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Significance of the Restoration of the Diaconate Coming Out of the Vatican II Document on Mission

posted Oct 19, 2012, 10:22 AM by Matt Dulka
Significance of the Restoration of the Diaconate Coming Out of the Vatican II Document on Mission
Deacon Matt Dulka, Regional Director, Maryknoll Fathers & Brothers

During this year’s 50th anniversary of the Vatican II, we reflect on how the call for the restoration of the diaconate came out of the conciliar document on mission, Ad Gentes#  (Para. 16). It is profoundly significant to the identity of the diaconate that its origins are grounded in the document of mission. It reminds us that one of the earliest missionaries of the Church was Philip, the deacon, who soon after the Apostles laid hands on him, was on the road to Samaria to do mission (Acts. 8:4). Like the Church itself, the deacon and his wife are by their very nature missionaries.  

The conciliar document on mission, Ad Gentes, is seen by some theologians as the Magna Carta of mission (Bevans, Prophetic Dialogue, ORBIS, p. 139). The first draft was rejected by the bishops as too hierarchical and juridical. They demanded a full schema that was theologically grounded. The drafting fell to theologians such as Karl Rahner, Yves Congar and Joseph Ratizinger and on the final day of the last session it was unanimously approved by the Council (Id)

Ad Gentes radically impacted our current understanding of mission and underscored the following:
  • God is mission.  Mission has its origin in the “fountain-like” love that “flows from the Creator/Father, Word/Son and Holy Spirit.  It is the Trinity that invites and shares the gift of mission and invites us to participate in that grand divine adventure. (Para. 2)
  • The Church is missionary by its very nature and it is the “universal sacrament of salvation” that makes God’s love known in the world. (Para. 1). The invitation to participate in God’s mission comes in baptism and is the responsibility of all baptized.
  • The very example and witness of Christian life is the core of missionary work that plays out not only on a personal level but expands out to “right ordering of social and economic affairs.” (Para. 12)  

In reflecting on the 25th anniversary of Ad Gentes, Pope John Paul II in his seminal encyclical on mission, Redemptoris Missio, explained that “mission is a single but complex reality, and it develops in a variety of ways.” These paths of missions include:
  • Witness that leads to proclamation and invitation to conversion
  • Liturgy, prayer and contemplation
  • Justice, peace and integrity of creation
  • Interreligious  and secular dialogue
  • Inculturation
  • Reconciliation
(Bevans pp.64-71)

Ad Gentes not only shapes the self understanding of the Church and its efforts to carry on the mission of Jesus, but has profound meaning specifically for the diaconate. As noted by the Vatican document on the ministry and life of the deacon: “The deacon’s ministry of service is linked with the missionary dimension of Church: the missionary efforts of the deacon will embrace the ministry of the word, the liturgy, and works of charity which, in their turn, are carried into daily life.”  (Directorium Pro Ministerio et Vita Diaconorum Permanentium). This critical role that the deacon plays as herald of the Gospel and minister of charity and justice to be a driving force of mission was articulated in the National Directory; “His role is to ‘express the needs and desires of the Christian communities’ and to be ‘a driving force for service, or diakonia,’ which is an essential part of the mission of the Church.” (National Directory, para. 40).    

It is not the deacon alone who is called to become a driving force for mission.  Although not specifically articulated by the documents, but implicit by the fact that the majority of the permanent deacons are married, the restoration of the diaconate in the context of mission also revives an ancient practice of married couples doing mission together. The deacon couple begins mission work most simply, and yet so profoundly, by their public witness of their Christian marriage. This radiates out in their ministries, whether done jointly or separately, and each can become, not only an example of mission, but an active promoter of encouraging all Christians to live out their own baptismal call to participate in the mission of Jesus.

This 50th anniversary provides rich soil for deacons and wives to reflect on our missionary roots so that the diaconate can truly become a driving force for mission.




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