Deacons Are Vital to New Evangelization: The Challenge Is to Take the Gospel beyond Existing Church Structures

Article excerpt

We deacons often find ourselves reading between the lines. When church officials hold events, promulgate documents or make public statements, the category of "deacon" is often omitted, so we have to examine it closely to see if it actually applies to all clergy (bishops, presbyters, deacons) or simply to the sacerdotal orders of bishop and presbyter. This was the case last October, when Pope Benedict XVI convoked the Synod of Bishops on the new evangelization. Many groups within the church were highlighted for their responsibilities for evangelization: the laity religious, priests, bishops and so on. Several observers in the media (including John Allen of NCR) noticed that one group within the church--the order of deacons--was not specifically addressed by the synod. While deacons can certainly draw inspiration and encouragement from the various interventions made during the synod, appreciating and articulating the particular ways in which deacons can contribute to the effort of a new evangelization can be helpful.

So, what might be said to and about deacons and our participation in the church's mission of evangelization? After all, liturgically and sacramentally, deacons have a special responsibility for the Gospel of Christ. It is the first charge received by the newly ordained deacon when, vested for the first time as deacon, he approaches the bishop who places the book of the Gospels in the deacon's hands with the words: "Receive the Gospel of Christ, whose herald you have become. Believe what you read, teach what you believe and practice what you teach." When a bishop is ordained, it is the role of the deacons to hold the open book of the Gospels over the bishop's head as he takes on his own new responsibilities. So, as proclaimers and guardians of the Gospel of Christ, deacons are clearly vital to the mission of evangelization, a fact recognized by the last two popes. On Dec. 26, the feast of St. Stephen, Pope Benedict XVI declared St. Stephen to be a model of the new evangelization; 12 years before, Pope John Paul II referred to deacons as apostles of the new evangelization.

Stephen, of course, is introduced to us in Acts of the Apostles, Chapter 6, as one of the seven men "full of wisdom and the Holy Spirit" chosen by the Greek-speaking community to be presented to the Apostles for the laying on of hands. Contemporary biblical scholars caution that the seven are never actually referred to as "deacons" in scripture. Still, the tradition has long associated them with the diaconate, with Stephen himself commemorated as the first deacon and protomartyr of the new covenant. (I often remind candidates for the diaconate that Stephen was martyred for his preaching, and that they should expect no less.) In his brief Angelus message on the feast day this year, Benedict referred to Stephen as deacon three times, and proclaimed him "model of the new evangelization."

"The book of Acts presents him as a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit. ... The deacon Stephen, in fact, worked, spoke and died animated by the Holy Spirit, bearing witness to the love of Christ to the point of extreme sacrifice." The pope continued: "St. Stephen is a model for all those who want to serve the new evangelization. He shows that the novelty of proclamation [consists] ... in being filled with the Holy Spirit and allowing ourselves to be guided by the Spirit . …