The Character of the Deacon
edited by James Keating, Paulist Press, £13.99
In his characteristically generous foreword, Bishop Michael Burbidge of Arlington, Virginia, describes this volume of essays as “an excellent resource for those in formation” for the diaconate and those already ordained. That need not be the full extent of its intended readership, however. As Bishop Burbidge observes, this is a book that can usefully be read by all, since “to understand the diaconate is to reflect more completely on the sacrament of holy orders in its totality”, and so the Church.
While the book can be profitably read by all sorts of people, its one principal flaw is that the quality of the essays is uneven. If this were intended to be a work of serious scholarship, I suspect that only three of the essays would justify their inclusion. On the other hand, if the object were to produce a book of “popular” theology, then those same essays would perhaps be thought too challenging, too specialised and too recondite for the general reader.
One might expect that the first section, “Diaconate and Scripture”, would be a useful way into the subject. It should be so, and the contributions of both Deacon Stephen Miletic and Dr William Wright offer theologically unchallenging but helpful general introductions to the diaconate, by way of reflections on what the person and life of Christ has to say to the subject. Unfortunately, they are preceded by Fr Scott Carl’s “From Being with Jesus to Proclaiming the Word”, which falls firmly between two stools. This essay is neither so accessible as to readily engage the non-specialist nor, as it makes its way through the question of what the “deacon” words used in the New Testament actually meant at the time the texts found final form, does it offer to the scholar anything substantial that JN Collins has not already said.
The middle sections, “Diaconate and Tradition” and “Diaconate and Prayer”, are stronger. Fr Shawn McKnight’s essay, “The Uniqueness of the Deacon”, asks important questions about the liturgical and Eucharistic impetus underlying ordination. It never quite takes seriously enough, however, the truth that the liturgy is not only the source of all the Church’s power, it is also the summit towards which all her activity is directed.
Fritz Bauerschmidt’s essay on the view that Karl Rahner took of the diaconate in the period immediately before the Second Vatican Council is, like almost everything that comes from his pen, well written and scholarly, though it does have the feel of an article in search of publication, particularly in its excellent section on the contemporary American analytic philosopher Saul Kripke.
David Fagerberg’s essay about the theology expressed in the ordination rite should be read carefully by every man ordained or in formation for the diaconate. It contains the one sentence in this book which ought to stop any deacon (or candidate) in his tracks, when Fagerberg writes: “The day of his ordination is the cosmic, eschatological, transfigurative, pneumatic and ecclesial day, which contains his own ministry.” If the essay lacks anything essential to make its treatment comprehensive, it is the absence of any consideration of the Lex Orandi expressed both in the older form of the Roman Rite and in other Catholic Rites.
It more than makes up for this lacuna in a single lapidary phrase, which properly captures the entire process of theological reflection. During the ordination rite, the bishop hands a Book of the Gospels to the new deacon and says: “Believe what you read, teach what you believe, and practise what you teach.” Musing upon this “riddle worthy of a fairy tale”, as he calls it, Fagerberg suggests that we can come to understand this so: “The mind fingers the knot to see how these are tied together, and in so doing discovers.”
At a time where many commentators appear to be addicted to premature and superficial judgments on complex theological matters, Fagerberg offers, in this beautiful image, an approach to the nexus mysteriorum inter se (connection of the mysteries among themselves) that would surprise none of the Doctors of the Church and, perhaps, bring a measure of calm in the current febrile atmosphere.
Keating’s own essay picks up on a couple of the threads in Fagerberg’s – those of identity and holiness. Locating all ministry in the twin precepts of the universal call to holiness and in ecclesial communion, he reminds us of the important truth that a deacon’s work is only truly diaconal “when done in obedience to the bishop”. This is something all clergy, not only deacons, would do well to remember.
The final section on identity and mission consists of a single essay, “Diaconate and Action”, by Deacon Dominic Cerrato. It begins with a quotation from an article written in 1962: “There is, as far as we know, no independent theology of the diaconate.” The author of the article, the Benedictine Sacramental theologian Dom Augustin Kerkvoorde, meant by this a theology independent of priesthood. That is no longer so and, despite its uneven quality, this book is part of the reason.
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