The deacon: Servant of the New Evangelization

| Deacon Joseph Michalak for The Catholic Spirit | December 31, 2012 | 0 Comments


“They could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which Deacon Stephen spoke. . . . Then Deacon Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture of the Suffering Servant, he proclaimed to the Ethiopian the good news about Jesus.”

According to the Acts of the Apostles, the first deacons were men “of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom,” ordained to assist the apostles in their ministry by “keeping accounts,” that is, doing administration and handling practical matters.

Yet, immediately the Holy Spirit leads these deacons into powerful preaching and evangelization — proclamation of the Good News about Jesus. Indeed, other than Jesus’ own teaching, the most dramatic sermon recorded in the New Testament is by Deacon Stephen, a sermon for which Stephen suffers the first martyr’s death in imitation of the Lord, with the words of Jesus on his lips: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”

Speak through his envoy

A week ago, Pope Benedict XVI called Deacon Stephen “a model of all who want to serve the New Evangelization.”

“Stephen shows that the novelty of proclamation does not primarily consist in the use of original methods or techniques, which certainly have their uses, but in being filled with the Holy Spirit and allowing ourselves to be guided by Him,” the pope said. “The novelty of proclamation lies in immersing ourselves deeply in the mystery of Christ, the assimilation of his word and of his presence in the Eucharist, so that he himself, the living Jesus, can act and speak through his envoy.”

“Speak through His envoy” — that is the essence of the deacon’s vocation. He is a man of the Church — ordained like a priest, no longer a layman — who is meant to be immersed in the living Word of God as a servant of the Word, and who is an ambassador of that Word wherever he may find himself or wherever he is sent by the bishop.

One of the unique features of the deacon’s vocation, as Benedict XVI has said, is the “multiplicity of the diaconate’s applications.” There is not just one profile, he says, and so deacons bring the embodied presence of the Church and the witness of the Word into the cultural sector, into the educational realm, into the world of business and, of course, into the sector of charity in all its dimensions: the deacon orders the Church’s charity, Benedict said in his first encyclical, “Deus Caritas Est.”

In a world that is rapidly losing its vision for what marriage and family are meant to be, the deacon (if he is married) may well play a key role in the restoration of holy marriage and family life, the domestic Church where we live for something beyond ourselves, so often bearing the grief of others.

Servant to all

There is no one way of being deacon — except that the deacon is the sacramental servant of the Word in the Church.  If the priest is ordained to bear the image of ­Jesus as Victim-High Priest, the deacon is ordained to bear the image of Jesus the Servant.

As servant, just like Jesus, the deacon must be radically available to do God’s will, to speak as his envoy. In practice, this means the deacon commits to praying the Church’s morning and evening prayer, he commits to “lectio divina” (sacred reading of Scripture), he commits to frequent and even daily assistance at the Eucharist, for the ministry of charity begins in and returns to the Eucharist.

He commits to obedience to the bishop for his ministry of the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. And, because he is the “icon of Jesus the Servant,” the deacon must be willing to accept misunderstanding and even obscurity, even in the Church herself where the deacon — “the other clergy” — so often serves behind the scenes.  Even in the liturgy, the deacon stands beside and slightly behind the priest!

“To speak through His envoy.” This is the essence of the diaconate; this, too, is the essence of the New Evangelization, in which Word is wedded to the witness of charity, of love embodied in action — nothing dramatic, simply “being filled with the Holy Spirit and allowing ourselves to be guided by Him.”

Or perhaps, then, drama of the highest order.

Deacon Joseph Michalak is director of diaconate formation for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. To find out more about the vocation of ordained ministry as a deacon, call (651) 962-6891 or email

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Category: Vocations