What privileges do deacons have? Do beliefs matter?

| Father Kenneth Doyle | December 10, 2014 | 2 Comments

Q. Often, I have been at a Mass where the deacon reads the Gospel. But then, sometimes, the deacon goes on to give the homily while the priest watches. Is this a new function in the Church today?

A. Although the permanent diaconate was restored by Pope Paul VI in 1967, the question above would seem to indicate that even today there is still some confusion about a deacon’s role.

Deacons can baptize, witness marriages, perform funeral and burial services (outside of Mass), distribute holy Communion and preach a homily. They cannot celebrate Mass, hear confessions or administer the sacrament of the anointing of the sick.

They are obligated each day to pray the Liturgy of the Hours. Deacons were first appointed in the earliest days of the Church with the special ministry of serving the poor.

There are two kinds of deacons: transitional deacons, who are seminarians in the final stage of their training for the priesthood, and permanent deacons. Permanent deacons, ordained after several years of theological preparation, may be single or married. They often have secular jobs but also assist parish communities at liturgies and in service ministries such as visiting the sick or counseling families.

When joining the priest at Mass, a deacon normally introduces the penitential rite, reads the Gospel and the prayers of intercession (petitions), helps in distributing Communion and proclaims the dismissal rite.

When a deacon baptizes or preaches, there is no requirement that a priest be unavailable. The Church’s Code of Canon Law, in No. 861, for example, says simply that “the ordinary minister of baptism is a bishop, a presbyter or deacon.” Sometimes when a deacon baptizes or accepts wedding vows, it is because he has a particular relationship with those receiving the sacrament but that is not necessary. Often in parishes that have a deacon, the deacon preaches the homily on a regular rotation. Parishioners have often commented that a deacon, especially if he has a family, can share a different perspective.

Pastorally, when a deacon is scheduled to do a baptism, wedding or funeral service, it is best for the priest to advise the family in advance since many still expect that a priest will officiate.

Q. Please help me to know how to answer people who say, “It doesn’t matter what religion or beliefs you have, since we’re all going to the same place anyway.”

A. The quote you offer strikes me as a species of what the Second Vatican Council called “false irenicism.” That is a fancy expression to describe the habit of playing down doctrinal differences for the sake of keeping the peace. (It comes from the Greek word “eirene,” meaning “peace.”) The council’s “Decree on Ecumenism,” in No. 11, said: “Nothing is so foreign to the spirit of ecumenism as a false irenicism, in which the purity of Catholic doctrine suffers loss and its genuine and certain meaning is clouded.”

Simply put, what people believe matters. If I believe that God revealed himself by coming to earth in the person of Jesus, then I consider myself obligated to examine seriously what Jesus had to say and to align myself with whatever religious institution carries that teaching forward most faithfully. This certainly does not mean that someone must be a Catholic, or even a Christian, to be saved.

In fact, the Catechism of the Catholic Church explicitly rejects that restrictive notion in No. 847, referencing Vatican II’s “Constitution on the Church,” where it says: “Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience — those too may achieve eternal salvation.”

But I believe that Catholics get “extra help” along the way to heaven — especially through the sacraments, but also through the guidance of Church teaching, since the truth of its fundamental doctrines is guaranteed by Christ. I, for one, am supremely grateful to be a Catholic and, to me, it makes a very big difference indeed.

Father Doyle writes for Catholic News Service. A priest of the Diocese of Albany, N.Y., he previously served as director of media relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

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Category: Focus on Faith