If Deacons Can Do Everything a Lay Person Can Do, That’s News to Me

Fr Thomas Reese, SJ, someone I respect much, writes a column today on the Diaconate. As someone who has been a lay minister for the past 16 years and now is entering into a year of inquiry for the diaconate I really enjoyed reading this column and also would like to add my own comments to this:

Resse writes and I will annotate:

But the truth is that a layperson can do everything that a deacon can do.

I’ve heard this argument before and it’s not really the case and I know this first hand. The issue here is that a lay person MIGHT be able to do most things a deacon can do but they cannot do them regularly, rather they may only preach or baptize by necessity, as in when nobody else can do it.

A layperson can preside over a Scripture service or a funeral, things that deacons commonly do.

True. But this would not happen all that often in most places.

True, a layperson cannot give a homily after the Gospel at Mass. But that is simply a rule of canon law, which can be easily changed. There is no need to ordain people so they can give homilies. Just change the law.

Good luck getting that to be changed, but I agree with Fr Reese that what we really need is a ministry called “preacher” and that could in fact, come from the laity. It’s a big reason why I want to be a Deacon. I am unable to preach often and almost completely restricted from preaching on Sundays.

True, deacons can baptize, but so can laypeople. I was baptized by a Sister of St. Joseph in the hospital when they thought I would die shortly after birth. That is why my middle name is Joseph. Baptisms by laypeople have always been recognized by the church.

Again, necessity only. Not a regular preactice.

True, deacons can witness weddings, but in Catholic theology the ministers of the sacrament of marriage are the two people getting married. The priest or deacon simply “assists” (Canon 1108). There is no reason a layperson could not perform this function, in fact Canon 1112 permits it under certain circumstances.

Yes, but if this were a regular practice, you’d get slapped by your Bishop for doing so. And if this was the case, gay people would have their marriages witnessed all the time by their fellow lay people, which ironically, they mostly do.

The truth is that we have deacons for the same reason we have auxiliary bishops, because they get more respect. Clericalism is so engrained in the Catholic soul that people will give greater deference to a deacon than a layperson; priests and people will give greater deference to an auxiliary bishop than to a priest, even if the priest is a vicar general. Ordination gives status beyond the actual competence of the person.

I take some umbrage at this comment. Albeit I would say that Fr. Reese is mostly right at times here. I think it depends on the minister and on the people he serves. As the director of Campus Ministry and a lay person, I have had to to work harder to get the respect of others in some cases, where it might be automatically granted to a priest and maybe to a deacon, who I often think don’t get the same respect as priests do. Many people think that one of the Jesuits here is my “boss” when in fact, I supervised him and another Jesuit last year.

I don’t think it is necessarily respect that is granted here—-but it’s a visible credential that we value. And while I have a credential with my Master’s Degree and my experience, I don’t have a Roman Collar or a diaconal stole to be a sign of visibility to others of why they should respect my credential.

In many ways I would say Fr Resse misses one indispensable part of the diaconate in his column, which is the call they have to service to the church in the world. Deacons have a regular job and witness to others by their ministry to those beyond the walls. Deacons are servants and tied to social justice initiatives and are in fact required to do service as part of their ministry by design. But they are also people who live in the world as other lay people do. They are not cloistered. They often have families and they almost all have non-ministerial jobs along with their diaconal assignments of preaching and service.

There is, however, one way to save the diaconate. Give it a ministry that serves a real need, one that laypeople cannot do — anointing of the sick.

I’d argue that we should allow them to hear confessions as well. And I agree with Fr Reese on the Anointing of the Sick point.

But the truth is as a layperson I am suspect. Many do not buy that I am a minister of the church and I often have to prove to others that I am so. I take advantage of every opportunity I have to do anything liturgical, where 99% of the people will have their only witness of a “minister of the church” be they priest, deacon or lay minister. It is exhilarating but also exhausting to be a lay minister some days and to try to explain what it is that we do as lay ministers. It is one of the many reasons that I feel called to the diaconate. My preaching gift is limited. I have been asked repeated times to preside at weddings. I read scripture well and make the Gospel come alive for others and was once told that “I should only do that and nothing else. If the scripture was read that way every Sunday, I would be there every week.” The truth is that I minister to smaller pockets of people as a lay person often, but the larger groups of people who come to the church for regular mass and the sacraments are seeking me out! And often I have to refuse those requests. And five years from now, when God willing, a Bishop will lay his hands on my head and ordain me to the diaconate, my ministry may not change all that much per se and yet, it will change immeasurably.

However, and this is important…

Ordination or lack of ordination should not limit the ministers of the church.

We do what we do. We have heard confessions far too often without the ability to offer sacramental absolution. Our tears have baptized people that we have cried with when they’ve lost a child to suicide or just heard about the death of a grandparent. We’ve sat in hospital rooms visiting the dying when nobody else would. We’ve lived our marriage vows as sacraments together, especially in difficult times when stress gets the best of us. And most of all, we have been the body of and blood of Jesus….who stretches forth to us from the altar of grace each week, if not each day for us and that has allowed us to become Christ for all those who need us, pouring out our love for others at inconvenient times and in strange places where many priests, nuns, deacons and brothers would balk at finding themselves despite their rank in the church hierarchy.

Despite the lack of ordination, I, along with my colleagues changed the conversation on how to minister to young adults in the church and created a call to action to make that a priority. Many of us lay ministers to young adults have done more to change the church, especially here in the United States, than most will do in a lifetime. I’m pretty proud of that and I didn’t need ordination to do it. And the help of the ordained in this matter was crucial. Collaboration is a whole other article.

And yet, more work needs to be done. More need to be served. Babies need to be baptized, marriages need witnessing, Gospels need to come alive, the dead need to be buried and yes, the sick need to be anointed and forgiven. And the word needs to be preached well. Truth be told, the best homilies I often hear are from Deacons. One deacon I know once said that there were Sundays pre-ordination for him where he wanted to scream “SAY SOMETHING INTERESTING” when local pastors and priests could not reach the bar.

And therein is the call. Why not me? Why not you? Why not use your gifts as the church calls them into being in the way they presently are used. Not to say that they should be limited by these rules, but that they are right now. A Paulist father who is a good friend reminded me recently that if one doesn’t “get in the game” they simply leave those gifts on the sideline. And so he encouraged my vocation and I more eagerly applied for the diaconate.

So pray for me. As I discern whether the ministry of a deacon is right for me in this upcoming year. Pray for me as I discern whether I am reading the signs of the times well and hearing my students and others say that I am in many ways, already doing things that a deacon does, and that the credential is merely five years away to let others see who I already am.

Amen.