Servants of us all

DEACONS AND THE CHURCH. By Owen F. Cummings (Paulist Press, 997 Macarthur Blvd., Mahwah, N.J. 07430, 2004), 143 pp. PB $16.95.

Dr. Cummings is himself a permanent deacon, a theology professor at Mount Angel Seminary in Oregon, and the author of theological books and articles. These qualifications are amply demonstrated in this book. And a second strong point is that he bases his teaching squarely on the Church’s documents on the permanent deaconate. The book begins with an analysis of six styles of Catholicism: the traditionalist, the neo conservative, the liberal, the radical, the evangelical-Catholic, and the new faithful. Though no choice is made among these, the strong points and the weak points of each are pointed out. This is the only chapter which I find lacking, since tags are not of much use without specific examples to illustrate them.

The second chapter brings out certain themes of the documents of Vatican II: communion, and the church’s diaconal nature, that is, its call to minister to the world And it shows that the newly restored diaconate is a sacrament, as it were, of the “seamlessness” between the Church and the world, with the deacon being in the world yet a member of the “officially instituted and sacred orders which Christ founded in his Church.”

The next chapter compares the diaconate of deacons with the diaconate of Jesus, showing from the Scriptures that God is love and that the deacon is called to share in Jesus’s self-emptying love. “The deacon is one who waits He is never in charge. He is the servant of others—of God, of his bishop, of the congregation . . . . There is nothing he can do which nobody else can do. But that is just what is distinctive about him. He has no power. He is a servant….He embodies the service of the Lord who has made himself the servant of us all.”

Another chapter gives a brief history of the diaconate, based on the Scriptures and early Catholic writings up the fourth-century; and with reference to the unsuccessful attempt to restore the permanent diaconate at the Council of Trent and the successful attempt at the Second Vatican Council.

Chapter five further illustrates the role of the deacon by recounting the lives of four of the greatest deacons: St. Lawrence (d. 258), St. Ephrem (d. 373), St. Francis of Assisi (d. 1226), and the remarkable Anglican, Nichols Ferrer (d. 1637). Each brings out a quality which Church documents desire in deacons.

I consider chapter six to be the best chapter of all. It begins by stating that the successs of liturgical reform depends on priests and deacons being imbued with its spirit. Catholics must understand the meaning of the liturgy, and for this they must be educated. And they must be taught that by the liturgy they are required and empowered to “be Eucharistic” in all the details of their lives. Also, the details of the liturgy must be taken care of because “God is to be encountered in the details.” And the deacon is central in preparation for the liturgy. Moreover, the liturgy must have the same basic pattern with regularity: “The abandonment of liturgical stability and predictability also offends our sense of transcendent Mystery.” “Deacons are stewards of the mysteries, not liturgical entrepreneurs.” The chapter lists all the liturgical details relative to deacons in Church documents, and conformity to them is insisted upon.

Chapter seven is concerned with the spiritual of deacons. It concludes that deacons must have the spirit of prayer, and be intimate with God; and recommendations are made to help with this.

The eighth chapter deals with matters rarely encountered in books about the diaconate: the theology of marriage as it applies to permanent deacons who are married, its equality with the sacrament of diaconal ordination, and consequences flowing from this, as well as what is to be done in a case of divorce.

We shall not dwell on the next chapter, though it is very important. It deals with faults which can render a deacon dysfunctional. Since explaining the meaning of them would carry us far afield, they will simply be listed: ritualism, clericalism, anti-intellectualism, crusadism, negativism, messianism, and exemplarism.

The final short chapter deals with loving the Church even despite scandals. And it points out that, among things in the Church that deacons can be proud of, the liturgy and the Church’s commitment to social justice are of special relevance to deacons.

Rev. Leonard Kennedy, C.S.B.
Academy of Our Lady Seat of Wisdom
Barry’s Bay, Ontario

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