves in his diakonia to the secular world. He is, in his own person, a bridge between sacred and profane. His liturgical formation is not fenced in by rubrics, it flows from the liturgy into all of life.

DAVID W. FAGERBERG is professor of liturgical theology at the University of Notre Dame.


Intellectual Formation

“As in the past, attention to the various aspects of the human formation of deacons is an important task for pastors. The deacon, aware that he is chosen as a man among men to be at the service of the salvation of all, should be open to being helped in developing his human qualities as valuable instruments for ministry. He should strive to perfect all those aspects of his personality which might render his ministry more effective.

“To fulfill successfully his vocation to holiness and his particular ecclesial mission, he should, above all, fix his gaze on him who is true God and true man and practice the natural and supernatural virtues which conform him more closely to the image of Christ and make him worthy of the respect of the faithful. In their ministry and daily life particularly, deacons should foster in themselves kindheartedness, patience, affability, strength of character, zeal for justice, fidelity to promises given, a spirit of sacrifice and consistency with tasks freely undertaken. The practice of these virtues will assist in arriving at a balanced personality, maturity and discernment.”

— Directory for the Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons, No. 69


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