A Message for Deacons: Signs of the Spirit
Most Reverend William S. Skylstad, Emeritus of Spokane
|The Pentecost experience in the early Church was truly a remarkable time of transformation and enthusiasm. The signs of the tongues of flame and strong wind in the room of the disciples speak of the fire in the human heart and the power of the Spirit in the lives of those committed to the faith community. The growth of the Church in those turbulent times gave evidence of how the Holy Spirit touched dramatically the growth and life of the early Church.|
Sometimes we may only think of the dramatic work of God’s Providence especially in times past, forgetting that the movement of the Spirit is very much in evidence today. Jesus’ assurance that the Advocate will come and teach his disciples everything is a strong promise that continues to unfold. Certainly we can see that promise was fulfilled in the Second Vatican Council. That gathering of the Council Fathers acting together with the Holy Father unleashed a transformation in the Catholic Church that has had tremendous significance. Certainly the restoration of the permanent diaconate within the Church has had a profound impact upon the Church, especially here in the United States. That decision of the Church to restore the diaconate was truly historic.
Already in the mid-1800s, discussion began to surface in Europe about the possibility of restoring this Order as first described in the Acts of Apostles (chapter 6). Sporadic discussion and theological reflection continued to occur, especially in the early 1900s. However, the event that really triggered a serious approach to the possibility of restoration occurred in cellblock 26 at Dachau during the Second World War. What an amazing story of God working in the unusual place of a concentration camp noted for its culture of death! Those discussions amongst the imprisoned clergy were passed on to the theologian, Father Karl Rahner, S.J., who in turn had significant impact upon the Council. The Council Fathers supported the restoration. Pope Paul VI published the General Norms in 1967. Clearly the Holy Spirit was at work!
But then came another surprise. Initially, the thought behind the restoration was that the diaconate would primarily be useful in third world countries. Instead, the restoration especially took hold in the United States as bishops began the serious work of initiating the implementation of the norms for restoration. Selection, formation, theological and spiritual underpinnings, and acceptance, were all issues that needed to be sorted out and refined. Tremendously committed priests, deacons, and theologians over the decades have been of invaluable assistance, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to bring the restoration to the maturity we can so readily take for granted today.
A significant moment along this restoration journey was the historic visit of Pope John Paul II with the deacons and wives in Detroit in 1987. In addition, the USSCB published the National Directory for the Formation, Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons with the approval of the Holy See in 2009. This landmark document is a further sign of the way the Holy Spirit continues to be at work. What a grace and blessing this has been for our Church.
Currently 46% of the world’s 37,000 deacons serve in the United States. That presence has been a great blessing for the Church in a myriad number of ways. First, the formation process in preparation for diaconal ministry has transformed candidates and has provided a significant number of ministers in the Church who have been involved in this theological, spiritual, human, and pastoral formation program. In addition, very often wives have accompanied their husbands in this formation process. This accompaniment on the part of wives must be recognized and appreciated, as these women have been such a strong support to their husbands in diaconal ministry.
The signs of the Spirit are recognized again and again in the lives of candidates for the diaconate and in diaconal ministry. The personal transformations, along with a dramatically increased sacramental presence in the Church continue to be a significant and effective presence of ordained ministry. In addition to the triple focus of the diaconal ministry, such presence is also to be an animator of other ministries in the Church. Even though there was concern initially that the diaconate would crowd out other ministries, the reality is that there is much opportunity and need for ministers in the Church. In some ways, the Church is still a sleeping giant with regard to service ministries. Yet, in the complex and rapidly evolving times in which we live, we must believe that the Holy Spirit continues at work.
The journey of transformation continues. Maintenance mode is not an option. In our confrontative and individualistic culture, we are to strive to give witness to the presence of Jesus in our lives and to his mandate to be washers of feet. Such witness calls us to be deeply in touch with the movement of the Holy Spirit in our hearts and in our ministry. Our relationship with the Trinity, with spouse, with Church, with parish, with the world, especially the poor and vulnerable, should receive the best of our attentions and efforts.
Prayer life, constant learning, a deepening appreciation of God’s Word and the ability to break open that Word, a loving and hopeful spirit, a joyful and appreciative attitude—all make for a faithful disciple of Jesus and a vibrant diaconal ministry. This may not be a ministry of lightning bolts and claps of thunder, but it is and will continue to be a powerful leaven within the Church. Such witness will certainly open the hearts of others to the Spirit who knocks on their doors.
Yes, on the first Pentecost, the disciples had the strong wind and tongues of flame as clear signs of the Holy Spirit descending upon them. But the wind of the Holy Spirit continues to blow in our day. The signs of our God at work are no less dramatic and powerful.