It hasn’t really gotten widespread attention in the media, but the Holy Father in his general audience two days ago spoke on diaconal ministry. The catechesis is not available in an official English translation yet, so I have translated excerpts below from the Italian original.
“… I would like to pause and reflect on … a serious problem that the first Christian community in Jerusalem had to confront and resolve, as St. Luke has narrated in the sixth chapter of Acts of the Apostles, regarding pastoral care of persons needing assistence and help. It wasn’t a insignificant question for the Church and at that time it threatened to create internal divisions in the Church: the number of disciples in fact was growing, but those of the Greek language began to complain against those of the Hebrew language because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution. (Acts 6:1) Confronted with this urgency regarding a fundamental aspect of communal life, that is charity toward the weak, the poor, those unable to defend themselves, and justice, the Apostles convoked the entire group of disciples. In this pastoral emergency a discernment of the Apostles surfaced. The found themselves with the primary obligation of announcing the Word of God according to the mandate of the Lord, but – even if this is the primary need of the Church – they considered with similar seriousness the obligation of charity and justice, that is, the obligation to assist the widows, the poor, to forsee with love situations of need in which brothers and sisters might find themselves so as to respond to the command of Jesus, Love one another as I have loved you. (cfr. John 15: 12,17). Thus the two realities that the Church must live – the proclamation of the Word, the primacy of God, and concrete charity, justice – they were creating difficulties and they needed to find a solution so that both may have their place, their necessary relationship….. Two things appear: first, there existed at that time in the Church a ministry of charity. The Church not only proclaimed the Word, but also realized that Word which is charity and truth. Secondly, these men [deacons] not only had to be of good reputation but also men filled with the Holy Spirit and wisdom; that is, not only organizers that knew how ‘to do’, but they had ‘to do’ in the spirit of faith with the light of God, with wisdom of heart and therefore their function – even though above all practical – is nevertheless spiritual. Charity and justice are not only social action, but spiritual action realized in the light of the Holy Spirit. Therefore we can say that this situation was met with a great responsibility by the Apostles, who made this decision: seven men were chosen; the Apostles prayed for the strength of the Holy Spirit and then imposed hands so that they might dedicate themselves in a particular way to this diaconia of charity. ….. In every case, acting for one’s neighbor is not to be condemned but it is emphasized that it has to be penetrated interiorly by the spirit of contemplation…. We must not lose ourselves in pure activism but always allow ourselves to penetrate our activity with the light of the Word of God and thus teach true charity, true service of others….With the imposition of hands the Apostles conferred a particular ministry to seven men so they might be given the corresponding graces. … it is important….. the spiritual dimension of this gesture. It is not simply to confer a responsibility that comes in a social organization but an ecclesial event in which the Holy Spirit appropriates to Himself seven men chosen by the Church, consecrating them in the Truth who is Jesus Christ. It is he who is the silent protagonist, present in the imposition of the hands so that these elect may be transformed by his power and sanctified to face practical challenges, the pastoral challenges….”
There are two “lungs” with which we breathe, brother deacons: the life of liturgy and prayer, and the life of charitable service, a service that can only bear fruit if done in the light of the proclamation of the Gospel. In this way, we share in the apostolic ministry of our bishops, as the account from the Acts of the Apostles tells us and as our Holy Father teaches in his address above.
It is in the light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, kept alive within us through our relationship with Jesus and our bishop, that we exercise our ministry with the poor, hungry, homeless, imprisoned, ill, dead, ostracized and alienated. We cannot minister if we are not in relationship with the Lord and with our bishop.
Ours is a great and noble calling, a wonderful grace, and a huge responsibility.
UPDATE: I guess I got out in front of this one. Shortly after publishing this post, other bloggers began to write about it also. Take a look at The Deacon’s Bench and Whispers in the Loggia both blogs maintained by leading Catholic bloggers. Links to their weblogs are at the lower right under “Blogroll”.