Tuesday, June 14, 2011

"Deacon Reader" Summer Reading 4

By the end of the 1st century, the apostolic deposit of the diaconate (i.e., special share in the Apostles' ministry, given by the laying on of hands, including sacraments/catechesis/evangelization but not including the "breaking of bread;" with moral and spiritual qualities expected over and above initial conversion/baptism) was taking on the form of a more stable office. Fr. Enright continues the section, "New Testament and the 2nd Century" (p. 9-11 in my copy) by looking at the Didache (prob. Syria, ca. 90 give or take a decade or so), the Shepherd of Hermas (Rome, before 150), St. Ignatius of Antioch (martyred ca. 115), Justin Martyr (Rome, martyred ca. 155), and Tertullian (Carthage, ca. 180-210).

All five of these sources share the concern of 1 Timothy, that bishops and deacons (and priests) have particular moral and spiritual qualities. All of them list bishops, priests, and deacons as ministers of particular importance (sometimes adding others to the list, sometimes just those three alone). All of them repeat the basic parameters of the deacon's ministry, in varying levels of detail. Justin in particular, in his First Apology, esp. Ch. 65-6, gives us one of the earliest descriptions of the Mass, including the deacon's role of distributing Eucharist.

By the beginning of the 3rd century, Hippolytus, a priest in Rome, records for us details of actual ordination rites (p. 13, section "From the 3rd century to the 5th century"). These too reflect the apostolic deposit of Acts 6 etc., and the development of precision since. Bishops, priests, and deacons, and the minor orders, are described. Ritual actions and language to distinguish clearly the grades from each other have developed. There is still plenty of variation in what deacons actually do after ordination, especially in emergencies (read: pagan persecution).

After noting further examples in Cyprian, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Egeria and Jerome, he starts talking about the decline of the diaconate (p. 16 in my copy; the paragraph that begins "The councils of the ancient church are a vital source...") He notes how conciliar evidence points to conflict between deacons and priests, and how councils started restricting the role of deacons in liturgy, etc. Fr. Enright argues (p. 17, 19) that the expansion of the Church in the 4th century increased "demand" for priests, who could say Mass outside the bishop's own church, and thus simultaneously decreased "demand" for deacons. Deacons, he argues, continued to serve their bishops, especially as legates and administrators; they didn't penetrate the rural communities like the priests did, and therefore faded in relative importance. He doesn't talk about formation and the bishop's trust in a proven deacon, but he implies some of this when stating that the diaconate thus became, by ca. 600, a "transitional" stage to the priesthood.

To me, what's interesting about all this is how stable the diaconate proved to be over these first 5 or 6 centuries. Despite all the changes the Church went through, despite all the different ways deacons were used in practice, despite the changing relationship between deacons and priests, the apostolic core (sharing the bishop's ministry, laying on of hands, sacraments/catechesis/evangelization, not confecting but giving Eucharist, expected moral/spiritual qualities) and most of the 2nd-century development (ordination rite, characteristic liturgical and ministerial roles) are visible at every point along the way. Given that stability, should we really see the acceptance of the "transitional" diaconate as a decline?

4 comments:

pmkestel said...

I don't see it as a "decline", I see it more as the beginning of the transitional and permanent diaconates. At what period were the two actually distinguished?

Deacon David said...

The "transitional" and "permanent" distinction is entirely modern - ca. 1970. Of course, there were originally permanent deacons (called "deacons") who were not also ordained to the priesthood. Possibly by the 2nd cent. (probably by the 3rd cent., certainly by the 4th cent.), the orders were arranged in sequence, so all priests were ordained deacons first. Gradually, the number of deacons NOT ordained to the priesthood declined, although they never entirely disappeared until after Trent. So the reality of what the labels "transitional" and "permanent" try to capture is not, in itself, a new thing. But it was never given a label, and so never "formally" distinguished, until now. (Just as we don't distinguish that way between "permanent" and "transitional" priests!)

The danger is in thinking that this distinction means that there is something different about the diaconate of those who do, and those who don't, then get called to the priesthood.

Dan said...

Right. "Transitional" sounds as if your are temporarily a deacon until you become a priest, which we know is not accurate. You retain deacon and "add" priest. Kind of like a bishop does not cease being a priest when he is ordained a bishop.

I also thought it interesting (and makes good sense) the book talked about in the beginning the Church didn't need many priests b/c the bishop could cover his area sufficiently. Then the need to serve people further away from the cities became necessary and priests were in greater demand.

Tim P said...

I found it very interesting in reading the historical narrative of the diaconate that despite the differences in the ordination rite, liturgical and ministerial roles that all three clergy have and still today are held to the same spiritual and moral qualities. In the beginning of my formation,I entertained the thought that there were varied levels of expectations and/or requirements but certainly not the case as I continue my formation and discernment. What a humbling task we are taking on. Th words of St. Augustine early on in the book still remain with me ever since I have read them, "You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rest in you."

As to answering David's question if the acceptance of the "transitional" diaconate is declining, I say no. The stability of the role despite its
"changes" are too solid to poke holes and weaken.