Pope Francis speaks to visitors in St. Peter's Square during his general audience at the Vatican May 29, 2024. (CNS photo/Lola Gomez)

Embracing the Peripheries

A deacon’s perspective on Pope Francis’ call and John Paul II’s personalist approach

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During his pontificate, Pope Francis has highlighted a vision for the Church’s mission, one that weaves the principle of outreach toward the “peripheries” into the very fabric of ecclesial life. This vision, though appearing simple at first, is imbued with rich theological depth and significant pastoral implications, underscoring a call to action. It speaks of a Church that is not confined within its own boundaries but is dynamically involved in the lives of those on the margins — be it socially, economically or spiritually. The pope’s emphasis on going to the peripheries challenges the Church to engage with the world in a manner that is not just reactive, but proactively seeks to bring the light of the Gospel to the darkest corners of society.

For the diaconate, Pope Francis’ vision aligns closely with the vocation of deacons to be ministers of charity, word and sacrament, serving as bridges between the Church and the world. It resonates deeply with the call to serve those most in need, to advocate for justice and to be custodians of hope among the disenfranchised. The pope’s focus on the peripheries extends the understanding of diaconal service beyond traditional boundaries, encouraging deacons to seek out new frontiers of ministry where the Church’s presence is most needed yet often absent. This approach not only reinforces the diaconate’s identity as a sacramental sign of Christ the Servant but enriches the Church’s missionary dimension by emphasizing the importance of encounter, dialogue and mercy in pastoral ministry.

The theological foundations of Pope Francis’ vision are deeply rooted in the Church’s social teaching, drawing from scriptural narratives. This ecclesiological perspective is integral to the Church’s understanding of itself as the Body of Christ, where every member plays a critical role in manifesting God’s kingdom on earth. The pastoral implications of this vision are far-reaching, impacting how the Church understands her mission, how she forms her ministers and how she engages with contemporary societal challenges. As a deacon, the call to embody this vision in one’s ministry represents a profound invitation to live out the Gospel authentically, responsive to the signs of the times and faithful to Tradition. This approach makes the Church a tangible sign of God’s love for the world, especially at its peripheries.

Understanding the Peripheries

Pope Francis’ conception of the peripheries is comprehensive and profound, transcending the simplistic notion of physical or geographical margins. It delves into the heart of our society’s most overlooked and undervalued spaces, spotlighting the outskirts where the impoverished, neglected, marginalized and afflicted individuals find themselves isolated from the mainstream. This understanding is vividly articulated in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, where he advocates for a Church that is “bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets” (No. 49), embodying a palpable commitment to engagement with the world’s pain and suffering.

This vivid metaphor serves as a clarion call, compelling the Church to step out of its comfort zone and be a luminous beacon of hope and comfort in the most shadowed and forsaken corners of human existence. It is a poignant reminder of the Church’s mission to extend its reach well beyond the confines of sanctuaries and sacristies, to embrace and minister to those in desperate need of compassion, understanding and love. By doing so, Pope Francis underscores a radical call to pastoral action, urging the Church’s faithful to embody the essence of Christ’s teachings by seeking out, standing alongside and serving those on the fringes of society, thus illuminating the path toward a more empathetic and compassionate Church.

Salvific Act of Love

The diaconate, as an ordained ministry, serves as a vivid manifestation of Christ’s salvific love through its dedicated ecclesial service. This ministry is underpinned by a love that actively seeks the welfare of others, not for any utilitarian purpose, but purely for their own sake, thereby drawing them into a more profound and intimate communion with Christ. This form of love, which reflects a share in divine love, is characterized by its dynamic outreach, mirroring the Good Shepherd’s unwavering commitment to seek out the one lost sheep even if it means leaving the 99 behind. Such an approach underscores the diaconate’s role not merely as an obligation but as a deeply embedded act of love that uniquely contributes to the Church’s redemptive mission. The diaconal ministry encapsulates this mission in a distinctive manner — in a diaconal way — by embodying Christ the Servant’s presence among those who are most in need of his saving grace.

In essence, diaconal ministry is a tangible expression of the Church’s call to service, underlining the importance of being a visible sign of God’s love to the world. By participating in this ministry, deacons are called to engage in acts of charity, word and sacrament that bring the healing and transformative love of Christ to the marginalized, the suffering and the forgotten. This participation in divine love through diaconal service is an essential aspect of the Church’s sacramental nature, where the mystery of Christ’s love is made present and effective in the world. It is through this loving engagement with the world that deacons fulfill their vocation, acting as heralds of hope and agents of God’s mercy, thus playing a crucial role in the Church’s mission to reveal the face of Christ the Servant to all humanity.

From Remote to Proximate

Pope St. John Paul II’s personalism offers a profound philosophical framework that greatly enriches our understanding of and engagement with the peripheries, shedding light on the nuanced ways we are called to respond to those marginalized by society. This personalist approach is anchored in the recognition of the inherent dignity and worth of every individual, regardless of their circumstances or status. Through this lens, our exploration of the peripheries is transformed from viewing them as distant or abstract issues to recognizing them as pressing realities that often exist much closer to our own lives than we might initially perceive. Personalism thus challenges us to reconceptualize our understanding of marginalization, encouraging a more empathetic and responsive attitude toward those on the outskirts of our society.

The differentiation between remote and proximate peripheries is a critical aspect of this discussion. Remote peripheries typically encompass those who are marginalized in far-off places or who exist within vastly different socioeconomic realities than our own. These individuals often suffer from neglect or indifference due to their physical and cultural distance from mainstream society. On the other hand, proximate peripheries consist of individuals marginalized within our own communities, and perhaps surprisingly, within our own social and familial circles. These are people who, despite being physically close, are often overlooked or neglected, remaining invisible to those around them. They are on the fringes of our consciousness, overlooked by the very individuals and structures best positioned to offer support and compassion.

This personalist perspective invites us to bridge the gap between ourselves and both kinds of peripheries, urging a shift from indifference to active involvement. It calls for a deepened awareness and commitment to the well-being of all, particularly those who are most vulnerable and neglected. By recognizing the unique dignity of every person, personalism compels us to extend our care and concern to include those who are both geographically distant and those who are near yet remain marginalized in our communities. This approach not only broadens our understanding of who our neighbors are, but also enriches our response to their needs, fostering a more compassionate and just society.

Pope Francis’ call to go to the peripheries and John Paul II’s personalism together provide a comprehensive framework for our mission as deacons. They remind us that our call to serve is not just about reaching out to distant lands; it’s also about being attentive to the marginalized in our midst. It’s about recognizing Christ in every face, including those who are closest to us, and responding to them with a love that seeks their good for their own sake. In doing so, we not only fulfill our call to evangelize as deacons, but also participate in the salvific mission of the Church, bringing the light of Christ to every corner of our world, near and far.

DEACON DOMINIC CERRATO, Ph.D., is editor of The Deacon and director of diaconal formation for the Diocese of Joliet, in Illinois. He is the founder of Diaconal Ministries, where he gives national presentations and retreats to deacons and diaconal candidates.


Deacons Serve as a Bridge

In the Feb. 16, 2018, post of “Ordained to Serve,” posted on The Leaven, the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas, Leon Suprenant wrote how the deacon has a foot in two worlds — one in the Church, the other in the secular world. He wrote of deacons: “He is a bridge between the institutional Church and others who are coming to know Christ. The deacon brings the poor to the Church and the Church to the poor.

“On the one hand, the deacon, as the Church’s representative, helps to bring Christ in word and sacrament to the faithful. On the other hand, the deacon represents the People of God and walks alongside them to help them unite their lives to the offering of Christ and to pray for the salvation and well-being of all.

“Last, there’s an important correspondence between the deacon’s role as a herald of the Gospel and his role as an articulator of the needs of the Church in the general intercessions.

“He not only proclaims the Gospel, but also listens to and voices the response of the faithful to the Gospel.”


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