In 1965, Vatican II restored the permanent diaconate in the Catholic Church. This means that the diaconate is no longer simply a transitional state prior to ordination to the priesthood but a permanent, separate ministry open to married men.
At present, permanent deacons are found mostly in North America and some parts of Europe and Australia. Finally, after fifty years since its restoration, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) has decided to send a petition to Rome for the ordination of permanent deacons.
This is a welcome development and long overdue.
How is the ministry of permanent deacons to be understood and exercised in the Philippine context? This requires a lot of reflection.
While Vatican II came up with several documents on the ministry of bishops (Christus Dominus) and of priests (Presbyterorum Ordinis), there is only one paragraph devoted to the diaconal ministry in Lumen Gentium no. 29 (LG 29).
This is part of chapter III of the Church’s Dogmatic Constitution devoted to the hierarchical ministry which uses as a theological framework the triplex munus – the three-fold office or mission of Christ as a priest, prophet, and king which is applied to the ministry of bishops, priests and deacons.
Like that of the bishops and priests, the ministry of deacons is a participation in Christ’s priestly, prophetic, and kingly mission.
It is a ministry of the liturgy (priestly), a ministry of the word (prophetic), and a ministry of charity and administration (kingly).
The description of how the deacon’s priestly/liturgical ministry and prophetic ministry are to be exercised is specific enough, the kingly ministry (charity and administration) is too general.
What is needed is to explicate further how the three-fold ministry of deacons is to be understood and carried out in the Philippine context bearing in mind developments in the understanding of the three-fold mission of Christ and the Church.
The role of deacons in the liturgical and sacramental ministry is spelled out clearly in LG 29: “administer baptism, dispense the Eucharist, assist and bless marriages, bring the viaticum to the dying, to preside over the worship and prayer of the faithful, to administer sacramentals, to officiate at funeral and burial services.”
“Presiding over the worship and prayer of the faithful” can be applied to presiding in the Sunday Liturgy in the Absence of a Priest (SLAP) in parishes without priests or in remote communities that do not have regular Sunday Masses.
This is widespread especially in Basic Ecclesial Communities (BECs) in Mindanao where the community gathers in their chapels every week for the Kasaulogan sa Pulong (Liturgy of the Word).
In some dioceses, this is integrated with communion (the consecrated hosts are brought from the parish church). At the moment these are led by lay liturgical leaders or Kaabag or Pangulo sa Liturhiya. This can be part of the permanent deacons’ ministry.
According to LG 29, deacons are ordained “to read the Sacred Scripture to the faithful, to instruct and exhort the people.”
The prophetic ministry involves more than that. Deacons not only read the gospel and preach during the liturgical celebration, but they are also ordained to actively participate in the mission of evangelization, catechesis, and Christian formation in their parishes, dioceses, neighborhood communities, and places of work.
They reach out to those who are marginalized and alienated from the church. The prophetic mission includes being conscience of society, speaking truth to power, denouncing injustice, the culture of death, human rights violations, violence, etc.
Depending on their competence and expertise, they make use of various means of communication – social media, mass media, writing, teaching, etc. The prophetic ministry of deacons also involves being living witnesses to what they preach.
The task of preaching and teaching requires adequate theological formation both initial and ongoing.
LG 29 associates the kingly mission of deacons with “charity and administration.” What this means is not fully specified. However, this is the most important role of deacons as suggested by the account in the Acts of the Apostles.
The diaconal ministry emerged to care for the poor. In the early Church, the widows represented the most needy members of the Church. The apostles wanted to focus on preaching the Gospel.
The deacons were, therefore, given the task of taking care of the material needs of the poor and the needy. Their primary function was not assisting in the liturgy or proclaiming the Gospel. This was a later development.
Thus, to be “diakonos” is to be a servant of the poor and the needy. This is what LG 29 refers to when the ministry of charity is included among the tasks of deacons. The deacons concretize the model of the Church as a servant and the Church of the poor.
In contemporary terms, the servant mission is not limited to acts of charity but involves the work of integral development – for justice, peace, development, and the integrity of creation. Thus, social action is the primary responsibility of deacons.
The Ministry of Administration is considered part of the diaconal ministry. According to the document on the Church’s Missionary Activity Ad Gentes 16, this could mean “governing scattered Christian communities in the name of the bishop or parish priest.”
This can apply in two situations: a. in parishes without parish priests due to a shortage of priests. This means that a deacon exercises pastoral care and leadership (as parish administrator), b. large parishes with a network of small Christian communities or Basic Ecclesial Communities.
This means that deacons can help provide leadership in BECs. This was the original intent of missionaries who formed BECs in the 1970s and introduced the ministry of Kaabag who exercises leadership in the community and in the Sunday Bible-Service.
Thus, when the permanent diaconate is implemented in the Philippines the CBCP must ensure that the understanding and exercise of the diaconal ministry should be broad enough to encompass the three-fold priestly, prophetic, and kingly/servant mission in the service of the Christian Community at the parish and BEC level and to make the vision of a Synodal Church a reality.
Fr. Amado Picardal is a Redemptorist priest and human rights and peace advocate. He was executive secretary of the CBCP Episcopal Committee on Basic Ecclesial Communities. He also served as co-executive secretary of the Commission of Justice, Peace, and Integrity of Creation of the Union of Superiors General in Rome.